Two students came to the tutoring centre to have us check their speech for the upcoming English presentation contest. The paragraphs of their speech were numbered ‘1. 9’, ‘2. 5’, ‘3. 9’, ‘4. 5’ etc, which didn’t make any sense to me. I asked them about it, and one said, in effect, ‘My surname is 오 (o), which is the same as ‘5’ and her surname is 구 (gu), which is the same as ‘9’. That’s our way of remembering who says what’. We helped them revise their speech and sent them on their way.
Later, I checked the numbers one to ten against the list of Korean surnames (there are famously a very limited number of Korean surnames, and half the population has one of just four of them), and it turns out that no fewer than seven numbers are spelled the same as surnames: 이 (i, 2), 삼 (sam, 3), 사 (sa, 4), 오 (o, 5), 육 (yuk, 6), 구 (gu, 9) and 십 (ship, 10) (leaving 일 (il, 1), 칠 (chil, 7) and 팔 (pal, 8) not as surnames). Of these, 이 (Lee, Yi, Rhee, Ree, Rie, Rhie) is by far the most common, estimated at almost 7 million in 2000, the second most common surname behind Kim. The other names are less common: the 오s and the 구s number(ed) in the hundreds of thousands, the 사s and the 육s in the tens of thousands and the 삼s and the 십s in the tens.
But just because these surnames are spelled the same as numbers doesn’t mean that they mean numbers. The Chinese number èr (2), has the formal traditional character 貳, the formal simplified character 贰 and the informal character 二. (Formal characters are used for financial records etc, because the informal character is obviously too easy* to change to something else.) The Korean surname Lee has three hanja (Korean adaptations of Chinese characters), 李, 異 and 伊, with different meanings. (In addition, the same surnames and hanja were adopted from Chinese (the prestige language at the time) in different parts of Korea at different times, so not all the Lees are related, and not even all the 李s, all the 異s and all the 伊s. This didn’t stop there previously being social (and maybe legal) restrictions on two 李s (for example) marrying, even though they probably weren’t related, even distantly, or even a 李 and a 異 (for example), who certainly weren’t related, at least on their fathers’ sides – they might have been cousins on their mothers sides, but probably weren’t.) Similarly, the surnames 사, 오 and 구 have three Chinese characters each, 삼 has two and 육 and 십 have one.
That doesn’t stop people making number-based puns. Former president Lee Myeong-bak was rendered as ‘2MB’ on protest posters and t-shirts. And there is a joke: ‘Who was the first Korean in space? 이천일, a space 아저씨’ (i-cheon-il , a space a-jeo-ssi [gentleman]).
(PS shortly after posting this, I remember this.)
(*Ha! I originally typed ‘two easy’. Just as well I proof-read.)