North and South Korea remained divided since 1945 due to the differing ideologies of world super powers after WWII. The Korean War from 1950-1953 failed to resolve the political issues. Instead, it cemented the separation of the two Koreas until today. The Korean Demilitarized Zone is 160 miles or 250 kilometers long. It divides North and South Korea practically in half. About 2.5 miles or 4 kilometers of land straddling the demilitarized zone neutrally separates the two Koreas.
The division that occurred in the 1950s left 9 million people in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula while 16 million remained in the southern part. Not only did the Koreans in the two parts of the peninsula differed in lifestyles after the separation but also in the language they use.
For more than six centuries, the hostility between the two Koreas continues. Therefore, it was quite rare and historic when linguists and historians from both sides made an agreement more than a decade ago to compile a dictionary of the Korean national language. The project is called Gyeoremal-keunsajeon. The parties agreed to have regular meetings in order to discuss the definitions of thousands of words.
Over 330,000 Korean words are to be defined by the project. In doing the project the group aims to reinstate the Korean language’s unity that was drastically affected by the division of the Korean Peninsula. However, because the ties between the two Koreas continue to deteriorate, the project is still not complete. The project was started in 2004. Only about 76% of the project has been finished since then.
The language divide
It’s been 70 years since the Korean Peninsula was divided in 1948 and it cannot be argued that the Korean spoken in North Korea differs to the type of Korean used in South Korea. Why is there a difference?
Like in many countries, Korea has a number of regional dialects or saturi, which add to the richness of its culture. With a few exceptions, most of the dialects are mutually intelligible. However, the local Jeju language spoken by native residents of Jeju-do (Jeju Province) is a distinct language and not just a Korean dialect.
The most common dialects are as follows:
- Northeastern dialects or the Hamgyŏng dialect – spoken in the Kwannam and Kwanbuk regions of the Hamgyong Province. Hamgyŏng dialect is also spoken in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (Jilin, Northern China), and North Korean areas such as the Ryanggang Province and the northeast parts of Pyongan Province.
- Northwestern dialects – spoken in various areas in the northern part of the peninsula. The Pyong’an dialect is widely used in Pyongyang, the province of Chagang and the province of Pyongan. It is also spoken by groups living in Liaoning, China. The Hwanghae dialect is used in North Korea’s Hwanghae Province. The sole tonal Korean language that is known today is the Yukchin dialect, which is spoken in the northeasternmost part of the Korean Peninsula – Yukchin. There is quite a distance between Yukchin and Pyongyang, but the dialect is more similar to the Pyongan dialect than the Hamgyŏng dialect despite the fact that Yukchin is in the province of Hamgyong.
- Central dialects – used in different areas of South Korea, with the provincial boundaries also acting as the dividers of the dialects. The Seoul dialect is also called the Gyeonggi dialect that is spoken in the cities of Incheon and Seoul and within the province of Gyeonggi. Speakers of the Gyeonggi dialect are also found in North Korea’s southeastern Kaesong, in the province of North Hwanghae, which is near the border between North and South Korea. This dialect is the basis of the standard Korean languages used by North Korea and South Korea.
In the city of Daejeon and in the province of Chungcheong in South Korea, the main dialect in use is the Chungcheong dialect. Daejeon natives are known to speak slower than the rest of the Korean population. Speakers of Chungcheong dialect on the other hand are distinct for replacing their verb conjugations. Instead of using haseyo, which is the standard, they use haseyu. In informal occasions, they even say hasyu. Haseyo translates to ”please do” in English.
Also parts of the Central dialects are the Gangwon dialects. The Yeongseo dialect is spoken in Gangwon Province’s Yeongseo region. Speakers are also found in the Kangwon Province, a neighboring area that is located in North Korea. In the Yeongdong region of Gangwon-do, which is on South Korea’s eastern coast (also on the eastern coast of North Korea’s Kangwon-do), the prevailing dialect is called Yeongdong dialect. It is fairly different because the locale is a bit isolated due to the steep mountains that acted as barriers. Some of the words in the Yeongdong dialect are not similar to standard Korean.
- Southeastern dialects – these are the Gyeongsang dialects spoken in Yeongnam Region (formerly Gyeongsang-do). The area includes South and North Gyeongsang, and the autonomous cities of Ulsan, Busan and Daegu. The dialects vary in the pitch with the dialect used in Seoul.
- Southwestern dialects – include the Jeolla dialect, which is mainly used in the (former) Jeolla Province, which is now called the Honam Region. It includes Gwangju City, South Korea’s sixth largest city. The Jeolla dialect is also distinct, as it uses different verb endings. The usual –seyo and –seumnida endings in the Jeolla dialect become –rau or –jirau. Most sentences end with –ing especially if a favor is being asked by the speaker.
- Different varieties of Korean language are likewise spoken outside of Korea. Koryo-mar originated from the Hamgyŏng dialect, is spoken by ethnic Koreans called Koryo-saram who inhabit some areas in Central Asia that used to belong to some Russian states. The basic lexicon is Korean but several calques and loanwords came from Turkic and Russian languages. Mentioned earlier is Zainichi Korean language that is used by the Koreans who have immigrated to Japan.
Another variety of Korean is spoken in Korean diaspora in China, which is almost the same as North Korea’s Hamgyŏng dialect. It is called Hancha or Jungguk Joseonmal with most of the vocabulary already influences by modern Chinese terms.
