Is Korean diverging into two languages?

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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]

Late addition:

After long split, 2 Koreas face increasing linguistic divide


  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 7:33 pm

    Yes, differences in loan words existed in East and West German, but not always in the direction you'd expect. In one of the Germanies, cooked chicken was often referred to by the English-derived word "Broiler". Oddly, this was the East, the Germany you'd expect *not* to incorporate words from that language!

  2. Jim Breen said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 7:35 pm

    Fascinating post. Thank you very much.

    I wonder how the situation compares with Germany pre and post unification?

  3. Alicia said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 7:39 pm

    If anyone knows of any fun links for discussion of the divergence and then convergence of east/west German, I'd find that interesting…

  4. languagehat said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

    Sounds like the Hindi/Urdu situation to me (though here there's only one writing system).

  5. Jason said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 9:57 pm

    Interesting that Sino-Korean and English loanwords are taboo in Northern Korea, due to a "purification" policy, but Russian ones are OK.

    "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. "

    I'd be interested to learn if this is a significant redefinition or merely a change in connotation, ie a simple revalencing of the concept. And was it a consequence of a conscious redefinition made by some commissioner of language policy, NewSpeak style, or did it evolve more organically as a consequence of a shift in values brought on by communism?

  6. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 10:00 pm

    German has vigorous dialects and pronounced regional differences. My impression was always that the standard languages of West Germany and Austria were more divergent than those of East and West Germany. (And the colloquial is another thing again.)

    Moreover, there was always a fair amount of cultural interchange between the two Germanies. Ossis listened to broadcasts from the West and Wessis read East German authors. I'm not sure how much that takes place on the Korean Peninsula. Very little, it would seem. If anything, the German examples seems more parallel to the two Chinas than the two Koreas.

  7. Lazar said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 10:23 pm

    @Jonathan Badger: I enjoy spotting linguistic situations which are the opposite of what I would expect. For example, the fact that Latinate month names are used in Serbian, while the older Slavic names are used in Croatian.

  8. mishac said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 10:47 pm

    There is one writing system, but even with that there are differences. There's been different orthographic reform in each country, and the North has done a far more complete job of stopping the use of Chinese Characeters ("Hanja"), which are still used in the South in many contexts (though decreasingly so).

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 12:12 am

    From Bob Ramsey:

    Some romanized transcriptions of Korean use unnecessary hyphens; e.g.: 기름 사탕 (gi-reum-sa-tang, RR, ki-rŭm-sa-t'ang, MR); 캐러멜 (kae-reo-mel, RR, k'ae-rŏ-mel, MR). Hyphens used like that just take up space and clutter the page. Notice how the original Korean writing in Hangul has word spacing–and no hyphens! Oh, and neither RR nor MR call for them.

    Yes, yes, I know: transcribers put them in to reflect the fact that the Korean writing system has syllabic features. But syllable boundaries are, for the most part, obvious without the hyphens. And besides, strictly speaking, modern Korean orthography doesn’t always reflect the phonological boundaries of the syllable anyway.

    But there’s also something more important that often escapes notice: As a well-known but annoyed Koreanist once told me, too many hyphens make Korean look exotic and primitive—much the same way American Indian names and words did to Westerners who thought of them as savage or primitive—and wrote them with hyphens. Such orthographic stretching is totally unnecessary and confusing. And culturally patronizing.

  10. Matt_M said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 12:25 am

    Re: 아가씨 / agassi — this word is very frequent in South Korean speech as a polite form of address for young women. North Koreans must find it quite startling when they first arrive in the South.

    Like Lazar, I'm a bit puzzled by what "slave of feudal society" might mean. A villein/serf? A slave in premodern Korea or China? An official insult for ideological enemies or designated "reactionary elements" along the lines of "imperialist running dog?"

