A Financial Times story by Christian Oliver and Kang Buseong describes the problems of linguistic integration in Korea:

The North and South Korean languages have grown apart so severely over 65 years of division that both countries have agreed to collaborate on a joint dictionary to stem the growing confusions. North Korea’s language is filled with ideological terminology while South Korean is awash with foreign words.
Thirsty South Koreans happily order a “juice” but North Koreans ask for “danmul” – literally “sweet water” – a word that is greeted in Seoul with either bemusement or derision depending on how forgiving the waitress is. …

Han Yong-un, South Korea’s head of the dictionary project … says the North has agreed to distribute the completed dictionary to libraries and universities. South Korea’s lexicographers, sponsored by Seoul’s unification ministry, plan to issue shorter volumes for professional spheres such as medicine and technology.
In the simplest cases, problems derive from old regional differences, with North and South Koreans using different words for “geese” and “wolves”.
South Koreans import foreign words whereas North Koreans create indigenous ones. For example, shoppers in Seoul buying tights will simply ask for “stocking” whereas North Koreans have a pure Korean word “salyangmal” meaning “skin-sock”. Mascara in North Korea is “nunsseobmeok” or “eyelash-ink”.
For the South Korean dictionary compilers, the toughest words are political. Words such as “comrade” are far more loaded in North Korea, thanks to decades of Soviet influence. Most difficult is the word “juche” which is the North Korean state ideology, often translated as self-sufficiency. To South Koreans the word simply means “subject”.

I hadn’t realized there were such significant differences, though of course it makes sense. (Thanks, IndigoJones!)


  1. Max Pinton says

    Another interesting aspect is that North Korea has completely abolished Chinese characters, while the South still uses them to some degree (though not nearly as much as the Japanese do).

  2. An old man I got to know who was born and raised in Korea’s Hamgyong Province (far northeast), then went to Japanese med school in Daejon (center) said that he grew up using Russian loans for ‘matches’ and ‘bread’ instead of the Japanese loans (matchi from English, pan from Portuguese) used in the rest of colonial Korea.

  3. I saw a cooking show which featured a woman from N. Korea (but living in the south) teaching her daughter to cook traditional N. Korean dishes that are not eaten in the south. It made me wonder if traditional Northern food will survive the scarcities of the current regime.

  4. michael farris says

    “Thirsty South Koreans happily order a “juice””
    Actually they order 쥬스 ( jyusŭ in the romanization I prefer jyuseu in the official one). Similarly ‘stocking’ is
    스타킹 (sŭthakhing or seutaking – presumably the a is long, though vowel length isn’t indicated in hangul). It’s a minor point but an important one, they’re not using English words, but Korean ones that happen to have been borrowed from English but which are now independent of their English context.
    IINM the differences go beyond vocabulary and also include phonology (Southern Korean sounds very nasal to Northerners) and I’ve read that the Northern leaders also tried to simplify the speech levels to make them more egalitarian but it didn’t work out (though they do now work a little differently than in the south.

  5. aqilluqqaaq says

    ( jyusŭ in the romanization I prefer jyuseu in the official one).
    Aren’t they both official? In the DPRK (1992 standard: jyu-sŭ, sŭ-tha-khing) and in the ROK (MCT RR 2000 standard: jyu-seu, seu-ta-king) respectively. Though I gather they updated the former in 2002, so maybe it’s changed.

  6. I don’t think you need the y after j (as in jyuseu) – juseu will do.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Is ŭ / eu a high central vowel?

  8. aqilluqqaaq says

    High back unrounded /ɯ(ː)/, I think.

  9. My bad, you do need the y after all for accurate transliteration (even though it’s not reflected in the pronunciation).

  10. Words such as “comrade” are far more loaded in North Korea, thanks to decades of Soviet influence
    I’m wondering a lot recently about how to translate ‘compadre’/’comadre’ — the book I’m reading (set in the early 40’s in Chile) has a lot of trade-unionist/syndicalist characters and when they address each other this way I’m pretty sure the correct way to render it is ‘comrade’; but there are also instances where it seems more like a quick informal term of address like ‘pal’ or ‘buddy’ (both of which sound cheesy to my ear, and neither of which would work for ‘comadre’ anyway; I’m looking for a better word choice — any suggestions?)

  11. Thanks, aqilluqqaaq, that’s what I meant.

  12. Modesto,

  13. Huh, good idea. I used “sister” for “comadre” at one point and it sounded ok.

  14. Yeah, I second “brother,” unless the political connotation is up front.

  15. michael farris says

    Actually ‘comrade’ is compannero/compannera (as used in Cuba where nn = n with tilde). At least it was in El Retrato de Teresa (A portrait of Teresa) the only Cuban movie I’ve ever seen.
    Literally compadre and comadre are godfather and godmother. Compadrazgo is an important mechanisms for social relations in a part of the world with low social trust. For those societies where family bonds are very important (and civil society barely exists) it’s a way of creating family-like bonds between people who aren’t related. Betraying a compadre is as bad as betraying a brother.
    So I’d go with brother and sister as much as possible.

