Word Bites — Divergences in Korean words

The demarcation of the border between the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, marked the separation of not only a people separated by ideology, but also how new words entered the Korean language. Over time, different policies towards the Korean languages in the North and South have led to gradually increasing divergences in the language. Orthographies, pronunciation, and vocabulary are all such aspects which have noted varying degrees of divergences. Here, in the Word Bites series, we take a look at the vocabulary which have differed between the North and the South.

For context, the standard languages in the North and South are based off the Pyongyang and Seoul dialects respectively, but both standards could trace the origins of the vast majority of their basic vocabulary to the Sajeonghan Joseoneo Pyojunmal Mo-eum, published by the Korean Language Society in 1936. Loanwords, and differences in political systems and social structure have led to such differences in vocabulary instead.

Perhaps one of the most well known examples of the latter is the use of tongmu (동무) and chingu (친구) to convey the meaning of “friend” in the North and South respectively. Originally, tongmu was used to convey that meaning across the Korean Peninsula. However, the North had likened the meaning towards the Russian term for friend/comrade spoken in the former USSR. In the South, tongmu had also came to mean “comrade”, falling out of use there, and replacing it with chingu instead.

There are dialectal differences between Seoul and Pyongyang which have been solidified in the two standard languages over time, such as the word for lettuce, which is puru (부루) in the North, and sangchu (상추) in the South. Differences in grammatical particles are also seen, as with u (우) in the North, and wi (위) in the South, to mean “on, above”.

A more stark difference would be the etymological source of loanwords in the two standard languages. The ROK has borrowed a lot of words from English, while the DPRK has borrowed words originating from languages of the former USSR, such as Russian, or Mandarin Chinese. Where the same English loanwords are borrowed, these are often transliterated and pronounced differently between the North and the South. Examples include:

EnglishDPRKROK
Juicedanmul (단물)juseu (주스)
Shampoomŏrimulbinu (머리물비누)shampu (샴푸)
Tractorttŭrakttorŭ (뜨락또르)teuraekteo (트랙터)
Some examples of loanwords in the two standard languages of Korean

Interestingly, the DPRK appears to have a system of forming compound words for things that are borrowed from English in the ROK standard. Danmul literally means “sweet water”, while mŏrimulbinu literally means “hair water soap”. This also reflects the differences in perspectives surrounding the creation of new words.

To date, thousands of different words are used in the respective lexicons, reflecting a growing divergence between the two standards. There may be projects in the works dedicated to compiling these differences, despite tensions between the DPRK and the ROK. Perhaps time will tell if a full compilation of lexical differences could be completed in the future.

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