  11. Jongseong Park said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 2:57 am

    I'd be happy to comment more on North-South language differences later when I have free time. But for now, let me just say that the differences between individual dialects within both the North and South are far, far greater than the differences between the standard languages of the North and South. The language was beginning to be standardized before political division into the North and South, and even then, Seoul and Pyongyang are in the same dialect area.

  12. Matthias L. Jugel said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 2:58 am

    When I was on a delegation trip with the German Goethe Institute in North Korea one of my fellows never spoke Korean during the whole trip. When I asked her why, she had two reasons: One was the strange behaviour people showed towards her as a woman and Korean-looking (she is German with a Korean background), so she only conversed in English with the North Koreans. The second reason was that the language was so different that she could only barely understand half of what was said. We had a special translator from the embassy.

    What I heard myself was the quite formal language used in the North compared to the more lax use of formality in the South. That seems to be strange, because shouldn't there be less formality between comrades?

    Regarding the East-West comment above: There is much less communication between North and South Korea than was in Germany. My take, having lived in East Germany, is that the situation is difficult to compare. The language difference (not scientifically proven) was more on a regional level. North and South Korea however have basically had not much exchange on the language level for years.

  13. RP said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 3:37 am

    If the linguistic division was less severe with the Germanies, I imagine the reasons could include:
    – the division didn't last as long;
    – Ostpolitik started earlier and was more successful than its Korean equivalent;
    – there was no equivalently massive pre-existing base of foreign loanwords in German to be targeted in the same way as the Chinese-origin vocabulary in Korean;
    – neutral states such as Switzerland and Austria spoke German, not just the two Germanies.

    The two Germanies never went to war with each other so the bitterness probably didn't run quite as deep.

    I'm not very familiar with the linguistic division, but it would also be interesting to know the outcome of post-1989 convergence, i.e. whether it is a largely a matter of the Western variants winning out (mirroring the political annexation of East by West) or whether it's more complex.

    That NK would target Chinese loans and not Russian is interesting given that their alliance with China has been closer and longer-lasting, and given the tensions with Russia (even during the Korean war, but especially after the Sino-Soviet split). But the sheer volume of Chinese-origin vocab in Korean may provide part of the explanation, perhaps coupled with a desire to show independence from China at the same time as being allied to it fairly closely.

  14. Vanya said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 4:56 am

    There are also significant lexical differences between British English and American English yet we still clearly speak one language. Is the gulf between the North Korean understanding of "agassi" and the South Korean any wider than the gulf between the way Americans understand "fanny pack" and the British do? Or "Por fin he cogido al perro!" as understood by someone from Madrid and someone from Uruguay?

  15. Vanya said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 5:03 am

    @Lazar For example, the fact that Latinate month names are used in Serbian, while the older Slavic names are used in Croatian.

    The older Slavic names are also used in Polish and Czech, both of which developed very much within the Catholic European cultural sphere, whereas Russian uses Latinate names. Maybe it was a reaction against German cultural imperialism?

  16. David Morris said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 5:56 am

    Ethnologue lists 5 dialects for South Korea and 3 for North, though the differences between south and north are certainly greater than the differences within each. UNESCO lists Jeju-do Korean as a separate language, and a critically endangered one at that, with fewer than 10,000 elderly speakers, up against national media and education.

  17. Jongseong Park said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 8:23 am

    @David Morris: Ethnologue lists 5 dialects for South Korea and 3 for North, though the differences between south and north are certainly greater than the differences within each.

    As far as I can see, Ethnologue doesn't make the claim that differences between South and North are greater than the differences within each. And as I said in my previous comment, the reverse is true.

    By this, I should clarify that I am talking about the standard languages of the North and South. For a thousand years before the division, the capital of Korea was in the central dialect area, namely Kaesong (now in the North) and then Seoul. Korean was standardized based on the Seoul dialect before the political division.

    I erroneously said in my previous comment that Pyongyang was in the same dialect area as Seoul (it is not), but the fact remains that even after the division, the basis of the Northern standard language remained the central dialect, now split between the North and South, and more specifically the Seoul dialect. There are also differences between the standard language and the authentic Seoul dialect, because Standard Korean is based on but not identical to the Seoul dialect and has absorbed some features and vocabulary from other dialects while rejecting some forms peculiar to the Seoul dialect.

