April 27, 2015

Korean Names - The Generational Syllable

A chart representing a family tree, with blocks a different color at each generational levelKdrama fans may have noticed that sometimes all the kids in a Korean family, plus their cousins, share the same generational syllable in their names. I just learned what this Korean names convention is called: 돌림자 (doleemja).

I know this because of an illuminating column I discovered on the Ask a Korean blog. The column answers a burning, well, OK, mildly stinging, question I have had for some time, which is about the location of that generational syllable. Sometimes it’s the second syllable of the name, after the family name and before the personal syllable. Sometimes it’s the last syllable, after the personal syllable. Sometimes it’s both ways in the same family!

If you noticed this too, and were wondering, it’s because the position of the generational syllable is alternated in each generation. That does kind of make sense – one more immediate way to distinguish who belongs in which generation. But I was a little blown away to read that the family doesn’t even get to pick the syllable – rather it is chosen by the family’s clan, based on the elemental associations of the father’s name, according to Chinese astrology.

This is the kind of stuff I love finding out about Korea. It makes me realize how many ways there are to do things that I never even thought about, just taking it for granted that everyone does what I do. We may see a little more variety in the US than in most other countries, since we are almost all the descendants of immigrants from many different places. Even so, there is plenty going on in the world that I haven’t seen, or even considered. I find that reassuring, somehow.
Colorful lanterns shaped liked sideways drums and decorated with different circular flower patterns

2 comments to Korean Names – The Generational Syllable

  • Kimingrancouva

    So very interesting. I only knew about the clans’ use of a Generational name but the alternation between generations and the popularity of 5 elements method – wow!
    And tracing the number of generations to your 1st ancestor with that surname- I knew this but still double wow. Possible in Korea because they have traditionally been very insular – the hermit kingdom.

    • Well, if there’s anything we’ve learned from Kdrama, it’s that there are any number of circumstances under which registry entries – ahem – possibly differ slightly from reality.

      Another thing I read today is that the official government registry was actually abolished several years ago, and now there are only private family registries.

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