  16. Brother has a political association in England, which is why I thought of it. Male trade Unionists often call each other “brother” (“bruvver”) in Britain (or they used to, it may be old fashioned now, I’m not sure).

  17. Brother has a political association in England
    I also have that impression – partly from the usage of my parents’ old (now very old) friends and also from Jonathan Coe’s novel about the 70s ‘The Rotters Club’. I think it is practically the same, in British usage, as comrade/tovarish, except that it has more of a trade unionist flavour, rather than political party members addressing.
    Talking of Soviet influence, which perhaps includes Chinese influence, comrade/tovarich has acquired strong political association not only in the sense of political comrade, member of the party, but a wider meaning of being politically loyal, and in the process of acquiring that meaning had destroyed grazhdanin/citizen, which acquired the meaning of ‘not one of us, politically suspect’.
    Historically ‘comrade/tovarish’ meant a member of the party of tradespeople (tovar=merchandise, goods) or craftsmen working together and had a feminine form ‘tovarka’, which is not used in the political sense.
    The Korean study, does it only cover the North-South differences or does it also include diaspora usage, Japanese or Russian Koreans?

  18. That’s right. “Bruvva” is a trade union form of address, whereas in England “comrade” would be a Communist (or possibly Labour Party) form.

  19. marie-lucie says

    Brother/Sister seems to be particularly widespread among African-Americans, both for address and for reference.

  20. komfo,amonan says

    I have read also that the northerners prefer to base their words for foreign place names on local pronunciation, while southerners prefer to base them on the English pronunciation. Can’t confirm.
    I was a little surprised to find out how much they’d diverged. AFAIK this didn’t happen in Germany, although DDR was never as isolated as DPRK.

  21. 스타킹 (sŭthakhing or seutaking – presumably the a is long, though vowel length isn’t indicated in hangul)
    I’m not sure about the actual situation, but my impression of South Korean borrowings from English is that they are often similar to the Japanese equivalent. However, the vowels in Korean forms are closer to English than those in Japanese forms because Korean has a richer system of vowels.
    The reason for the similarity (if it exists) could be Japanese influence dating back to the Japanese occupation, which had quite an impact on the Korean vocabulary. (Many kanji expressions follow Japanese rather than Chinese, eg. washing machine is 세탁기 setaggi in Korean, from Japanese 洗濯機 sentakki, whereas Chinese is 洗衣機 / 洗衣机 xǐyījī). On the other hand, it could simply be due to certain similarities of phonological structure. In this case, the rendering of ‘stocking’ as sŭthakhing reflects the fact that Korean, like Japanese, doesn’t have the ‘st’ cluster in its phonology. For reference, Japanese is sutokkingu. The vowel between ‘s’ and ‘t’ is barely pronounced, if at all.
    In sŭthakhing, Korean definitely follows the American pronunciation, but I’m curious to know whether the vowel is long (American-style) or short (British-style). One of the features of katakana English that seems to puzzle Americans is the fact that the system as a whole is based on British English, probably a hangover from the 19th century. If you speak a variety of English that is close to British many (but not all) forms are fairly predictable. In this case, sutokkingu indicates that the vowel in to is short by doubling the following consonant (kk).
    Someone who knows more about Korean than me (and I know virtually nil) would have a better idea about the mechanics of transliterating English words into Korean.

  22. Brother and sister are used as terms of address in American labor unions too, at least the blue-collar ones. The African-American forms are inherited via the Baptists from the Anabaptists, though there are other Protestant sects that use the terms too.
    When did Catholics start calling priests Father? Tolkien says it’s a modern habit, though for him that could mean the 14th century.
    Michael Farris: Comadre and compadre are the godmother and godfather of ego’s children, not of ego. Alternatively, they can be the parents of ego’s godchildren — the terms are reciprocal, like cousin in English. Ego’s godparents are madrina and padrino. The archaic English term is godsib > gossip, which has now lost the specific sense.

  23. A less well-known linguistic divide is that between Mongolian in Mongolia and Mongolian in Inner Mongolia. There is a lot of Russian influence on the Mongolian of Mongolia. For example, the word for ‘leather shoe’ is ботинк (from Russian ботинок). The traditional word is гутал, which now appears to refer mainly to boots. (I haven’t completely figured out the semantics).
    Although Inner Mongolians will tell you that they either use a traditional Mongolian word or a Chinese borrowing, it’s interesting that there is also quite a bit of Russian vocabulary in Inner Mongolian, too. I’m not sure when this vocabulary entered the language. Presumably it was pre-1949. Needless to say, there are also many differences between the two Mongolians that derive from underlying dialect differences.
    The standard language of Mongolian in Mongolia is Khalkha. That in Inner Mongolia is Chakhar, specifically that in Xilin Gol. The two standard languages are quite similar, much more so than some Mongolian dialects in Inner Mongolia, which are almost incomprehensible to Standard Mongolian speakers.
    Unfortunately, the situation between the two Mongolians is not conducive to any kind of convergence. The Mongolians of Mongolia dismiss the language of their Inner Mongolian brethren out of hand. This is based on the perception that the Mongolians of Inner Mongolia are not “Mongols”, having been absorbed into China. The Mongolians are not interested in anything to do with the Inner Mongolians or their language.
    The Inner Mongolians, being under Chinese political control, are on the defensive, but I understand there is some resentment at Khalkha chauvinism. Needless to say, large numbers of Mongols in Inner Mongolia are losing their language in favour of Chinese.

