Summary: The Finnish surname “Korpela” is formed from the noun “korpi”, meaning “dark forest” with the locative suffix “-la”. Originally a name given to houses in many places, it became a surname. It is relative common: there are about 5,000 Korpelas in Finland.
The Population Register Center of Finland has an online service for searching some statistical information about people’s names, Name Service. Checked in December 2016, the register (including Finnish citizens and other people living in Finland) contains a total of 5,109 living people with the surname “Korpela”, 4,863 of them living in Finland. It is not in the top ten list of surnames, but rather common (about 0.1 % of the total population of Finland).
“Korpela” belongs to a group of names which have probably been first taken into use as referring to houses or farms, then later as a surname for people. Other names in the group include “Korpi”, “Korpinen”, and “Korpelainen”.
The pronunciation of the name can roughly be explained as follows: Stress is on the first syllable. All letters, including “r”, are pronounced, and all vowels are short but full (not reduced), and “Italian style”. (See my notes on Finnish pronunciation for a somewhat more detailed description.)
The base word “korpi”, means “woodland, wildwood”, referring to dark forests, typically with spruce (Picea abies) as the dominant tree. The suffix “-la” denotes a location and is widely used in Finnish, although often combined with other suffixes (as in “Korpelainen”). The suffix even appears in some case suffixes. Many Finnish surnames were often originally names given to houses or farms, then secondarily used to refer to their inhabitants, and later changed to pure surnames as we know them. (For information on this in Finnish, see Sirkka Paikkala’s Sukunimet sukututkimuksessa and other articles in the Henkilönnimet collection.)
Surnames ending with “-la” were taken into use in Western Finland mostly. “Korpela” is common especially in the historical province of Ostrobothnia (Finnish: Pohjanmaa), but it has been recorded very early (in 16th century) in Eastern Finland, too.
It seems that the name “Korpela” was adopted independently in different parts of the country. Thus, people carrying that name need not be related at all. Pointing out this fact was my basic reason for writing this document; people occasionally send me E-mail asking whether I could help in locating some remote relative of theirs carrying the name “Korpela”. I hope this little document tells why I can’t. Perhaps you’ll find some help on the Web pages (in English) of the Genealogical Society of Finland.