Distinct difference between North and South Korean languages
From the dialects listed above, it is already clear that within South Korea itself, several dialects make the Korean language different from what is spoken in one region or province to the next. Between the languages spoken in North and South Korea, many socio-political words entered the vocabulary of the North Korean language, as well as the more traditional customs and words related to them. Korean is one of the world’s oldest languages. However, after WWII, the South Korean language became influenced by its quick urbanization and development. Some of the biggest elements that changed the South Korean language are the loanwords, especially those coming from the English language.
As early as 2002, about 24,000 were already added to the South Korean lexicon. Here are some of them:
- South Koreans often use juseu, which is an English loanword. In North Korea, they use danmul that translates to ”sweet water.”
- In the Korean-English dictionary, musical is ”eumhakwi” although it is more common for South Koreans to use ”myujikeol.” North Korean still use the term for music and dance story, which is ”gamuiyagi.”
- Octopus/cuttlefish. North Koreans use the South Korean term for octopus (either ”nakji” for small octopus or ”muneo” for big octopus) to refer to cuttlefish. The cuttlefish is called ”ojingeo” in South Korea.
- When South Koreans wash their hair, they use ”shampu” while North Koreans use ”meorimulbinu.” The term means hair water soap, which is a combination of meori (head), mul (water) and binu (water).
- Lunch box. A North Korean lunch box is called ”bapgwak” whereas in South Korea is it called a ”dosirak” (pronounced doshirak), which is similar to the bento in Japan.
These are just a few of the terms where the North Korean and South Korean languages differ, and you can already see in the examples that the North Korean terms are quite traditional.
This is primarily caused by the urging of the leaders in North Korea to keep out loanwords from their language to maintain its purity and to use the Pyong’an dialect. If foreign words are essential, the North Koreans tend to borrow from the Russian language. North Korea was under Russian rule after the end of World War II while South Korea came under U.S. rule.
Even the term they use for the language is different. In South Korea, they call their language Hangul whereas in North Korea, they call it Joseon-gul.
The Korean Language Society defined the Korean Orthography in 1933. Called Hangeul Matchumbeop Tong-iran, it was followed by the two Koreas until 1945. But when the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) were established in 1948, their policies regarding their language started to differ. From the 1960s until the 2003, the leadership of North Korea issued several directives regarding the language to be used in their part of the Korean Peninsula. South Korea continued to follow the 1933 directive as well as its succeeding amendment. It is still in effect today, together with the “Standard Language Regulations” that was issued in 1988.
In terms of characters, the North and South regions use the same characters. However, in South Korea, the letter ㅌ that represents the letter T is written as ㄷ with a separate horizontal stroke on top. Sorting of the characters is different, too.
In South Korea, the vowels are sorted as follows:
ㅏ ㅐ ㅑ ㅒ ㅓ ㅔ ㅕ ㅖ ㅗ ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅛ ㅜ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟ ㅠ ㅡ ㅢ ㅣ
while the consonant sorting follows this order:
ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ
In North Korea, the difference in sorting is like this:
For the vowels: ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ ㅐ ㅒ ㅔ ㅖ ㅚ ㅟ ㅢ ㅘ ㅝ ㅙ ㅞ
For the consonants: ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅆ ㅉ ㅇ
Likewise, the digraphs and trigraphs in South Korean vowels and consonants are not used as separate letters. In North Korea, they are taken separately.
Pronunciation differs as well, mainly because the North Korean language is based on the Pyong’an dialect while the one used in South Korea is based on the Seoul dialect.
South Koreans typically do not pronounce and write all the initial ㄹ(r/l) and some of the initial ㄴ (n) but are written and pronounced in North Korea. For example, the surname “Lee” is written as 이 and pronounced as “I” with a short ”i” sound. In North Korea however, it is written as 리 and pronounce as ”Ri.”
Here are more examples:
|English||North Korean||South Korean|
|bloom||p’iyŏ 피여||pieo (pyeo) 피어 (펴)|
|count||seyŏ 세여||seeo 세어|
|take out||naeyŏ 내여||naeeo 내어|
|white||hiyŏ 희여||hieo 희어|
|become||toeyŏ 되여||doeeo (dwae) 되어 (돼)|
|jump||ttwiyŏ 뛰여||ttwieo 뛰어|
|thankful||komawa 고마와||gomawo 고마워|
|near||kakkawa 가까와||gakkawo 가까워|
|cold water||raengsu 랭수||naengsu 냉수|
|fall||rak’a 락하||naka 낙하|
|practice||ryŏnsŭp 련습||yeonseup 연습|
|woman||nyŏja 녀자||yeoja 여자|
|corn||kangnaeng-i 강냉이||oksusu 옥수수|
|lettuce||puru 부루||sangchu 상추|
|goose||kesani 케사니||geowi 거위|
|cow cart||talguji 달구지||sure 수레|
|hammer||mach’i 마치||mangchi 망치|
Some of the differences between the languages of the two Koreas are subtle while some are quite distinct. There are differences in spelling and use of foreign words (because of origin), in spacing and use of inflected words. Differences in pronunciation also exist.
The linguistic differences between the two Koreas make it hard for their citizens to understand one another. However, it is not going to be a problem if you have documents to be translated into the North Korean or the South Korean languages. It’s because the native speakers and knowledgeable translators of Day Translations, Inc. can do the work for you. It is easy to get in touch with us. You can call us at 1-800-969-6853 or send us a message via email at Contact us. We are open 24/7, every day of the year.
Is the linguistic divide going to change with the recent developments? Can the two Koreas actually end the centuries-old Korean War with the signing of the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula? Share your thoughts with us.