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"Arirang" (Hangul:  아리랑) is arguably the most famous Korean folk song.  Indeed, "Arirang" is so well-known that it is often considered to be Korea's unofficial national anthem.  Yet no one is sure when the song arose nor what the title means.

Here is one version of the song (there are many variants):

Arirang, arirang, arariyo.
Arirang, crossing over the hill,
My dear who has abandoned and left me
Has not even traveled ten miles before having feet pains.

We see that it describes the difficulties experienced by the protagonist while going over a mountain pass.  That's not much to rely on if we're going to use internal evidence to determine the meaning of "arirang", particularly since nearly half of all the words in the song consist of nothing more than "arirang" or a slight variation thereon.

There are hundreds of theories of the origin and meaning of "arirang".  In "What Does Arirang Mean? The Theories on the Etymology of Arirang" (5/24/15), the author examines nine of the theories, which ascribe the song's origin to dates ranging from the first c. BC to the late nineteenth century AD and which contend that the title is based on the personal name of two different heroines, that it means "I Part from My Dear", that it means "Our Escape Is Difficult", that it means "My Ears Become Deaf", that it means "Mute and Deaf", that it is a Classical Chinese onomatopoeic expression signifying the grunts of laborers, that it signifies "Russia, America, Japan, and England" (!), or that it is the name of a hill.  The phonological transformations that are required to get from many of these terms and expressions to "arirang", quite frankly, require considerable imagination.

A conspicuous feature of all nine of the theories (out of hundreds of possible conjectures) presented by the author of this blog post is that they all focus on the Chinese characters, terms, and phrases from which they allegedly derive.

This post appears on the blog of Kuiwon / 歸源 / 귀원, the pen name of a Korean-American who reads Classical Chinese texts as a hobby.  The main purpose of his blog is to present translations of Chinese works written by Korean authors.  His pen name, Kuiwon / 歸源 / 귀원, is a giveaway, since, in Classical Chinese, it means "returning to the source".

The author's orientation is made all the clearer in his conclusion:

Arirang is by any measure a unique and integral part of the Korean cultural patrimony. One reason why it is so popular is that it seems to be an expression of “pure” Korean culture. For that very reason, the song plays well to the tendencies unfortunately held by many Koreans today: (i) that only the “pure” parts of the Korean cultural patrimony are worth preserving to the neglect of others and (ii) that Korean culture ought to be portrayed as wholly distinct from its neighbors. In particular, many who hold such notions often like to minimize sinitic influences on Korean culture and portray them as being limited to the upper crust of previous generations of Koreans. This attitude, however, is certainly regrettable and would be amiss even with Arirang. Indeed, most of the more accepted, conventional theories on the song’s etymology point to Sino-Korean or Classical Chinese. These explanations, though hypotheses, demonstrate that Korean cultural patrimony without its sinitic elements would paint an incomplete and hollow picture of the Korean experience throughout the ages.

It would be interesting to hear from readers who may be aware of different theories about the origins of the word "arirang", especially those which are not linked to Sino-Korean morphemes.

Whatever it means and whatever its origins, "arirang" is hugely evocative.

[h/t Michael Rank]


  1. Gene Anderson said,

    May 25, 2015 @ 6:35 pm

    A Korean explained to me that the last line of the first verse is subjunctive and wishing ill:
    "MAY his feet get sore!"
    There are literally countless verses, since everybody composes a new one as occasion stimulates the muse.

  2. Dan Curtin said,

    May 25, 2015 @ 7:01 pm

    I had not heard it before, but the melody sounds like many Scots boat songs!

  3. Eric P Smith said,

    May 25, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

    Dan Curtin: Indeed, partly because it's pentatonic, like much traditional Korean music and much traditional Scottish music.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2015 @ 9:33 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    Goodness, Victor, you can certainly pick ‘em. You’re quite right that Koreans constantly argue about what the etymology of “Arirang” could possibly be, but I’ve never seen any idea that was much more than fanciful free-association. And sure, a lot of those speculations are variants of the notion that the word must be a corruption of some Sino-Korean. But the speculation is wide-ranging, as you note. After all, Korean etymological “science” itself is pretty free-wheeling—just as the corresponding studies in Japan are. Virtually all of the so-called etymological dictionaries you see in Korea are ridiculously fanciful and often outrageously anachronistic. And that is certainly true of everything you see said about the word arirang. I doubt it’s a mystery that will ever be solved.

