How to pronounce Korean names
Pronouncing Korean names is very easy… if you read Hangul. As I have written before, it’s an almost completely phonetic language that is very easy to pick up. However if you don’t and you want to pronounce a Korean name correctly, it can be a little more tricky. Even for someone who knows Hangul, it can be difficult to be sure you are pronouncing Korean names correctly if you are relying on a romanised version of the name.
So today I am here today to hopefully give you some tips to make this a little bit easier.
Of course, the first thing you should do is to make yourself familiar with the official South Korean romanisation system which will give you a good head start. Understanding the simple vowel sound pronunciations is all you really need for names. The difficult ones for English speakers are ‘eo’ which is pronounced like a mix between ‘uh’ and ‘aw’ and ‘eu’ which is a really flat ‘uh’ sound, like if you open your mouth slightly and just let sound come out. Most of the rest are similar to English.
You should also know the structure of Korean names. They are almost always 3 syllables with the family name being the first syllable and then the next two syllables being their personal given name. Traditionally all males of the same generation of one family would be given the same first syllable but this practice is not as popular now.
In theory, pronouncing Korean names should be fairly straightforward as although the romanisation system is slightly complicated, it is logical. In practice, there are a few issues that make this not really the case.
The first problem is that the official romanisation system actually changed relatively recently in 2000. This means that all people above the age of 13 will probably have used a different system to spell their name from the one Korean learners will know.
The previous system McCune-Reischauer, is very different from the current Revised Romanisation system officially used in South Korea. The older system, which is still used by North Korea, uses a lot of accents and apostrophes to convey pronunciation while Revised Romanisation doesn’t. McCune-Reischauer is actually much more accurate but it’s also much more complicated than the newer system. This can make it literally impossible to know how to pronounce a name correctly. For example, the official Romanisation of the North Korean capital is Pyŏngyang but internationally it is usually written Pyongyang. These should, technically, be two different pronunciations. However under South Korean Revised Romanisation, it would always be spelled as Pyeongyang, which would always be pronounced in the same way.
Another problem is that Koreans often adopt stylised romanisations which do not conform to any system at all and are usually chosen because they are more similar to English spellings. Luckily there are some shortcuts.
Over half of the Korean population share just 5 family names so if you learn to pronounce these names correctly then you are guaranteed to pronounce the family names of over 50% of Koreans properly. Seems like a good start!
These surnames are:
김(gim) nearly always spelled Kim
The most common Korean family name by far with nearly 19 million Kims in the 2000 census. This name is technically pronounced like ‘keem’ but with a very soft, swallowed ‘k’ sound but because it is so common, it’s also completely acceptable to pronounce it the same as the English name Kim.
이(i) spelled Lee and sometimes Yi or Rhee
Although it might have sounded like Lee in the past, in modern South Korean, this name is not pronounced like Lee at all but more like ‘ee’ or sometimes ‘yee’. The reason it is still spelled Lee is because it comes from the same Chinese character as the popular Chinese surname Lee (李).
박(bak) mostly commonly spelled as Park, sometimes Pak, Bak, Baek or Paek (although all 4 could also be 백 (baek), a different surname)
Again it’s a fairly safe bet if you say it the same as the English word although the actual pronunciation is more ‘pack’ with a soft ‘p’ sound and a round ‘a’ sound like how many Americans say ‘pasta’ or how most Londoners pronounce ‘bath’.
최 (choe) spelled Choi occasionally Choe
A lot of people pronounce this one wrong, understandably. It’s often pronounced like the English word ‘choice’ without the ‘s’ sound at the end but that is not how is sounds at all. It can be kind of hard to pronounce exactly right for an English speaker but if you say something that sounds like ‘cheh’ or ‘chay’, that’s pretty accurate and will probably impress any Koreans you talk to!
정 (jeong) spelled Jung, Jeong and sometimes Chung
The last in the list and probably the most straightforward. Technically the vowel sound is somewhere between an ‘uh’ sound and an ‘aw’ sound but if you pronounce it similar to the word ‘lung’ you will be fine.
As already mentioned, Koreans do not follow a strict system when romanising names and often use English-like spellings instead. A common form of this is to use ‘oo’ rather than ‘u’ because this is how the name would be pronounced in English. Examples are Cloud Atlas actress Bae Doona or UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Another is ‘yeong’ which is often spelled ‘young’ because it sounds similar to that particular English word.
For this reason some letters are more likely to represent one sound than others. For example ‘u’ is more likely to represent ㅓ(eo), as in Jung above, than ㅜ (u) which it should technically represent, because this is so often spelled as ‘oo’. This is particularly true for the common syllables ‘hyun’, ‘sung’ and ‘jung’ such as Hyuna and BIGBANG’s Daesung. This is also because English speakers don’t know how to pronounce ‘eo’ when they see it written down.
Anything spelled ‘Woo’ or ‘Wu’ such as Jang Wooyoung is actually just pronounced ‘oo’ and the W has just been put in to make it less awkward in English.
For any stylized K-pop names that have Zs in them, these should be pronounced as Js instead because Z does not exist in Korean. Neither does V or F which are usually pronounced as B and P respectively.
Also remember that Korean is a syllabic language which means if there is one consonant in the middle of the name, it is pronounced as the start next syllable not the end of the last one although ‘ng’ is pronounced the same as in English and the ‘g’ doesn’t carry over to the next syllable.
Pronouncing Romanised Korean names is not an exact science, no one really follows a proper system but if you follow all of these tips your pronunciation should be fairly accurate most of the time. And, of course, if it is someone you are talking to and you don’t know how to say their name, just ask. They probably won’t be offended and may be pleased to see you care enough to make sure you say it right.