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What’s in a name?Jeju place-name origins influenced by rich historical culture
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승인 2012.01.06  15:02:55
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Since the first of many volcanic eruptions to create the island a million years ago, its inhabitants have given it various names including Doi, Dongyeongju, Seopra, Tammora, Takra, and Tamna.

Among these names, Tamna, meaning “island nation of deep, distant sea,” was used for the longest period of time. Records show that the name Tamna was given to the island nation in 57 BCE by the Silla Kingdom. During the period of the Three Kingdoms, from 57 BCE to 668 AD, Tamna was an independent nation from the mainland with its own political system.

The current title of Jeju was given to the island during the Goryeo Dynasty, sometime between 1192 and 1256. It means “village across the sea” and signified a major change in Jeju’s history. Being called a “village” meant official acknowledgement from the central government that the island was now considered part of Korean territory. As an adjunct of Goryeo and Joseon, officials from the central government were assigned to work on Jeju. Often used as a place of exile, the island was obligated to send offerings to the king every year.

“Area names are created throughout history, along with human life, and evolve constantly,” said Byun Chang Doo, president of the Jeju Feng Shui Association in an interview with The Jeju Weekly.

“Currently the study of origins of names on Jeju can be divided into Korean studies (linguistics) and the geographic approach and feng shui (geomantic approach),” said Professor Oh Sang Hak in the Geography Department of Jeju National University.

Both experts agreed that estimating which Jeju names are pure Korean and which have Chinese-language roots is difficult. According to the professor, only certain oreum names are pronounced and written in pure Korean.

Due to the lack of a Korean notation system in Korea until February, 1927, most of the region names throughout the nation were written in Chinese characters. However, as Chinese characters are logograms, they can convey complex meanings as pictographs or phonetically (or a combination of both). It can be a challenge to find the historical meaning of these names, especially those that have been lost over the centuries.

Yet, there are certain names that most people can agree on like Yongduam, which is also written in Chinese characters. “Yong” (龍) stands for dragon, “du” (‘È) stands for head, and “am” (巖) stands for rock, leading to “a rock in the shape of a dragon head.”

Seopjikoji is another example. “Seopji” is a word for “area containing many useful talents,” and “koji” is Jeju dialect for a Korean word “got,” which means places.

Jeju dialect is not the only factor distinguishing the names of places here from those on the mainland. “Due to geographical characteristics as an island, Jeju possesses ancient characteristics that disappeared a long time ago in the mainland,” Byun emphasized.

He believes that all place names in Korea were created according to a feng shui paradigm.

However, Prof. Oh believes that the Mongolians played a part in shaping how we now see the island. “During the Goryeo Dynasty, Jeju was colonized by Mongolians for about a hundred years. Due to this impact, lots of Jeju dialect and region names resemble the Mongolian language,” he said.

For example, following the geomantic approach, donnaeko can be interpreted as an area filled with the energy of a pig. Yet, there is another interpretation.

“It is not related to hogs or pigs at all. Currently, what is called hyodoncheon used to be called donnae (‘nae’ is Korean dialect for river streams). ‘Ko’ means entrance in Jeju dialect. Hence, ‘donaeko’ means ‘entrance or upper of hyodon stream,’” Prof. Oh explained.

Different understandings of the origins of Jeju’s names mainly stem from scholars’ different interpretations of Chinese characters.

Both experts believe that if pure Korean names are to be found earlier and to be used more often, the problem will be gradually resolved.

“Dialects are fundamental bases for regional culture. I’m worried [the] extinction of Jeju dialect may lead to [the] extinction of Jeju culture,” Prof. Oh said, adding, “Naming famous attractions on Jeju with Jeju dialect is very meaningful. It will help to revive [it]. I hope there are more places on Jeju that uses pure Jeju names like the Olle trails and seopjikoji.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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