    I might point out, though, that my old mentor Lee Ki-Moon has for decades now been engaged in a truly serious project of putting together a genuine etymological dictionary of Korean But his work has been excruciatingly slow and difficult. The etymologies that he’s written up and sent me are always carefully documented, but for the most part they are studies about obscure and sometimes obsolescent words. I’m thinking that his project will outlast him and never be completed.

    I will point out something peripheral but nevertheless interesting, though. Korean names and titles you see from the earliest periods, most notably Silla, are phoneticized (either in Hangul or Romanization) using today’s Sino-Korean readings of the transcriptional characters. Those are almost certainly very, very far from what the words must have actually sounded like. Actually, until much later, when a Koryo king instructed that readings of Sinographs had to be used Chinese-style—he also dictated that names and titles be Sinified and standardized—Korean usage was much like Japanese. That is, Koreans sometimes used characters as phonograms to transcribe sounds, but perhaps even more often as the kind of semantic glosses the Japanese call kun readings (訓読み)–in fact, Koreans also called them hun (訓) readings (I suspect the Korean usage predated that of Japan and may itself have been imported). In any case, that means, for example, that the Silla king’s name your blogger cites (as is customary) as 朴赫居世, 박혁거세 almost certainly was read nothing like 박혁거세. Pak, as I’m sure you know, was said, in Korean legend (cited in the Samguk sagi), to be a native word for ‘gourd’, because, it was explained, the king was born from an egg, and a gourd looks like an egg. That’s a fanciful legend all Koreans know. But the 赫居世 that follows was almost certainly not read 혁거세; rather, it was most likely a hun gloss of native morphemes meaning something approximating ‘the shining age’, of which only the second character, 居, was a phonogram. That character was used to represent the inflectional morpheme attached to the verb stem to make ‘shining’ a modifier of ‘age’. That seems to me to be the most reasonable interpretation of the transcription. But the transcription is frustratingly lacking in information about Korean sounds.

  5. Marc said,

    May 25, 2015 @ 10:18 pm

    No one in Australia knows who or what Waltzing Matilda is, either.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2015 @ 11:28 pm

    You'd be surprised how much is known about the origins and meaning of "Waltzing Matilda" — and I'm not even Australian. I just happen to like the song, and I've been singing it since I was a little kid more than sixty years ago.

    See also the first two pages of ch. 18 of Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh, The True History of Tea, pp. 241-242.

    A complete translation and interpretation (especially for Americans) is available here.

  7. Jongseong Park said,

    May 26, 2015 @ 12:16 am

    I'm afraid Kuiwon may be wishfully overstating his case for 아리랑 Arirang having Sino-Korean origins, because I would certainly not say that there is any "accepted" theory on the etymology of "Arirang".

    His primary source seems to be a page in Korean titled 아리랑의 어원 "The Etymology of Arirang" or something similar. The list is in near identical order as in Kuiwon's post. However, it includes 양주동 Yang Judong's theory that 아리 ari is a native Korean word combined with the Sino-Korean 령 嶺 ryeong "mountain pass" as its own item. Kuiwon on the other hand merely mentions it as "one alternative explanation" (although admitting that it seems to be the most popular explanation in English sources) while discussing the 낙랑 樂浪 Nangnang theory, which by the way he has mangled somewhat.

    You see, 낙랑 樂浪 Nangnang (which Kuiwon writes as "Nakrang") is a historical place name that was given both to a minor state and also to a Han Chinese commandery (known as Lelang in Chinese pronunciation), both of whom were in conflict with the kingdom of Goguryeo in its early history. The actual theory as proposed by the prominent 20th-century historian Yi Byeongdo 이병도 involves the former name of 자비령 慈悲嶺 Jabiryeong, the mountain pass that had to be crossed when travelling south from Nangnang/Lelang to 진번 眞番 Jinbeon. It was named 아라 Ara, so affixing 령 嶺 ryeong yields 아라령 Araryeong. Yi's theory is that Ara derives from 낙랑 樂浪 Nangnang. This theory doesn't strike me as particularly convincing, given the difficulty of figuring out what the earliest Korean names written in Chinese characters sounded like as described by Bob Ramsey. But the point is that it cannot be simply summarized as Nangnang being the name of the hill. Yi was speculating not only on the etymology of Arirang but on that of Ara, linking it to Nangnang.

