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The Peninsula

How the Korean Language Has Diverged Over 70 Years of Separation

Published August 20, 2015
Author: Lilka Marino

By Lilka Marino

The first official meeting between delegations of North and South Korea since division occurred in 1972, where delegations from both sides of the Demilitarized Zone met at Panmunjom to discuss reunification. It was the first time that the North and South met each other face to face in decades. However, the North Korean delegation already noted a change in the Korean language that both sides spoke, changes that have made a marked difference in each dialect that goes beyond regional differences. The Korean that is spoken in Pyongyang has evolved away from the Seoul dialect, which has been traditionally considered the standard register of Korean since the Joseon era, and legally established as such in 1935.

The divergence between the two dialects is not entirely due to geography, nor was it merely a result of the political isolation of Pyongyang. While certain terms such as kangnaengi and oksusu (the different words for corn in the north and south, respectively) have always differed depending on the preferred dialect of the speaker, political reforms in Pyongyang have cemented a place for these disparate words in the official lexicon of North Korea. In the Pyongyang dialect, the alterations in official vocabulary are the biggest indicator of a move to create an artificial and deliberate variance from the Seoul dialect.

These changes began not long after the division in 1945. In a move to eradicate illiteracy and promote “democratization” of written Korean, newspapers in North Korea such as the Nodong Simum were instructed by leader Kim Il-sung to circulate articles published entirely in the native Korean Hangul letters, and doing away with the practice of using Hanja, the Chinese syllabary used to write Sino-Korean loanwords.[1] Notably, while Korean is considered by most experts a language isolate, up to sixty percent of the vocabulary of written Korean is composed of these loanwords. While South Korea would have its own variable history with using Hanja, North Korea never uses Hanja in political or academic settings, save to teach students a few “necessary” characters that Kim Il-sung designated essential for relations with North Korea’s neighbors.[2]

The next step of Kim Il-sung’s policy with Sino-Korean vocabulary reflects the most dramatic change to the Pyongyang dialect. In 1964, he publically noted the necessity for these changes, citing that the Korean language had become a “hodgepodge language” too dependent on foreign loanwords, and it was in the best interests of North Koreans to substitute native Korean words and phrases for the English and Sino-Korean vocabulary. Kim Il-sung described the new Pyongyang dialect that would arise from these changes as a munhwae, or the “Cultured Language”, in comparison to the pyojuneo, “Standard Language”, used in Seoul.

New dictionaries published after this speech retain traditional spelling rules that were native to dialects surrounding Pyongyang, as well as traditional regional vocabulary such as kangnaengi rather than oksusu. The most notable difference was the appearance of new words to replace a multitude of Sino-Korean words that are still in use in Seoul. Examples of these newer phrases include tayyang, “ocean”, a Sino-Korean word that is substituted with the native Korean term hanpata (“big sea”), and taiethu, from the English word “diet”, that is replaced with salkkakkki (which translates literally to “the cutting off of flesh”). Many of these words are mundane, such as the word for shampoo, which instead of using the English cognate, North Koreans say meorimulbinu, or “hair water soap”. Other words that lack even a South Korean equivalent include babgongjang, which refers to a place where women can redeem ration coupons for rice. A few foreign influences do remain, such as the tendency to transliterate native words for foreign countries like Ppolsukka rather than Pollandeu, which deviates from the practice of using the English word, as the Seoul dialect usually does. Most other North Korean loanwords come from Russian such as kkumuna (“commune”) or tturakttoru (“tractor”).

The effect of Russian on the Pyongyang dialect has been evident not only in these lexicon differences, but in the stilted language that issues forth from the state propaganda organ. One expert, Andrei Lankov, has noted that the changes in the North Korean dialect have provided issues for English translators but do not affect him in the same way, as a lot of the state’s use of idioms and phrases are borrowed from what he described as a “Soviet dialect” of official phrases. Russian speakers who lived through the years of Soviet propaganda would see an echo of the same language used in the Soviet Union mirrored in the often unwieldy phrases Pyongyang uses. One example of these borrowings is dang jungangui durie gutge mungchyeo, or “to be firmly united around the party Central Committee”, a phrase used liberally in the indictment against Jang Song-taek in late 2013, which is derived from the Russian phrase splotivshsis vokgrug tsentralnogo komiteta partii. Lankov lists other phrases and even songs borrowed from the Soviet originals and presented as uniquely North Korean.

