Fearful that the languages of their countries are becoming mutually unintelligible, linguists from North Korea and South Korea are joining forces to create a common dictionary, as described in this article from the South China Morning Post: "Academics try to get North and South Korea to speak same language" (11/3/14)
In a comment on a recent Language Log post concerning another subject, ThomasH opined that he'd like to see a discussion concerning the prescriptiveness/descriptiveness of the article just cited: "Personally it seems both futile — without more actual language transactions between the two countries — and pointless, with bonus points for the complaint about English loan words being part of the 'problem'."
Here are some highlights of the article:
Han [Young-un, the chief editor of the dictionary,] said the problem was especially pronounced in the language used by professionals like doctors and lawyers. "It's so marked that architects from each side would probably have difficulty building a house together," he added.
Han estimates such differences [of mutual unintelligibility] now extend to one third of the words spoken on the streets of Seoul and Pyongyang, and up to two thirds in business and official settings. "At the moment there is still no problem in basic communication, but the language rift will become unbridgeable if left unchecked," Han said.
One factor behind the divergence in the two versions of Korean was the North's decision to "purify" the language by eliminating the many words of Chinese origin and coining new "native" terms to replace them.
In South Korea, Sino-Korean words still comprise more than half of the vocabulary.
At the same time, the North incorporated Russian loanwords – such as gommuna for "community" – while the South borrowed heavily from English to coin terms like "eye-shopping", meaning browsing.
North Korean defectors such as Park Kun-ha, who fled in 2005, say the prevalence of English loanwords is a major obstacle to adapting to life in the South.
"It's incredibly frustrating. They are everywhere, and it's essentially like learning a foreign language," said Park.
One might quibble with a few details in the article, but much of what’s said there is unquestionably true. Compiling a unified dictionary runs up against all manner of problems. Indeed, one might question the very premises of the project. Can the compilation of a dictionary, assuming that they can actually complete it by their 2019 target date (they've been working on it for a quarter of a century and have only come up with concrete definitions for 55,000 words out of the 330,000 that they want to include), halt the trends that are so deeply entrenched in the two Koreas?
One can hardly ignore the fact that their ideologies and styles are starkly different, and there hasn't been a whole lot of dialog between the two sides for well over half a century.
The situation is nicely explained by Haewon Cho:
As far as I know, the standard languages used in North Korea (문화어, Munhwaeo – RR, Munhwaŏ – MR), meaning “the cultured language,” originally based on the Seoul dialect, but later adopting the Pyongyang dialect) and South Korea (표준어, Pyojuneo – RR, P'yojunŏ – MR, meaning “the standard language,” based on the Seoul dialect) are mutually understandable, although there exist lexical variations between the two countries that might cause some miscommunication. The countries have enforced different language policies for more than sixty years and, for that reason, while their basic vocabularies are very similar to each other, newly created vocabulary is quite different:
NK: 기름 사탕 (gi-reum-sa-tang, RR, ki-rŭm-sa-t'ang, MR), meaning "oily candy" (due to the purification policy)
SK: 캐러멜 (kae-reo-mel, RR, k'ae-rŏ-mel, MR)
NK: 뜨락또르 (tteu-rak-tto-reu, RR, ttŭ-rak-tto-rŭ, MR, from Russian)
SK: 트랙터 (teu-raek-teo, RR, t'ŭ-raek-t'ŏ, MR)
NK: 강냉이 (gang-naeng-i, RR, kang-naeng-i, MR, from the Pyongang dialect)
SK: 옥수수 (ok-su-su, RR, MR)
Also, the North Korean Juche ideology changed the meanings of some words to better suit communist society. For example, as mentioned in the article, 아가씨 (a-ga-ssi, MR, RR) used to refer to a young lady from the upper class, but now means “slave of feudal society” and has a very negative connotation in North Korea. Also, 동무 (dong-mu, RR, tong-mu, MR), which means “friend” in South Korea, is used to refer to a “comrade” in North Korea.
The divergence between the languages of South Korea and North Korea has much to do with the different language policies that reflect the political systems and cultures of these two countries. I am not sure how far the languages will continue to diverge nor, to be honest, how feasible it is to create a new dictionary that comprises North and South languages in such a volatile political climate. But this effort clearly signals that both South and North Korea are concerned about the developing disparity between the languages of North and South Korea and want to do something before it’s too late. (This could also be preparation for the unification of the two Koreas.)
The same sort of situation has existed in other countries that were politically divided for considerable periods of time: East and West Germany, Taiwan and China. My impression is that the forces driving linguistic divergence in the two Koreas are even greater than those between the two Germanys or those between the PRC and the ROC. My hunch is that, if unification does not take place in the foreseeable future, the languages of North and South on the Korean Peninsula will continue to diverge until they reach a point where even a linguistic lumper will have to agree that they are no longer a single language.
[Hat tip Mark Mandel; thanks to Bob Ramsey and Bill Hannas]