    Kuiwon also omits a rather interesting theory by Choe Jae-eok 최재억 that posits that it derives from an archaic Korean term 알랑 alang meaning unmarried men (卵郞) or unmarried women (卵娘). Note that here, 卵 is to be read 알 al which is the hun (訓) reading (described by Bob Ramsey), not the usual reading 란/난 ran/nan. I've only seen the scantiest summary of his theory so I can't really judge it, but at least he is considering archaic forms and how Chinese characters might have been used in the earliest times.

    아리랑의 어원 "The Etymology of Arirang" also mentions other theories such as Yi Gyutae's 이규태 Jurchen etymology (아린 arin supposedly meaning "hill") or the pure Korean explanation from the expression 아리고 쓰리다 arigo sseurida. The latter combines two words that mean to be hurting, 아리다 arida and 쓰리다 sseurida; many variations of Arirang also include the utterance 쓰리랑 sseurirang. There is even a suggested etymology from an Indian deity named 아리람 쓰리람 Ariram Sseuriram (the second part is presumably Sriram = Sri Rama). But Kuiwon only mentions the proposed etymologies that are solidly Sino-Korean in character.

    A more complete table of proposed etymologies (in Korean) can be found here: 아리랑어원학설표. In this table, 고유어적 해석 means "pure Korean explanation" and 한자적 해석 means "Sino-Korean explanation". Eight are labelled as pure Korean explanations, seven as Sino-Korean explanations, and three as combinations. So from a broader survey, it is certainly not a given that Sino-Korean explanations are particularly dominant.

  8. R Fandango said,

    May 26, 2015 @ 1:05 am

    @Marc: with due respect, are you Australian? Just about everyone I know here in Brisbane would be able to tell you at least what the phrase "waltzing Matilda" means.

  9. K. Chang said,

    May 26, 2015 @ 4:42 am

    Interesting. My language background does NOT include Korean, and the term arirang reminded me a lot of the highest peak in Taiwan, Alishan 阿里山, also known as Mount Niitaka / Niitakayama. Though nowadays it's called Yushan 玉山 (jade mountain). But that is obviously a pure coincidence.

    As for "rang", it sound similar to 郎 (lang) which I guess would be Kuiwon's Theory #3.

    There's a story behind the folk song 阿里山的姑娘 (The girls of Alishan) but that's not related to the topic.

  10. Oona Houlihan said,

    May 26, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

    "… that it is the name of a hill. …" That is actually the story I read when I first I came across this unofficial national anthem. It seems to have a "long way to Tipperary" popularity in Korea. However, if it was a geographic name, albeit a vernacular one, one should be able to find it on older maps or in deeds dealing e.g. with the sale or lease of pasture, farm land etc. Yet another possibility would be that it has no meaning at all. The Beatles and other pop groups as well as nursery rhymes knew how to rely on hypnotic language that had no overt meaning but despite or because of it evokes emotions and is easy to remember too.

  11. Eidolon said,

    May 26, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

    Over a dozen theories about arirang, but what does "arariyo" stand for?

  12. Jongseong Park said,

    May 27, 2015 @ 12:35 am

    아라리요 Arari-yo is 아라리 arari + 요 yo where the latter is a particle, so the mystery word is 아라리 arari.

    The well-known 진도 아리랑 Jindo Arirang has 아리 아리랑 쓰리 쓰리랑 아라리가 났네 Ari arirang sseuri sseurirang arari-ga nanne, which is another instance of 아라리 arari. Because 나다 nada has so many meanings in Korean, 아라리가 났네 arari-ga nanne could mean "Arari has appeared/risen/happened". Or it could in fact be 아라리가 낫네 arari-ga nanne (identically pronounced), with the verb 낫다 natda so that the meaning is "Arari has healed/is better". It could even be 아라리가 낳네 arari-ga nanne with the verb 낳다 nata "to give birth to/to lay (eggs)/to bear", though if this sense is actually intended you would expect it to be 아라리를 낳네 arari-reul nanne instead with 아라리 arari as the object.

    All this is to say that it is difficult to narrow down the meaning of 아라리 arari just from the lyrics.

    The following words crop up again and again in the many variations Arirang:
    아리랑 arirang
    아라리 arari
    아리 ari
    쓰리랑 sseurirang
    쓰리 sseuri

    There is probably some connection between all these forms. I do like the proposed connection with the adjectival verbs 아리다 arida and 쓰리다 sseurida for different kinds of hurting. This might not be the ultimate origin of 아리랑 arirang, but I think the pairing with 쓰리랑 sseurirang in many of the versions is likely due to this connection.

