The Korean War lasted from 1950 until 1953 and halted with the signing of an armistice between the United Nations, China and North Korea. The Demilitarized Zone was established along the 38th parallel, dividing the Korean peninsula into the states of North and South Korea. Despite their long, shared history, these two neighbouring countries now exist in a fragile state of peace. Over the seven decades since their separation, their respective economies, societies, and political situations have vastly diverged as the two nations developed. But have you ever wondered if this separation has had an effect on the Korean language spoken in each country?
The Korean Language
Did you know that the Korean language is considered by many to be a language isolate, which means it doesn’t share a common ancestor with other languages? However, due to its geographical and political closeness with China over many centuries, many loanwords entered the Korean language. The Chinese language also influenced the Korean writing system, as a complex writing system was developed using Chinese characters. The Korean alphabet was invented in 1446 and is now the standard writing system used in both North and South Korea. The two countries actually refer to the alphabet using different terms – it’s hangŭl in the South but Chosŏn’gul in the North!
As a mountainous country, these natural geographical divisions also led to the rise of difference dialects across the peninsula. After the division into North and South, the Seoul (or Gyŏnggi) accent became the ‘standard’ version used in Seoul, whereas the Pyong’an dialect is used in Pyŏngyang. As expected, there are some differences between the two dialects, most noticeably the treatment of certain consonants at the beginning of words. For example, the consonant ‘r’ (ㄹ) has been replaced by ‘n’ (ㄴ) or deleted at the start of many words in South Korea, while North Korea has retained this pronunciation as can be in the comparisons below:
|English||North Korea||South Korea|
|Girl||Ryŏja (려자)||Yŏja (여자)|
|Practice||Ryŏnsŭp (련습)||Yŏnsŭp (연습)|
|Lee (Surname)||Ri (리)||Ee (이)|
Formality in Korean Language
Another difference that has been noted is the formality level of speech found in the two countries. Both North and South Korea have differing levels of formality that depend on the status or age of the speakers. These can be grouped into roughly three levels: low, middle, and high. The low form can be thought of the way you would talk to your friends or people younger than you. The next level up from this is more the way you would address someone older than you, a new person, or used when you want to be polite. Above this is a super-polite level that is used when talking to someone much higher in superiority (your boss, for example), in business, or when working in customer service.
The middle level of formality is most commonly used in South Korea. In North Korea, the high level of formality is most commonly used when addressing people.
Another quite noticeable difference between Korean in North and South Korea is the presence of loanwords. As previously mentioned, historically many Chinese loanwords entered the Korean vernacular, thousands of which are still used in South Korea today. In fact, its’s estimated that around 60% of South Korean vocabulary are Sino-Korean words. Additionally, thousands of English loanwords can be found in the everyday language used in South Korea.
By stark contrast, North Korea has worked on reducing the number of loanwords entering the language and being used by its people, instead focussing on finding pure Korean alternatives. Walk down the street in Seoul, and you might hear one person refer to another as their chinggu (친구; friend). This is a commonly used Sino-Korean word. In North Korea, one might refer to another as dongmu (동무). This is a pure Korean word for ‘friend’ and has come to have the connotation of ‘comrade’ due to its frequent use in the North.
North Korea also has pure Korean alternatives for examples of English loanwords that are used in South Korea. During summer, South Koreans may choose to cool down with an aisŭkŭlim (아이스크림). While in the North they might go for an ŏlŭmgwaja (얼음과자; literally ‘ice snack’).
Of course, there are still some loanwords present in North Korean. However, reflecting their political history, some of these have a Russian influence.
So, what now?
In the 70 plus years since the Korean peninsula was divided, internal and external influences have and exposures have shaped the version of the Korean language used in each country. While North Korea has preferred to keep their Korean as pure and free of outside influences as possible, South Korea is far more open to and accepting of these influences. This is clearly having an effect on the Korean language. While both variants are still largely mutually intelligible, the North’s continued isolation and focus on linguistic purity could continue to push it to diverge even further from that of the South.
One consequence of this is the difficulty that can be faced by refugees coming to the South from the North. Not only do they face a culture shock, but they also face increasing communication issues which make integration more complicated. It’s estimated that there is a 38% difference in everyday vocabulary as well as a 66% difference in specialist terms between the two nations, so visitors have a lot to learn!
Unification is, for many, the ultimate goal that the two countries are working towards. The two nations also occasionally put forward combined teams, such as in sporting events. This collaboration can be tricky, as each side can have different terms for the same concept. Thus, it has been necessary for the two to work together to create dictionaries of terms.
At the 2018 Winter Olympics, hosted by South Korea, North and South Korea fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team. However, a joint dictionary had to be agreed upon. For example, the South Koreans refer to the goalkeeper as golkipŏ (골키퍼). While the North Korean team refer to the position as munjigi (문지기; lit. door keeper).
The gyeoremal-keusajeon Project
Another ambitious project that has been running since 2005 is the gyeoremal-keusajeon project. The aim of this project is to have a unified dictionary of around 330,000 terms that have been agreed upon by delegates from both sides. The project has been running for over 17 years and is around 76% complete. Progress has been hampered by the political situation, but South Korea has made recent efforts to continue with the project.
Fun Fact! Did you know that there are two different counting systems in Korean? Counting objects, telling your age and expressing the time in hours are done in a different manner than when we count money, calculate distance, express the time in minutes and so on. This second case is based on Chinese influence and origin.
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