    There are meanwhile great differences between dialects in Korea. Jeju Korean is certainly hardly intelligible to other Korean speakers and is sometimes considered a separate language. But it is critically endangered as the younger generation in Jeju Island speaks only Standard Korean for the most part. In other parts of South Korea such as the Southeast, there is a diglossic situation where people speak in dialect with family and friends but in the standard language to communicate with people from other regions. There is in fact a continuum between the standard language and the dialects, and dialect-specific features may be being replaced by standard forms over time so that even the dialects spoken by young people now may be closer to the standard forms than the "authentic" dialects. But there is no question that the dialects exhibit far greater and more fundamental differences in syntax, morphology, and phonology than the standard languages of the North and South.

    To simplify radically, think of the North-South differences as, say, the differences between British and American standard languages, while within both North and South Korea you should imagine dialectal differences similar to what you see within Britain.

  18. Jongseong Park said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 8:30 am

    @RP: That NK would target Chinese loans and not Russian is interesting given that their alliance with China has been closer and longer-lasting, and given the tensions with Russia (even during the Korean war, but especially after the Sino-Soviet split). But the sheer volume of Chinese-origin vocab in Korean may provide part of the explanation, perhaps coupled with a desire to show independence from China at the same time as being allied to it fairly closely.

    I don't think most Koreans associate Chinese-origin vocabulary with contemporary China, any more than English speakers associate words of Latin and Greek origin in English with contemporary Italy and Greece.

    – there was no equivalently massive pre-existing base of foreign loanwords in German to be targeted in the same way as the Chinese-origin vocabulary in Korean;

    I would think of German words of Latin origin as being analogous to the Chinese-origin vocabulary in Korean. So North Korea-style linguistic purists for German might reject words like Perzeption and replace them with native Germanic equivalents like Wahrnehmung.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 8:31 am

    @Matthias L. Jugel

    "…she only conversed in English with the North Koreans."

    I'm surprised to learn that the North Koreans would take the trouble to learn English at all. Surely Chinese and Russian must rank far higher than English as desirable second languages for North Koreans.

    I wonder to what extent English is taught in the educational system of North Korea, especially as compared to Russian and Chinese. If lots of North Koreans are learning English, this would be a significant test case of its power as a / the world language.

  20. Jongseong Park said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 8:59 am

    I think nowadays, English is the primary foreign language taught in North Korea, followed probably by Chinese. Japanese is being taught as well. Russian was traditionally important, but less and less since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

  21. KevinM said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 9:10 am

    @Jonathan Badger
    Your post evoked memories of the Frigaliment ("What is chicken") case, well known to 1st year law students:
    "Plaintiff stresses that, although these and subsequent cables between
    plaintiff and defendant, which laid the basis for the additional quantities under the first and for all of the second contract, were predominantly in German, they used the English word ‘chicken’; it claims this was done because it understood ‘chicken’ meant young
    chicken whereas the German word, ‘Huhn,’ included both ‘Brathuhn’ (broilers) and ‘Suppenhuhn’ (stewing chicken), and that defendant, whose officers were thoroughly conversant with German, should have realized this… ." Excerpted version at

  22. Peter Erwin said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 9:15 am

    @Jongseong Park:
    I would think of German words of Latin origin as being analogous to the Chinese-origin vocabulary in Korean. So North Korea-style linguistic purists for German might reject words like Perzeption and replace them with native Germanic equivalents like Wahrnehmung.

    I gather there was a brief period in the 1930s when the SS did officially adopt a Sprachreinigung ("language cleansing") policy aimed at purifying German, but gave it up after a while because there were too many "obviously German" words that turned out to have, e.g., Latin roots. (The example one of my German professors in college gave was Pferd "horse", which comes from the Late Latin paraveredus.)