  13. Todor Petkov said,

    May 27, 2015 @ 2:40 am

    Does "arirang, arariyo" really need a translation? Can't it be just an interjection, improvised ad hoc for the song, expressing an overall sentiment of sorrow? I cannot fail to think of the Irish "Hi-ri-u, Ho-ro-ho, Ho-ri-u, Him-o-ro-ho" (Enya, 'The Longships'). And speaking of Irish, since 'Oro o you who gave me just two pence' is a curse uttered by a beggar, then analogously, to utter enigmatic words after which the unfaithful lover who left you feels pains in his feet is probably an act of household magic. Ad the magic words need not have existed before the uttering itself, they can be improvised too.

  14. Dan Curtin said,

    May 27, 2015 @ 7:49 am

    Eric: As you say pentatonic is a lot of it, but the rhythm or "swing" is also similar.

    The Korean discussion is fascinating but way over my head!

  15. Doc Rock said,

    May 27, 2015 @ 8:42 am

    As an aside, having lived in Japan over six years in three different installments and having traveled back to Japan on several occasions on business, I have been entertained by many Japanese officials. I have never, in all my experience, been in a karaoke hall that didn't have "Arirang" on its musical menu. The song has a very wide appeal, indeed!

    This issue has driven me to dig out and look at my dusty copies of the Akhak gwebeom 악학궤범 and Akjang 樂章歌詞 to no great avail except to notice this excerpt:
    청산별곡(靑山別曲): 살어리 살어리랏다. 靑山애 살어리랏다./멀위랑 다래랑 먹고, 靑山애 살어리랏다./얄리얄리 얄랑셩, 얄라리 얄라.
    And just to point out the enjoyable play of the syllables 랑, & 라리.

    Finally, I admit that I also pulled out my copy of Yang Judong's 梁柱東 Goga yeongu 古歌研究、but found the print too small for my old eyes and the energy to scan through this large work for similar rhythms and cadences no longer there. I think I most assuredly agree with Bob Ramsey that this is a massive enigma to have thrown oneself into. So I'll quit saying that I don't think there is a volitive subjunctive in the song.

  16. richard said,

    May 27, 2015 @ 10:03 am

    A number of Korea ethnomusicologists have pointed out the similarity of the syllables a-ri-rang to the syllabaries (hmm, that spelling doesn't look right…) used in traditional music to learn instrumental melodies. Each instrument uses a characteristic set (this is true as well in other countries, across Asia, I would point out). From that perspective, the phrase would come from the singer representing instrumental accompaniment while improvising lyrics for the other lines of the song.

    I don't have a reference right off the top of my head, but I can dig them up if there is interest.

  17. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 27, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

    Isn't this kind of like trying to etymologize "too-ra-loo-ra"?

  18. Suburbanbanshee said,

    May 27, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

    There are some cases of European folksongs (mostly about musicians) that have sol-fa choruses that also describe the actual notes. "Do, a Deer" from The Sound of Music is a similar example, albeit much more elaborate. (And cleaner.)

  19. Todor Petkov said,

    May 28, 2015 @ 1:50 am

    Another European possible analogue is the obscure meaning of 'Fee Fi Fo Fum'. Here is what the Net has among the numerous explanations: ' "Fee Fi Fo Fum" is an old English galdr charm based on the rune Fehu. Ettins (Etyn, jotun, etc) where monsterous giants who were well known (in the mythology) to use galdr magic (vocally sung magic chants). The Fehu Galdr in four parts, such as "Fee Fi Fo Fum", is used for finding what is being searched for. As the poem indicates, the ettin was searching for the "Englishman" and using this chant to aid in the search.'

  20. Jongseong Park said,

    May 28, 2015 @ 9:31 am

    @Doc Rock, the 얄리얄리 얄랑셩 yalliyalli yallangsyeong chorus of 청산별곡 Cheongsanbyeolgok has indeed been suggested as the origin of Arirang by scholars such as 정익섭 Jeong Ikseop and 김연갑 Gim Yeon-gap.

    @Todor Petkov and Matt McIrvin, indeed, several scholars consider Arirang likely to be a euphonic but essentially meaningless utterance. But I guess that's not as fun for people who love to speculate.