  24. aqilluqqaaq says

    Apparently all the vowels in 스타킹 are short [sɯˈtʰakʰiŋ]. You get epenthetic ㅡ /ɯ/ in English loanwords with long vowels after final stops (cf. 파트 [pʰatʰɯ] ‘part’ [pɑːt]), but otherwise the long vowels are not, it seems, marked as such (cf. 스타 [sɯˈtʰa] for ‘star’ [stɑː(r)]).

  25. Bob Violence says

    I have read also that the northerners prefer to base their words for foreign place names on local pronunciation, while southerners prefer to base them on the English pronunciation. Can’t confirm.
    This is generally true — for example “Poland” is 뽈스까 (Ppolseukka) in the north and 폴란드 (Pollandeu) in the south — but southern forms aren’t necessarily based on English. For example the North Korean for “Germany” is 도이췰란드 (Doichwillandeu), but in the south it’s 독일 (Dogil), which is the Sino-Korean reading of the characters formerly used for the Japanese name (獨逸). Incidentally, googling suggests that the North Korean forms are also used in Russia and China, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising.

  26. All we need is for them to adopt completely different scripts and we’ll have a Hindi-Urdu or Serbian-Croatian situation.

  27. 파트 [pʰatʰɯ] ‘part’ [pɑːt]
    How is ‘putt’ (golfing term) rendered in Korean?

  28. Hmmm. ‘Putty’ is 퍼티. And ‘putt’ is 퍼트.

  29. ‘Shirt’ is 셔츠 syeocheu, cf Japanese シャツ shatsu. ‘Sport’ is 스포츠 seupocheu, cf Japanese スポーツ supōtsu. The Japanese ツtsu ending, unwarranted in terms of the original English, is faithfully followed in the Korean with 츠 cheu.

  30. To South Koreans the word simply means “subject”
    “Subject” as in “topic” or as in “one who is subjected”?

  31. Bob Violence says

    “Subject” as in “topic”. I can’t say much about Korean, but the Chinese word (主體/主体) is (partially) defined as “the main part of something”, which seems to fit here (Juche being the purported basis of the North Korean system).

  32. I suspect the more important implication of 主体 as Subject is its typical role of Agent/Actor (in control of its own destiny) compared to Object/Undergoer (like the South Korean ‘running dogs’ or ‘flunkies’ of the U.S. or Japan in North Korean propaganda).

  33. I agree with Joel, although I’m not sure that the South Korean running dogs would be characterised as 客体 (object/undergoer).
    The two terms 主体 and 客体 correspond to English ‘subject’ and ‘object’, or ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’. In this case, 主体 refers to that which is an agent or actor in control of its own destiny.

  34. My last comment was half baked.
    主 and 客 form a pair in philosophical language.
    * 主體 / 主体 and 客體 / 客体 correspond to English ‘subject’ and ‘object’ respectively.
    * 主觀 / 主观 / 主観 and 客觀 / 客观 / 客観 mean ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ respectively.
    However, 主體 / 主体 has a broader range of usage in normal language than 客體 / 客体, which is purely philosophical in its use. In addition to ‘subject’, 主體 / 主体 can mean ‘main part, main body, main constituent’.
    主觀 / 主观 and 客觀 / 客观 in Chinese also have a Marxist dimension missing in normal English usage of ‘subjective’ / ‘objective’. In this usage, subjective refers to factors under one’s own control, objective refers to external factors. ‘Objective causes’ would refer to external causes that are outside one’s control.
    It seems to me that the North Korean usage of 主体 combines the meanings ‘main part, main constituent’ and ‘factors under one’s own control’, and suggests above all control of one’s own destiny.

  35. What I call the ‘Marxist’ usage of ‘subjective/objective’ does not appear to be confined to Chinese. My French-English dictionary informs me that un danger subjectif is a danger that one has created oneself.

  36. I wasn’t really suggesting 客体 Object(ive) as a term of (North) Korean opprobrium in contrast to 主体 Juche, but rather 事大主義 Sadaejuui ‘flunkyism (servility)’, a term of abuse widely employed by Korean nationalists for much of the 20th century.

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