A United Korean Language: The Divide Between North and South

Often we forget how just how dynamic of a social structure language is, and that even one generation can result in an entirely different manner of speaking.  Obvious examples of this are British English versus American English, or Iberian Spanish versus Latin American Spanish – but possibly no language illustrates this phenomenon more starkly than North Korean and South Korean.  Here are two countries that, despite sharing a border, are so far removed from each other culturally and in terms of dialogue that 60 years of separation have resulted in languages so different they actually require two dictionaries.


While basic communication is possible between speakers from the North and South, anything requiring detailed or specialized explanations is liable to be lost in the cultural divide.  While North Korean – which they call Chosŏnŏ – is based on the dialect of Pyongyang and South Korean – known as Hangugeo – is based on the dialect of Seoul, different vocabularies have further developed based on the countries’ opposing ideologies.  For example, where the word agassi means a young lady in South Korean, it means “a slave of the feudal society” in North Korean.

Despite sharing a border, North and South Korea are so far removed from each other culturally and in terms of dialogue that 60 years of separation have resulted in languages so different they actually require two different dictionaries.

Similarly, as South Korea has had more contact with Western countries, their language has assimilated more words from English, while North Korea has been influenced more heavily by Russian.  One example of this is the word dongmu (동무) which originally meant “friend” in Korean: when North Korean began to use it in more of the Russian sense of “comrade,” it fell out of use in the South, where chingu (친구) is now the common word for “friend.”

While the two languages continue to diverge, a team of lexicographers from both sides of the Demilitarized Zone are attempting to compile a unified dictionary of North and South Korean.  However, in light of the mutual distrust between both countries, the project can be seen to harbor hidden political motives.  In fact, the dictionary’s inceptor, Moon Ik-Hwan, was briefly jailed following his trip to North Korea, where he cleared the idea by Kim Il-Sung in 1989.  It wasn’t until 2004 that work began on his dictionary as both North and South Korea agreed it was a crucial step to preserving Korean cultural heritage.

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Currently at 55,000 entries, development of the dictionary is going strong despite tensions, with a goal of 330,000 words set for the year 2019.  While the committee has agreed to exclude words that are unique to either side’s ideologies, disagreements still arise over various definitions and over the “purity” of the Korean language.  For example, more than half of the South Korean vocabulary are words borrowed from China, where North Korea deliberately replaced Chinese terminology with their own.  This in itself can be a huge barrier to mutual understanding, and as long as the two Koreas remain divided by language there can be no hope of scaling back hostile attitudes.

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