  23. Jongseong Park said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    The literary language in Korea was Classical Chinese until the end of the pre-Modern Era, continuing long after the invention of the Korean alphabet in the 15th century. The fact of having Classical Chinese as the literary language created a huge class of words in Korean taken from it, i.e. Sino-Korean. Even in the early 20th century, after Classical Chinese ceased to be the literary language, "neo-Sinitic" terms coined predominantly in Japan came into Korean via writing and were absorbed as Sino-Korean vocabulary.

    Sino-Korean words refer specifically to those that can be written with Chinese characters and pronounced with the canonical readings of those characters in Korean, standardized through the long use of Classical Chinese as the literary language. So we exclude oral loanwords from Chinese languages past and present that differ from these canonical readings, like the older 붓 but "brush" from 筆 (canonical reading 필 pil) or the newer 쿵후 kunghu "kung fu" from 功夫 (canonical reading 공부 gongbu). We also exclude originally Sino-Korean words that have gone through sound changes to diverge from the canonical readings, like 성냥 seongnyang "matchstick" from 석류황 石硫黃 seongnyuhwang. On the other hand, we include "neo-Sinitic" words of non-Chinese (Japanese) origin like 전화 電話 jeonhwa "telephone", and even faddish internet-age Korean neologisms like 역대급 歷代級 yeokdaegeup "historic level".

    Sino-Korean syllables are more phonotactically restricted than Korean vocabulary at large. For example, ㅃ, ㄸ don't appear as onsets, ㅒ doesn't appear as a medial, consonant codas are restricted to ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, and ㅇ. It is often easy to tell if a word is Sino-Korean or not, especially if you recognize characters the way English speakers can recognize Latin roots like trans- or super-.

    All this is to say that they are felt to be very different from more recent loanwords from English, German, or even Chinese (요우커 youkeo from 遊客 yóukè to give another example). Sino-Korean words are usually not considered 외래어 oerae-eo "loanwords" in Korean, but they're not 고유어 goyu-eo "native words" either and form a separate, third class, 한자어 hanja-eo.

    As you can imagine, the existence of these three broad categories means that there are lots of doublets or even triplets of words broadly referring to the same thing. The native and Sino-Korean vocabulary base is shared between the North and South. Yes, North Korea tends to prefer native forms more than the South, but that doesn't mean that they have eliminated or even significantly reduced Sino-Korean words from their vocabulary. North Korean speech and texts will be peppered with Sino-Korean words to a degree comparable to their Southern counterparts. The most iconic North-Korea-related words are mostly Sino-Korean, like 주체 Juche or 로동 Rodong. Leaf through a North Korean dictionary and you will find the same preponderance of Sino-Korean words as in its Southern counterpart.

    The North-South vocabulary differences are often highlighted and if you focus on those, it can give an impression that the North uses far less Sino-Korean words than the South, but I highly doubt that this is the case. The proportion of Sino-Korean words is so great that the relatively small number of divergent usage makes barely a dent. Also, Sino-Korean words also face competition in the South from native words and especially (other) loanwords.

    Oh, and to clear up any misunderstanding, North Korea officially eliminated the use of Chinese characters to write Sino-Korean words from the beginning, using only the Korean alphabet to write Korean. South Korea didn't take such a drastic measure as to forbid using Chinese characters to write Sino-Korean words, but in all the textbooks only the Korean alphabet was used to write Korean. This meant that the practice of "mixed-script" disappeared gradually and naturally as generations grew up educated only in using the Korean alphabet to write Korean—even in the most conservative South Korean newspapers the use of Chinese characters virtually disappeared by the 1990s. So after a half-century, Northern and Southern policies had the same end effect, of eliminating Chinese characters from general usage. And contrary to what one might think, North Korean students still learn Chinese characters in school, just like their Southern counterparts. So today there is negligible North-South difference on this issue, which is one of orthography, not vocabulary in any case.

