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Why do Koreans use a hyphen in their name?

Posted on July 19, 2012 at 9:30 PM

When writing their full names, Koreans will indicate their family name before their given name. For example, if you visit the website of Cheongwadae (http://english.president.go.kr/main.php), Korea’s equivalent to the White House, you will notice that the name of the Korean President is given as Lee Myung-Bak. Lee is his family name and Myung-Bak is his first name. Conventionally, Koreans give their family name before their first name due to the influence of Confucianism.

But, this doesn’t mean that modern Koreans will give their family name first when spelling their name using the Roman alphabet. When Koreans write their name using the Roman alphabet, they give their first name before their family name, following the common international practice.

In other words, a typical Korean with the same name as the President of South Korea will wirte his name “Myung-Bak Lee” instead of “Lee Myung-Bak.” The only entities that strictly keep the conventional orthography are government agencies and English newspapers published in Korea, such as the Korea Herald or the Korea Times. For this reason, if you happen to see a Korean name written in English, remember that the name given first is usually the first name, but if you come across a Korean name written in English in an English newspaper published in Korea or on the website of a government agency, you need to consider that the family name will be given first.

So, why do Koreans use a hyphen in their first name? Not only President Lee Myung-Bak, but also potential candidates for the presidential election slated for December, including Park Geun-hye (former party chief ), Kim Moon-soo (Province Governor), Chung Mong-joon (Rep), Lee Jae-oh (Rep), Sohn Hak-kyu (former opposition leader), Moon Jae-in (Rep. and former presidential chief of staff), Kim Doo-kwan (Province Governor) and Chung Sye-kyun (Former DP leader) all use a hyphen in their names. Why do Koreans use a hyphen in their name?

Actually, this was adopted as a general practice out of consideration for non-Koreans. Korean is characterized by a phenomenon called bat-chim. The Korean language is indicated as 한국어(Hangugeo) in Hangul (or Han-geul), the Korean alphabet. The first letter 'Han' consists of the consonant 'ㅎ', the vowel 'ㅏ', and the consonant 'ㄴ' in order. The second (or the last) vowel of a syllable is called bat-chim.

As many bat-chims are used in Korean, consonants frequently conflict with one another. Take 정훈, one of the most commonly used Korean names. When  '정' is Romanized, it is 'Jeong' (according to the current orthography) or 'Jung' (according to the former orthography). '훈' is Romanized as 'hun' (according to the current orthography) or 'hoon' (accordingto the former orthography).

Three syllables are placed in parallel because of the 'ng' that comes at the end of the first syllable and the 'h' that comes at the beginning of the second syllable. This hardly ever occurs in English except for exceptions such as "English" or "Anglo-", but in the Korean language, consonants are frequently overlapped due to bat-chim. If the spelling 'Jeonghun' was used, non-Koreans might find it confusing because they don’t know how to pronounce it. For this reason, a hyphen is used to enable convenient pronunciation and help the reader to distinguish each syllable. Accordingly, 'Jung-hun' is pronounced as  [Jəŋ-HUN], not [JəN-GN].

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