In my last post, I showed you K-pop group names both in English and transcribed into Hangul. This time, we’re going to practice reading Hangul by breaking down some Korean names. If I were running a language blog, I’d probably do this with basic Korean words. But I have a K-pop blog, and I’m writing a column intended for new K-pop fans and/or beginners in Korean. Since that’s the case, I chose idols names since I think they’ll be slightly more familiar. Even if you don’t recognize the people I’ve chosen for this post, you’re probably still used to some idols’ names – and you might see some similarities once you read through.
The Usual Disclaimers
Please keep in mind that these posts are supposed to be a VERY basic introduction to Korean language. My Korean level is probably somewhere around intermediate, and I’m nowhere near fluent. Korean is a wonderful and fascinating language, but it’s also very complicated with many nuances that I’m either not aware of or don’t fully understand yet. I’m doing my best to share all that I know and have learned, but I don’t personally feel qualified to be giving formal and/or official lessons. Plus I’m an American learning Korean, so I can only provide you with my own experience and perspective – I certainly don’t have the same insight and knowledge as an actual Korean person. So I’ll only be writing about beginner level elements I can confidently explain, but I’d be happy to point you to some of my learning resources if you want to know more or start seriously studying.
I know I said before that you should minimize using Romanization as much as possible, but this is one of those times when you just can’t avoid it. This is a written post, so I can’t really show you how to read Hangul without throwing in the corresponding English spellings. But once you’re more comfortable with Hangul, I really do recommend phasing Romanization out as much you can.
Reading Hangul With Idol Names
Since there are literally hundreds of K-pop idols out there, I decided to stick with using one group for this post. After careful consideration, I chose Super Junior – a nearly 16-year-old veteran boy group that’s very near and dear to my heart. While they’re not necessarily well-known among newer K-pop fans, I still picked them for two key reasons. Most importantly, all of the currently active members use Korean names – whether those are their birth names or assumed stage names. Also, many of their names are somewhat unique and that allows me to point out more details and interesting notes.
Before we look at each individual member of Super Junior, please check out this video of them introducing themselves on variety show Knowing Brothers. (There are English subtitles.) It’s probably hard to hear exactly what they’re saying since they talk quite fast, but at least you can get a feel for how their names are pronounced.
Like last time, I made two images for each Super Junior member. (If you need a refresher on the basics of reading and writing Hangul, you can look at my last post here.)The first one shows his name both in Hangul and Romanization. These are the official spellings each member uses along with Super Junior’s agency SM Entertainment – meaning that you’ll see these in things like their teasers and their official merchandise. However, please note that they don’t necessarily follow the Revised Romanization guidelines I showed you in my post about vowels. For example, nearly all the members with “ㅓ” or “ㅕ” in their names spell it with “u” instead of the standard Romanization of “eo.”
The second image is a little different from the last post. Instead of doing a breakdown of each syllable – like “letter 1 + letter 2 + letter 3” – I circled each Hangul letter and included the corresponding English spelling. (I used different shades of blue because Super Junior’s official color is royal blue.) Since PowerPoint’s shape tool didn’t really work out as I planned, I ended up having to use the “draw” function with my laptop trackpad… so that’s why most of the look little shaky. Sorry about that! ^^”’
- Leeteuk is one of the stage names in this post.
- The most important thing to note here is that there’s actually no “l” sound in the Hangul version of “Leeteul.” As you can see, the first syllable has the vowel “ㅣ” – which is Romanized as “i,” but pronounced as “ee.” The first letter is the consonant “ㅇ” – which is pronounced silently in this case. If this syllable were pronounced as “Lee” in Korean, then it would have the consonant “ᆯ” at the beginning. The reason why it’s written as “Lee” is because that was the common spelling back when South Korea was using an older system of Romanization. You might have also heard of the last name “Lee,” which is the 2nd most common Korean surname. It’s the same principle – it’s Romanized as “Lee,” but it’s actually “이.” I’m not really sure what the initial reasoning behind spelling it like that was, but it’s stuck around over time.
- In terms of pronunciation, Korean generally say the last name “이” like “ee” without the “l.” In the video above, Leeteuk also says his name without “l.”