  24. flow said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 11:45 am

    @Bob Ramsey: apart from being patronizing, those syllable dividers also have a practical value in better showing the workings of the Hangŭl orthography.

    i must say that i find the 'p' word both a bit harsh, and the harshness, justified.

    i say i find it justified in the face of the ongoing and seemingly irremediable inaptness of what must be a broad majority of journalists—people of the word, and, as per medium, often of the letter—when it comes to spelling names and other words from foreign languages. in Germany, for example, papers insist on writing Kioto and Tokio—traditional spellings, if you like—but are happy to write that right next to Yokohama.

    when it comes to other countries / languages, things are treated on a case-by-case base, and it seems that especially in Arabic and Korean place names, the ones responsible for proper spellings insist on swapping any (y) for the 'German' letter (j) (they also insist on Katar, Kuwait, and Alkeida). consequently, reading Korean place names becomes a guessing game. on top of this, the capital of North Korea becomes Pjöngjang. that looks so cozy and familiar… and completely contradicts Yongbyong, Kioto, and Tokio.

    i'm saying that because in my perception, hyphens-as-syllable-markers (are they?) are the smaller and *less* patronizing feature of foreigners spelling foreign names, certainly much less so than Schanghai, Pjöngjang, Katar, and Tokio, at least in the 21st c.

    another aspect is that we have to keep transliterations, transcriptions, orthographies, and ad-hoc spellings apart. the last one should obviously be seen as the most problematic, and, in fact, to anyone but an expert the existance of so many competing romanization schemes for Korean makes almost *any* mention of a given Korean word in Latin letters *look* like an ad-hoc spelling (the same problem exists for Chinese and Japanese).

    As for orthographies, it is perhaps the best we can do when dealing as foreigners with foreign names. an orthography in this sense is an established mode of using certain letter combinations for certain words, and yes, as long as people keep to using Pjöngjang next to Yongbyon, we can accept that as an orthography. the question is how complicated you want the letter–sound correspondences allow to become when writing words from a language you don't speak. i'd say write everything the Pjöngjang or else the Yongbyong (or Yeongbyeong, or Nyeongbyeong, or Yŏngbyŏng, or…) style, but be consistent and avoid making up special cases, but people won't listen.

    next to orthographies, there are transcriptions, and next to those, in increasing order of 'scientificy', transliterations. with a transliteration, you strive to obtain a faithful image, as it were, of the spellings of the one system in the terms of another, and you often have to go to greater lengths in your use of unusual diacritics and stuff than can be expected to be reproduced faithfully by lay people. there is a non-patronizing place for those syllable-markers in transcriptions because either you render 평양 as p'yŏng-yang or else as p'yŏŋyaŋ or else it's not clear whether you meant 평양 or 편걍 when you write p'yŏngyang. and yes, syllable markers are sometimes *inevitable* for a language like Korean because contemporary Hangŭl (han-gŭl if you will) is written in a largely morphophonemic style where /ga-da/ may be written as (ga-da) or as (gad-a), depending on linguistic analysis. 'foreign orthographies' don't need that level of detail, but transliterations certainly do.

    to finish this longish post, let me remark that what bothers me most about current transliteration and transcription schemes for Chinese and Korean is the insistence on writing (p) and (p') instead of (b) and (p), and, for Korean, the fad to mark initial devoicing in the transcription, so we get gi-reum for 기름 in RR but ki-rŭm in MR. these two things alone must have contributed more damage to the perceived chaotic state of 'foreign orthographies' for Chinese and Korean than any other factor. Hankook Tires, really?

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

    I think lexical differences between AmEng and BrEng (and for that matter between AmEng and CanEng) are greater in specialized/professionalized contexts like the legal and political systems, and these are countries whose legal/political systems would seem broadly compatible at a high level (and indeed have common ancestry) in a way that is not true across the DMZ. And there are lots of other instances where the conceptual category is the same on both sides of the Atlantic and the social/political/cultural attitudes toward the referent are about the same, but there is still a lexical difference it can still lead to incomprehension until one figures out that, e.g. BrEng "OAP" = AmEng "senior citizen," neither of which is particularly transparent to someone who doesn't already know what it means.