    @richard, I'd love to hear more about the theory. I looked up the names of the twelve notes used in traditional Korean music, which are 황종, 대려, 태주, 협종, 고선, 중려, 유빈, 임종, 이칙, 남려, 무역, 응종 (hwangjong, daeryeo, taeju, hyeopjong, goseon, jungnyeo, yubin, imjong, ichik, namnyeo, muyeok, eungjong), but these don't seem to be the syllabaries for specific instruments that you talked about.

  21. Johan said,

    May 28, 2015 @ 7:07 pm

    @Jongseong Park (and regarding the response to richard)

    Could it be more like the words for the sound/noise that instruments make? Like ‘ding’, ‘dong’, ‘plink’, ‘plonk’, &.c.

    In the OP-song for the じょしらく [Joshiraku] anime, “お後がよろしくって・・・よ!”, there is the line “ちん・とん・ちん・とん・しゃん” [chin, ton, chin, ton, shan] that represent (i believe) the sounds of the shamisen.

    The case of the ‘arirang’ may be something similar, representing the sound/noise of some instrument.

  22. Todor Petkov said,

    May 29, 2015 @ 2:53 am

    @Jonseong Park, thank you for sharing your knowledge! Do you know of any theories that this could be a charm or spell? Especially if there is indeed some volitive grammar in the lyrics?

  23. Doc Rock said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 11:36 am

    @Jongseong Park It was not my intention to imply a direct derivation from 청산별곡 Cheongsanbyeolgok, but, rather, just to point up the seeming parallel in poetic method.

    @Johan I do not believe that the usage was onomatopoetic, but rather was for the pleasing musicality of the sounds themselves. But this is all just opinion.

  24. Jongseong Park said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 10:05 am

    @Johan, your suggestion about representing the sounds of an instrument onomatopoeically may have something to it, but I believe richard was talking about syllabaries actually used in learning music—solmizations like do, re, mi, etc. but specific to certain instruments.

    @Todor Petkov, a derivation from a charm or a spell certainly sounds plausible, and indeed is the standard explanation for several of the older folk songs (구지가 龜旨歌 Gujiga "Song of Guji (the Turtle is Delicious)" and 처용가 處容歌 Cheoyongga "Song of Cheoyong", for example). I have not seen any suggestions of such a derivation for Arirang in the admittedly very cursory survey I did before writing my comments here, at least in mainstream theories. But the more out-there suggestions about connections to languages such as Evenki or Tamil (associated mainly with fringe pseudohistorical theories about how ancient Koreans stretched across Asia) may bring in theories about charms or spells, especially for Evenki given the prominence of shamanism in their culture.

    The lyrics don't have explicit volitive grammar by the way, although I have always interpreted the final line (in declarative mood) as wishing for feet pains rather than simply stating a fact: "He/she who abandons and leaves me gets feet pains before even reaching ten miles."

    @Doc Rock, I understood that you were not implying a direct derivation from 청산별곡 靑山別曲 Cheongsanbyeolgok. I only wanted to point out that there were scholars who went a bit further than merely noting the similarity.

  25. 번하드 said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

    @Dan Curtin:

    Scottish, you think?
    Check out the anthem of the exile government of Korea, during japanese occupation.

  26. Werner Sasse said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 9:11 pm

    The Scottish sounding tune… To me the tune resembles the kind of song I hear in Korean Protestant churches… By the way, all the other versions do not evoke Scottish songs. And the scale is the modern Western one which entered Korea only roughly 100 years ago…

  27. Kuiwon said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 9:12 pm

    I am the author of the post mentioned here. I believe that the whole point of my post was missed, perhaps because linguistics academics were not my intended audience. (My rather limited exposure to formal linguistics has been primarily through a few topics in natural language processing, and I do have a respect for science academia in general.) The point was not whether any of the etymologies were correct. Rather, it was more of a comment on certain attitudes regarding Korean culture.

    As for the etymologies, the most commonly cited etymologies I saw were the first five listed, which are all sinitic. As Jongseong notes here, another source lists almost all sinitic theories. I did not cherry-pick, as this post insinuates. Being able to read the Korean would make this abundantly clear. The second source I cite in the post lists eight native Korean etymologies, but only covers three of them (아리다, 메아리, 여음설) in any depth. To the extent there is any "consensus," I did note that North Korean scholars (not that I find them credible) favor 我離郞.

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