A wordy problem faces the Koreas
In the year Lee arrived, Ha Ri-su, a Korean transgender entertainer, was the talk of the town. But Lee couldn’t converse about the subject. He did not understand the word “transgender” and felt humiliated for his ignorance.
Timid and not wanting to stand out, Lee typed in the English term while doing a search on the Internet and finally learned that the word refers to a person whose gender identity may be different from what he was born with.
For several months after his arrival, Lee was terrified that his ignorance about South Korean terms would cause miscommunication. “Difference is regarded as a handicap in the South,” Lee said.
Kim Dae-sung, another North Korean defector who is now a reporter for Free North Korea Radio ― an Internet radio broadcasting company that deals with North Korean issues ― also experienced language shock when he first arrived in 2002.
Said Kim: “If I conversed with a South Korean as if I were in North Korea, we would not have understood each other.”
Kim still remembers not understanding the word “terminal.” Kim was to meet a friend at the express bus terminal in southern Seoul but because he couldn’t comprehend the word “terminal,” he ended up going to some nearby tunnel.
“We [in North Korea] hardly use words from the West,” Kim said. In the North, a terminal is called yeokjeon, meaning the front yard of a railway station. Yeokjeon is an outdated word in the South.
Lee, who is now the operations manager of the Association of North Korean Defectors, overcame vocabulary differences by searching the Internet and looking up words in the dictionary.
Language differences between the South and North may sound odd.
For hundreds of years, since the creation of the Korean phonemic alphabet by Sejong the Great (the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty), Koreans on the peninsula have used the same language.
“But when the country separated into the communist North and the capitalist South at the end of World War II, the language separated, too,” said Han Yong-un, section chief of the South Korean government panel of linguists involved in the compilation of a joint dictionary. The unified compilation will be published by 2013.
Since the division of the Korean Peninsula, the North established its own rules for Korean orthography, or the correct way for writing a language.
“The North amended and supplemented the standard form of the language originally based on the unified Korean proposal in 1933,” Han said.
The North’s changing ideology under the influence of juche, or self-reliance, and communism meant a big change in its linguistic policies.
With the difference in ideology, Han says heterogenic language was inevitable.
“For the past half century, the South and North had little cultural or political exchange,” Han said.
Though sentence structure and basic vocabulary remains the same, people from the two Koreas find it hard to understand each other in everyday conversation, says Han, and the difference starts with the definition of language.
According to the South’s standard Korean dictionary, language is defined as “a system of communication which consists of a set of sounds or written symbols.” The North, in contrast, sees the essence and function of language as “a mighty tool to attain autonomic populism,” according to the North’s Chosun Language Dictionary.
Han said the North added new meanings to words according to its evolving ideology. For example, yangban is an innocuous term in the South referring to Joseon-era men from the upper scholastic class. But the North defines the word as a reactionary member of the upper caste that suppresses and exploits the people. Dongmu is a “friend” in the South but a “comrade” in the North.
Lee, the defector, found it humiliating to learn that the word bangjo, a common term term for assistance or aid in the North means something else in the South; here the word has a negative connotation that means abetting a crime.
There are also words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings.
When a North Korean says octopus, it means squid in the South while squid in the North is equivalent to cuttlefish in the South.
Of all the language barriers though, Kim noted that the hardest is the South’s indiscriminate use of English orthography in everyday conversation.
There are 11 loaned words mentioned in a Korean language textbook in the North, including “bus,” “guerilla,” “basket” and “tank.” In the South, 89 words are English-rooted.
The addition of English in the South means terms are said and understood differently in the two countries.
A North Korean will ask for a “cold sweet water,” when the simple English word “juice” would do.
“North Korean language is less commercialized,” Han said.
Most restaurants, markets and cinemas in the North are named after a region. Han says the North’s words do not contain publicity.
In time, if and when the reunification of the nations is imminent, reunification of the Korean language will be a compelling challenge.
In an attempt to prevent the languages from drifting further apart, several North and South representatives are compiling a joint dictionary of the Korean language.
“We [both the South and North Korean government panels of linguists] hope to rediscover our common linguistic roots in preparation for reunification,” Han said.
The project of a joint dictionary was brought up in 1989 when Rev. Moon Ik-hwan, a South Korean pro-unification activist, visited North Korea. He suggested to then North Korean leader Kim Il Sung that the Koreas write a Korean language dictionary. The North Korean leader liked the idea but when Moon returned to the South, he was imprisoned for visiting the North. He died after he was released.
No more ideas were discussed about the project until 2003. Leading national linguists, including the venerable poet Ko Eun from the South, revived the proposal made 18 years earlier and a letter of intent was signed in 2004.
“Compiling the two languages that were once one is very significant in preserving the identity in language,” Han said. He said estrangement in language is a serious issue. Some 300,000 words will be included in the dictionary.
But Lee Young-mee, a popular arts critic, has a different view. Although she agrees that language reunification of the two countries is crucial for communication, the issue is not imminent. Reunification of the two languages will come naturally when the economic and political structures reunite.
Lee said, “Different cultures are categorized by region, caste, generation and gender. Unifying two languages artificially is unnecessary.”
To Lee, being able to accept and communicate with different cultures is more crucial.
Nevertheless, Han notes that the gap between the two languages is becoming larger. Compared to his visit to the North in 2005, Han said words have become more distinctive today. “There are regional differences ― [in the South alone] it can be difficult for a Seoulite to understand the Jeju dialect,” Han said. He says territorial division intensifies the language gap even more.
Of the 300,000 words that will be listed in the unified dictionary, around 200,000 words will be selected from the standard South and North Korean dictionaries. The remaining 100,000 words will be enlisted from often-used Korean words that are not yet in the dictionary.
While the committee is busy making the unified dictionary, linguistic reunification has already begun among thousands of defectors.
Hanawon, a state-run institute that provides orientation and education programs for defectors, runs a four-hour language course during its eight-week adjustment program.
A staff member at Hanawon, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Language is culture. By learning how South Koreans speak, defectors feel more at ease and understand the culture better.”
“We [both South and North Korean linguistic panels] need time, patience and support when publishing the unified dictionary,” Han said. “We hope there won’t be any external interruptions, including political disputes.”
Han says the unified dictionary will be a stepping stone to reunification.
By Lee Eun-joo Contributing Writer [email@example.com]