  26. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

    Regarding the "Latinate" month names in the Slavic languages of the Orthodox persuasion (except Belarusian and Ukrainian): they actually come from Byzantine Greek, which took them in under the Roman Empire, as can be seen from the forms avgust август (from Αύγουστος, but august in Bosnian) and mart март (from Μάρτιος), as agsint marec in Slovak and Slovene, and marzec in Polish, from the Latin Martius after affrication of the t.

  27. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

    Regarding British-American differences: despite possible misunderstandings of standard-language lexemes such as "to table" or "estate" or "pavement," the differences between what one might read in, say, The Guardian or The Washington Post pale in comparison with those between the respective colloquial registers. It takes a lot of exposure to working-class sitcoms and the like to learn that when a Brit is pissed it does not mean that they are angry but drunk, that a good wheeze is a clever idea, and so on. It probably isn't so bad going the other way because of the UK's exposure to US culture; at least, British setters of cryptic puzzles expect their solvers to know American lingo.

  28. John Cowan said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 1:04 am

    It's not actually surprising that Croatian has kept the traditional month names, because Standard Croatian is purist about loanwords, like Icelandic, whereas Standard Serbian is much more accepting of them, like English. On the other hand, Croatian (like English) typically keeps the spelling of recent loanwords intact, whereas Serbian pretty much has to respell them phonetically in order to make its biscriptal writing system work, whereby a manuscript can nowadays be submitted in Latin but printed in Cyrillic without human intervention. In Serbia, if you don't know both alphabets you are illiterate.

  29. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 8:58 am

    The use of Slavic month names is not limited to Croatia but is typical of all the Slavic languages whose culture is primarily Catholic (Czech, Polish, Slovak), plus the Polish-influenced Belarusian and Ukrainian. Slovenian uses both Slavic and Latinate, the latter under German influence (and in their Latin-based, not Greek-based form — marec not mart). Bosnian uses both the Croatian and the Serbian forms.

  30. Mark Metcalf said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 9:10 am

    From a recent WSJ article:

    "Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, residents of the German capital face another barrier to unity in their city.

    On one side are Berliners, who revel in their messy city’s Bohemian vibe, described by its mayor as “poor but sexy.” Across the battle lines are rich southwesterners from Swabia, whom other Germans mock as obsessively orderly and bourgeois…

    …Seemingly minor cultural differences grate on Berliners’ nerves. Mr. Thierse first inspired Swabian ire two years ago by accusing them in a newspaper interview of polluting Berlin air with bits of their dialect, like wecken.

    “In Berlin, you say schrippen, something even Swabians can get used to,” he said. Both are terms for bread rolls.

    Another crime was pflaumendatschi. “What is that?” he said. “In Berlin, it’s called pflaumenkuchen.” Both mean plum tart.

    Swabians responded by staking their claim on territory with a symbolic wall of maultaschen, a Swabian stuffed-pasta specialty resembling ravioli…"

    The full article is here:

  31. Thijs said,

    November 8, 2014 @ 9:22 am

    Bosnian doesn't use Croatian (Slavic) month names. It uses Latinate names, with the difference between B and S being that B has "august" while S has "avgust".

    In Croatian, Latinate names are not used except in a number of fixed expressions like "Prvi April" (April 1st, April Fools' Day), but they're optional in those cases. In colloquial C, it's possible to use numbers as month names, although that can often lead to confusion.

  32. Chas Belov said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 12:51 am

    The local Korean restaurants do not use hyphens in any Romanizations. For instance, the seafood pancake is shown as haemul pajeon.

    As for English borrowings, I could swear I've seen meeting as 미팅, but Wiktionary shows it as 회합 hoehap. (And Korean Wikipedia shows 미팅 as being group dating.)

