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Thu Mar 14, 2019, 11:32 PM

Crossing Divides: Two Koreas divided by a fractured language

Crossing Divides: Two Koreas divided by a fractured language

By BBC Monitoring
The world through its media
8 March 2019

North Korea's closed society means its language has changed little since the post-WW2 division of the peninsula. Meanwhile, the southern version has developed rapidly due to exposure to outside culture and technology...


The South acquired a hybrid "Konglish" US-inspired vocabulary, adopting many English words, such as "juseu" (juice) and "two-piece" (two-piece outfit).


A vast undertaking to codify a unified vocabulary is the Gyeoremal Keunsajeon (grand dictionary of the national language), an inter-Korean project that began in 2005.

According to South Korean lexicographer Han Yong-woon, who is part of the Gyeoremal team, the dictionary will compile words from existing dictionaries across the two Koreas and add newer words and expressions.

"We plan to collect about 210,000 words. And then we will collect new words and expressions that are being used but not in dictionaries. That would be about 100,000," Han told the BBC.

The article presents common but interesting examples of language differences based upon culture, political perspective, and political isolation in the case of North Korea.


The proliferation of new words in Hangul in South Korea is a daily occurrence, and while it might be correctly described as "development" compared to the stagnation of the isolated and ideological north, it is also a problem, which no one appears to want to regulate or standardize. Every day in South Korea it seems the media, commercial and technological interests, academics and young people coin new words, some contractions, some slang, some technical, some mostly borrowed from English or other languages, that defy efforts even by native speakers to understand fully communications content and meaning in ordinary media. For North Korean defectors and other learners particularly foreign students of the language and culture, a 200,000 word vocabulary is entirely too much. While it seems chic and erudite to make up new expressions, even when borrowed directly from another tongue commonly English, the words are often not comprehended aurally because of their different pronunciation.

I'm not a linguist. Perhaps a linguist or someone else here can share their insight or view concerning this situation. I have been dealing with this challenge for years.

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Reply Crossing Divides: Two Koreas divided by a fractured language (Original post)
soryang Mar 2019 OP
DFW Mar 2019 #1
soryang Mar 2019 #2
soryang Mar 2019 #3
DFW Mar 2019 #4
soryang Mar 2019 #5

Response to soryang (Original post)

Mon Mar 25, 2019, 07:48 AM

1. It's not the literary version of a language that changes so often, but rather the living language

I notice the changes in languages I use frequently in the countries where they are spoken. We look at German TV shows from the 1970s and laugh at some of the expressions we hear, even though we were using them back then, too. Even more telling are East German shows from that era. They had a distinctive vocabulary all their own, although their media was 100% Party controlled, so it didn't reflect the spoken language completely.

My biggest awakening was the first time I visited Russia a little over 20 years ago. I had read Dostoyevsky and Gogol in college, but had never before been exposed to day-to-day post-Soviet era slang. I found myself struggling to understand people in the street who understood me perfectly. Some of them asked if I had had had a nice sleep these last 100 years, since my spoken Russian had never evolved to reflect 20th century slang. Since we never read any Soviet-era lit except for one short story of Vassily Aksyonov, we never got the chance to speak the living language. North Koreans experiencing the South for the first time will be subjected to a similar linguistic adjustment. Figure it's like someone from Mississippi, on his first trip outside of Mississippi, landing in London and hearing, "that wanker couldn't get his gear out of the boot, and couldn't even find the loo on his own."

Better yet, get National Lampoon's "European Vacation" and watch the scene where the Griswold family arrives at their hotel in London.

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Response to DFW (Reply #1)

Mon Mar 25, 2019, 09:05 AM

2. Thanks for sharing your experiences

That is a great analogy with the German experience. This is what the article is about.

This is what I'm talking about:

Wikipedia says itís possible to count the number of entries in a dictionary, but itís not possible to count the number of words in a language:

Language Words in the Dictionary
Korean 1,100,373
Japanese 500,000
Italian 260,000
English 171,476
Russian 150,000
Spanish 93,000
Chinese 85,568


Obviously, there are methodology problems about which language is richest, who has the most words, what qualifies as a separate word to be counted etc.

The South Korean language is exploding with new vocabulary every day. Some newly coined unique and unprecedented words or usages appear for a short period or only a day or two and disappear and others go on, as long as a particular social, political, technological or media situation continues. The result is thousands of new words every year. You don't have sleep for a decade to get behind, native speakers often don't know what people on Korean tv news programs, or talk shows mean when they are speaking in the principal Seoul dialect. I know it's a thing particularly with programs devoted to younger audiences to make up or use such words because it's trendy or a fad.

To assist the viewers the broadcasters post quotes on screen or subtitles so the viewer can get the main idea. Commonly, when this occurs the key words won't appear in a dictionary, whether formal or contemporary, because someone just made it up. It isn't just a class problem or one of regional dialects, the educated classes, journalists and media are among the biggest offenders.

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Response to soryang (Reply #2)

Mon Mar 25, 2019, 10:48 AM

3. This looks like it may have been a source for the BBC article

Korean Language in North and South Korea: The Differences


This article says, "As early as 2002, about 24,000 were already added to the South Korean lexicon." That would be from the time of the Korean conflict. I think the influx of new words has expanded greatly since that time due to the acceleration of international commerce, media and technology, but I may have, as an outsider, "exaggerated" the nature of the problem.

Don't the French, have some institutional body that regulates that language?

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Response to soryang (Reply #3)

Tue Mar 26, 2019, 01:57 AM

4. I don't know about France, but Spain certainly does, although only for the main language there

Spain has the Real Academia de la Lengua EspaŮola (Royal Academy of the Spanish Language), although the name is an arrogant misnomer, as several languages are spoken in Spain, of which Castilian ("Spanish" ) is just about the newest, along with Gallego, which is practically a northern dialect of Portuguese, spoken in the northwest. But the small enclaves where the old Celtic holds out, plus Euzkadi (The Basque Country) and Catalunya all speak languages that are older than "Spanish."

As for Korea, I'm betting that north of the 38th parallel, there are not many (if any) people who have ever heard the expression "Gangnam Style."

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Response to DFW (Reply #4)

Tue Mar 26, 2019, 02:05 AM

5. Gangnam Style - good one.

Yesterday I was thinking about the latest mol ka, secret (illegal) sex cameras involved in the current scandal with the male icon group, I don't know their name. Sel Ka, selfie camera picture taking. so gating, conflating introduction so gae ha da with dating. I hear new examples every day, once I figure out what they mean I usually forget them. Not enough watching of the daytime tv shows for young people.

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