One final notable difference is the use of speech levels to indicate the relationship between the speakers, ranging from the archaic mode when addressing royalty to one only used among close friends. This goes along with the highly detailed social hierarchy that exists in Korean society, derived from the Confucian mode. Traditionally, the Seoul dialect maintains six distinct registers that combine verb conjugation and honorifics to signify respect among speakers. In North Korea, it is said that these have been reduced to three, mainly the high, equal, and low styles.

It is important to note that a few words and phrases have changed their meanings on both sides of the DMZ due to political connotations.  One example of this is the word tongmu; it was traditionally used all over the Korean peninsula to mean friend, but after the division, it fell out of use in South Korea as North Korean speakers used it to mean ‘comrade’, akin to the Russian tovorashch and the Chinese tongzhi. It has since been replaced by the term chingu. Another word that has changed meaning is the term agassi, a word for a young girl in Seoul, but a slave to feudalism in Pyongyang.

The Pyongyang dialect has not been alone in changing since the division; the Korean spoken by those south of the DMZ has gone through an evolution of its own. Unlike in Pyongyang, Hanja are still used in newspapers, maps, public signs, political texts and academic texts in Seoul.[3] However there is a decreasing[4] public knowledge of Hanja characters, which are no longer taught in primary school and have been under scrutiny by proponents of Hangul-only publication as “old-fashioned and unnecessary”. Meanwhile, as the last North Korean orthographical reforms date to 1954, the latest South Korean reforms occurred in 1988, which reveal minor differences in spelling and grammar between the Pyongyang and Seoul dialects.

The most notable of the literary changes around Seoul is the introduction of more English loan words, often called Konglish, that are described as pseudo-anglicisms that English speakers may have trouble understanding themselves due to the inevitable changes from language borrowing. Up to ninety percent of foreign loanwords in South Korea originate from English[5]. Commonly used examples include the popularly used hwaiting (from “fighting”, a term used to empower coworkers rather than indicating violence), “service”, which indicates something free of charge from a business, and keoning (from “cunning”, meaning “cheating”). Terms such as these have been used by advertisers, company slogans, and even local and state government in South Korea, often combined with romaja, Roman letters. As such, it also increases the difficulties that North Korean defectors often face understanding Korean when coming to South Korea, since many lack sufficient English education to interpret what must be a bombardment of foreign words.

The two dialects have diverged enough to the point where defectors confess they have a hard time living in South Korea. As such, two notable projects have arisen to meet the need for mutual comprehension within the same language. One of these projects is a North-South Korean dictionary, with both North and South Korean delegations meeting several times a year to iron out the problems with words such as juseu (“juice”) and danmal (“sweet water”). However, the 2014 deadline has not been met due to rising tensions between the states. Another project meant to bridge the differences between all citizens of Korea is an application for mobile phones that reads potentially confusing Konglish words and ‘translates’ them into their Pyongyang equivalents, such as doneos (“donut”) and karakjibang (“ring bread”). The application is targeted towards North Korean defector students struggling to keep up with their studies thanks to the linguistic divide. It is also the hope with these projects to assist with any potential reunification scenarios, preparing Koreans on both sides of the DMZ to finally talk to their estranged neighbors.

Lilka Marino received her Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies from Hollins University with a double concentration in leadership theory and social sciences. Her interests include North Korean politics, Korean history, and traditional Korean culture. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Alfonso’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


[1] Hannas, William C. (1997). Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, pg 67.

[2] Hannas, ibid.

[3] Taylor, Insup; Taylor, Martin M. (1983). The psychology of reading. New York: Academic Press

[4] Brown, R. A. (1990). “Korean Sociolinguistic Attitudes in Japanese Comparative Perspective”. Journal of Asia Pacific Communication 1: 117–134.

[5] Sohn, Ho-Min. The Korean Language (Section 1.5.3 “Korean vocabulary”, pp. 12–13), Cambridge University Press, 2001

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