  33. Chris Croy said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 2:15 am

    @Coby Lubliner: I'd never thought about how informal registers of American and British English are so much less mutually intelligible than formal registers. I just read an article the other day with extensive quotes from working-class Brits and as an American they were borderline unintelligible. It's like a reverse of Urdu vs Hindi (where informal registers are mutually intelligible but highly formal registers are mutually unintelligible). I wonder if anyone's ever tried to formally examine this.

  34. GH said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

    So from the discussion in the comments, can we conclude that Betteridges' Law of Headlines still holds true?

  35. Victor Mair said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 10:18 pm


    "still holds true"

    Has it ever been proven to hold true in all cases?

  36. Jongseong Park said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 6:37 am

    I should put in some general comments about the project to produce a common dictionary for the North and South, which is a fascinating one. Personally I think it is a worthy and necessary project to document the words and expressions in use in the two Koreas. It is difficult to rail agains any perceived prescriptivist agenda of the project when it has the potential to fill a descriptivist need. (I do wonder how they'll ever manage to agree on common definitions of words like "capitalism".)

    The standard dictionaries used in the South and North are 표준국어대사전 Pyojun Gugeo Daesajeon and 조선말대사전 Chosŏnmal Taesajŏn respectively (I'm using Revised Romanization for the South and McCune-Reischauer for the North). You can click on the links for the online versions.

    Interestingly, 표준국어대사전 Pyojun Gugeo Daesajeon "The Great Dictionary of Standard National Language is entirely Sino-Korean: 標準國語大辭典, while 조선말대사전 Chosŏnmal Taesajŏn "The Great Dictionary of the Korean Language" includes a native Korean element 말 mal "speech/language" in place of where 語 might be used in the South: 朝鮮말大辭典. 조선 朝鮮 Chosŏn is the name for Korea used in the North, while the South uses 한국 韓國 Hanguk, restricting the use of 조선 朝鮮 Joseon to the historical kingdoms bearing that name.

    The common dictionary was originally conceived in 1989 as 통일국어대사전 Tong-il Gugeo Daesajeon/T'ong'il Kugŏ Taesajŏn, renamed as 겨레말큰사전 Gyeoremal Keunsajeon/Kyŏremal K'ŭnsajŏn in 2004. 통일국어대사전 Tong-il Gugeo Daesajeon/T'ong'il Kugŏ Taesajŏn "The Great Dictionary of Unified National Language" is entirely Sino-Korean: 統一國語大辭典, while the newer name 겨레말큰사전 Gyeoremal Keunsajeon/Kyŏremal K'ŭnsajŏn "The Great Dictionary of the National Language" retains Sino-Korean only for 사전 sajeon/sajŏn 辭典 "dictionary" and turns to native elements like 겨레 gyeore/kyŏre "(ethnic) nation" and 큰 keun/k'ŭn "big/great". (If you wanted to go full native, you could say 말뭉치 malmungchi/malmungch'i instead for "dictionary", but that hasn't really caught on.)

    This is far from coincidental, as you might have guessed from the discussions about Sino-Korean so far. Traditionally, official names of publications and organizations tended to be entirely or nearly entirely in Sino-Korean, while using native words in their stead appeals more to progressive leanings. The real story is actually quite complicated in the South, as those who preferred Sino-Korean terms and those who preferred native terms battled over what to use in textbooks, for example. The results were mixed. In arithmetic, the native terms like 덧셈 deotsem "addition" and 뺄셈 ppaelsem "subtraction" stuck instead of Sino-Korean 가산 加算 gasan and 감산 減算 gamsan. In grammar, the Sino-Korean 명사 名詞 myeongsa "noun" and 동사 動詞 dongsa "verb" won out over the native 이름씨 ireumssi and 움직씨 umjikssi, though you sometimes do see the latter.

    In North Korea, it looks like addition is 더하기 tŏhagi and subtraction is 덜기 tŏlgi, while they use the same Sino-Korean terms as the South for noun and verb: 명사 名詞 myŏngsa and 동사 動詞 tongsa. While their usage coincides with the South in this set of examples, overall they tend to use more native terms than the South.