- The vowel in “희” is “ᅴ,” which normally Romanized and pronounced as “ui.” (It’s not a sound that exists in English or that I can really describe through writing, but there’s a video about it in my vowels post if you need a reminder.) However, in this case “ᅴ” is preceded by the consonant “ㅎ.” So since there’s a consonant that comes before it, the pronunciation changes to more of an “ee” sound.
- Yesung is one of the stage names in this post. (But I do have a student who’s also named Yesung!) It’s pretty straightforward, so I don’t have many notes on it – just that the “u” here is pronounced the same way as “eo” and not “oo.”
- Shindong is one of the stage names in this post. According to Google Translate, it means “prodigy” – which I think Shindong and the other Super Junior members have mentioned before.
- “Shin” is another spelling from the older Romanization system that is still commonly used today. It comes from the idea that the consonant “ㅅ” is pronounced as “sh” when followed by the vowel “ㅣ.”
- Eunhyuk is the final stage name in this post. (And like Yesung, I also have a student named Eunhyuk!) There’s not much to explain except that the letter “ㅕ” is transcribed as “yu” and not “yeo” like in Revised Romanization. So just remember: it’s NOT a “yoo” sound!
- Donghae actually means “East Sea,” and he was named for one of the oceans surrounding Korea. As a result, he and Super Junior often make ocean-themed jokes about his name. It’s also probably why his self-introduction as a rookie was that he was “cuter than Nemo” (seen in the video above).
- “ㅎ” is an interesting consonant because the strength of its pronunciation changes depending where it is in the word. It’s pronounced pretty emphatically in names like “Heechul” where it’s the very first letter, and “Eunhyuk” where it’s followed by “y.” But in Donghae’s case, the pronunciation is very soft – most of the time you don’t hear it at all. So, a lot of Koreans say his name without putting a major emphasis on the “h” (and he does as well).
- Like Shindong’s name, “ㅅ” is pronounced as “sh” because it’s followed by “ㅣ.” So, Siwon’s name is pronounced more like “she won” and not “see won.”
- Also, “won” is pronounced more like “wan” (as in “Wanda”), NOT like the English word “won” (as in “I won the game”).
- Personally, I think Ryeowook’s name is one of the most difficult Koreans name to pronounce – certainly out of all the K-pop idols I know of – because there are at least three elements that are tricky for non-Koreans. (Or at least, English speakers like me.)
- “ㄹ” is a naturally difficult consonant for English speakers, because it’s somehow both “l” and “r” and yet not quite either. When I try to say Ryeowook’s name, I instinctively want to say it either as “r” or as “l” – and neither is technically correct.
- To make things harder, the “ㄹ” is followed by “ㅕ” – which is Romanized and pronounced as “yeo.” As an English speaker, I find it nearly impossible to pronounce “l” OR “r” immediately followed by “y.” Either I end up saying “ro” or “lo” and omitting the “y,” or I end up just twisting my tongue.
- While there is a “w” in Ryeowook’s name, it’s there for stylistic purposes. Otherwise his name would have to be Romanized with “ooo” in it or as “Ryeouk,” and both look pretty strange. So basically, you have to shift from the “eo” sound to an “oo” sound without the help of a consonant, which can be tough since it involves pursing your lips in a way you might not be used to.
- The first letter in Kyuhyun’s name is “ㄱ,” which is typically pronounced somewhere between a “g” and a “k.” However, I personally think this is one of those words where the “ㄱ” always sounds like a “k.” The other examples I often reference are “taekwondo” and “kimchi.” Even though the English textbooks I use spell them with “g” (because of Revised Romanization), every Korean I’ve ever met pronounces them with “k.”
- Like Eunhyuk’s name, Kyuhyun spells the “ㅕ” letter as “yu” and not “yeo.”
SOURCES NOTES: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here.
I made the other images in this post through PowerPoint. The pictures of Super Junior aren’t mine and belong to SM Entertainment. (They’re teasers for their recent album The Renaissance). But the layout and formatting is my own work, so please don’t repost or upload these images without my permission either.
The Knowing Brothers clip is from Episode 200 of the show and originally aired in 2019 (during “Super Clap” promotions). It can be found on JTBC Entertainment‘s YouTube channel.