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Asia

Changing Dialects Between the Two Koreas

North and South Korea have differences that go beyond politics and economy. Even their languages aren't quite the same. Since the two nations were split more than sixty years ago, their dialects have gone in different directions. And for thousands of North Koreans refugees, what their South Korean brethren speak these days, sounds a bit foreign.

Korean is the official language of North and South Korea

Korean is the official language of North and South Korea

Chae Su Jeong says that when she defected from North Korea in 2001, she was surprised to see how modern Seoul was. Coming from one of North Korea’s poorest areas, the 42 year old couldn’t believe how many cars there were and couldn’t figure out how bank ATMs worked. She got over those things after a few months, but she says what really shocked her was when she encountered a language barrier with her South Korean co-workers.

Chae says she didn't realise how different North and South Korean languages were until she started working for a recycling company. Back home in North Korea, she says, they have only one word to describe all types of paper, but here there are many. It really embarrassed her that she didn't know what her co-workers were talking about.

Political manipulation

The North Korean language, like much of the nation itself, is stuck in a time warp. It has retained a lot of words and expressions that South Koreans no longer use. Or the meanings have changed.

Some analysts say that political manipulation is another reason for the language divide. Kim Seok Hyang lectures at the Ewha Institute for Unification Studies in Seoul and has written a book on the use of language in North Korea. She gives an example of one word whose meaning was changed to honour the North’s rulers.

“Sun-mul, in Korean language, means present to your friend. But now, in North Korea, sun-mul is the reserved word by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong il, so only Kim Il sung and Kim Jong il are the only two who can give sun-mul to another person.”

Use of 'Konglish'

Another linguistic problem for North Korean refugees in South Korea is caused by the influx of English words. The mix is known as Konglish. This is becoming more prevalent -- especially in the field of modern technology. It is difficult for someone to know how to send a fax or make a Xerox if he or she has never heard the word or seen the devices used. Defector Chae Su Jeong says it was tough to learn all these new words.

Chae says she had no idea what the word “CAMERA” meant. In North Korea, it's called a SA-JIN-GI. She adds that since she started learning English, everyday life in South Korea has become a little easier.

North Korea not only keeps English words out of the language but has also done away with Chinese characters, which are still learned in South Korea.

For these reasons, North Koreans believe they speak a superior form of the Korean language. Many continue to think this even after they have defected to South Korea.
"North Korean defectors are arguing their way of using Korean language is pure and clean way of protecting Korean from outside dirty thing," says Kim Seok Hyang.

Those dirty things are of course foreign words.

  • Date 23.03.2009
  • Author Jason Strother 23/03/09
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsJM
  • Date 23.03.2009
  • Author Jason Strother 23/03/09
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsJM