From 시 to 리: Deciphering Locations in Korean

During a recent translation project for a client, I repeatedly deciphered locations in Korean for an American English-speaking audience (and got pretty good at it). This article is for other non-natives trying to understand where things are in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Korea is divided into administrative regions. They have official names and official suffixes that designate the type of region. However, some places also have older or simplified names used colloquially that are similar to the official name. This can make it confusing when you’re trying to find Chungbuk (충북) on Naver Maps, but it keeps showing you North Chungcheong Province (충청북도)…

Tip: They’re the same place.

Let’s look at the most common suffixes that identify the type of region.

Korean Administrative Region Suffixes

~도province (do)
~시city (si)
~군county (gun)
~구district (gu)
~읍town (eup)
~면township (myeon)
~동neighborhood (dong)
~리village (ri)

You may also see the following special terms.

마을village, town (maeul)*
특별시special city (teukbyeolsi)
광역시metropolitan city (gwangyeoksi)
특별자치시special autonomous city (teukbyeoljachisi)

*Did you notice that there are two different terms for village? 마을 is natural Korean, whereas almost all other words are Sino-Korean, which means they’re hanja-based. The official administrative divisions all seem to use hanja-based terms, but you’ll frequently see places called [이름] 마을.

Add in the cardinal directions and you’ll notice these are common in the names of provinces.

Cardinal Directions in Korean

east
west
south
north

Remember I mentioned North Chungcheong Province (충청도)?

북 (buk) means north, and 도 (do) means province, which is why the official English name is North Chungcheong Province. Direction markers (동서남북/east-west-south-north) in a province name usually come right before the province marker.

Korean addresses and American English addresses function in opposite directions. In American English, it’s like we start with a selfie on Google Maps Street View and then zoom out to the stratosphere. We move from the most specific place to the most general or biggest region: Person’s First Name > Last Name > Street Number > Street Name > Town/City > State > Country.

Taeri Kim
123 Place Street
Somewhere City, Michigan
United States of America

But in Korean, we move from the most general or biggest area to the most specific: Country > Province > Town/City > Street Name > Street Number > Person’s Last Name > First Name. Imagine viewing Korea on Google Maps and then zooming in with each extra tidbit of information until suddenly you see yourself walking along Haeundae Beach in Busan, living your best life.

Q&A

Q: Can we try a longer example? What if you’re reading about 충청남도 논산시 부창동? What’s that in English?

The first area given in this case is a province (도/do). Some people translate this as Chungcheongnamdo Province, others as Chungcheongnam Province, and others as North Chungcheong Province.

The next is 논산시. It ends in 시, meaning city: Nonsan City.

The third and final clue is 부창. The suffix 동 means neighborhood, so this is Buchang Neighborhood.

We can write the address by flipping the order: Buchang Neighborhood in Nonsan City, North Chungcheong Province.

We can also write the address and include the suffixes as well as the English descriptors (neighborhood, city, province): Buchang-dong Neighborhood, Nonsan-si City, Chungcheongnam-do Province.

When writing a South Korean postal address in English, I recommend writing it without the English descriptors. For example: Buchang-dong, Nonsan-si, Chuncheongnam-do.

Q: Why do I sometimes see places with multiple and completely different names? And why do other places have multiple ways of being expressed in English, like Han River, Hangang River, or the Han river?

While the South Korean government has a standardized romanization system, not everyone follows it. There are many romanization systems in use, and people often create their own based on how they think a word sounds (Note: Romanization is the term for expressing words from another language in the Roman alphabet). Some people want to include the full original Korean name, like 한강, along with the English word “river” to make sure their (possibly non-Korean-speaking) audience understands that it’s a river.

There’s also a lot of historical turmoil. Korea has gone through different iterations of place standardizations and also spent decades during the 1900s under forced Japanese imperial rule, during which there was a period of forced Japanese names. In that era, not just Korean places but also Korean people were forced to use Japanese names. South Korea also recently updated its official postal address system, which is good for long-term efficiency but nonetheless has confused non-Koreans trying to send postcards and packages.

It’s me. I’m the confused non-Korean trying to send postcards and packages.

Did you get my letter?

지금 재생 중

MAMAMOO, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for you, but I have the biggest girl crush on Taeyeon these days.

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