    All this is a matter of word choice. In English, it would be like choosing between The Grand Dictionary and The Great Wordbook. Where there are differences between the North and South, by and large the elements themselves are familiar words, but especially when we're talking about technical terms the use of unfamiliar terms can get a bit of getting used to. Imagine that as a mathematician you "own carrier" as a term, and can figure out only from context that it is an "eigenvector".

    This is not just a North-South issue. There are constantly new technical terms being introduced, and language authorities in South Korea tries to standardize them, coordinating with relevant academic communities or industries to establish standard lists of terms. If agreeing on common terms is a challenge in South Korea, imagine what it's like between the North and the South which have had close to zero linguistic contact over more than a half century, during which vast amounts of new terms have been introduced to each.

  37. RP said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 8:43 am

    @Jongseong Park,

    When defining capitalism, you'd have to avoid words such as "enterprise" and "freedom" or "exploitation" and "oppression"… but is it controversial to define it as "an economic system in which the means of production are mainly in private ownership"?

    However, if it proves impossible to agree a common definition, couldn't you do the same as will presumably need to be done with "agassi" and put both definitions in? I realise this is not quite the same situation, as with "capitalism" the two definitions would just be different ways of viewing the same thing. Still, it may be a possible way out.

    In 19th-century Britain there was a movement called "Saxonism" which encouraged the use of words such as "foretell" rather than "predict", "foreword" rather than "preface". There were some coinages, a few of which even caught on, but overall success was limited.

  38. Jongseong Park said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

    @RP, I brought up the definition of capitalism half as a joke, but having looked through a North Korean dictionary it's striking how many definitions to seemingly innocuous words get a political slant. Unfortunately, the search function of the North Korean dictionary doesn't seem to be working, or I would have posted their definition of capitalism.

  39. Jongseong Park said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    To address one of the central issues here, I have no problem with making an effort to keep standard Korean in the North and South from drifting apart too much. Koreans feel that we are part of one language community and are well within our rights to try to keep it that way.

    Germans, Austrians, and German speakers of Switzerland decided they shared a standard language in spite of vast differences in their various dialects. That is why they there is an international body regulating the German language, and if one country decided to reform the language based on its own preferences without consulting others, there would probably be much resistance to it. But for geopolitical reasons, North and South Korean language authorities formed their language policies in the decades following the division of the peninsula as if in their own little cocoons, completely in isolation from what was going on in the other side. And that is to say nothing of the general populations of the North and the South, who had very little idea of what the standard Korean used on the other side was like.

    This is the situation that I think should be remedied. Just like Americans and Brits speak differently but are generally aware of this fact and may even be exposed regularly to the way each others speak, so that few would ever claim that American and British English will diverge as separate languages, I would like there to be more general awareness among Korean speakers of how the standard language is different in the North and South. Just being exposed to the way each others speak would be a start. Apparently smuggled South Korean dramas might be help with this in North Korea, but most South Koreans including myself haven't heard much standard North Korean at all (North Korean refugees in the South often lose Northern features of their speech in order to blend in).

    Many of you may not be very familiar with how language planning works, if you're only familiar with English and other unregulated languages. In South Korea the last big reform of orthography and the standard language was around 1987, and since then it has been mostly incremental reforms. In 2011, for example, words like 맨날 maennal "every day" was accepted as a standard variant of 만날 mannal, 나래 narae "wing" was accepted as literary variant of 날개 nalgae, and 짜장면 jjajangmyeon "noodles with black soybean paste" was accepted as a variant form of 자장면 jajangmyeon. These words/variants have been in widespread use for as long as I remember (since the 1980s), and in the case of 맨날 maennal and 짜장면 jjajangmyeon, they were used virtually to the exclusion of the standard forms. So this was a case of the language authorities finally catching up to reality. This example also illustrates that by and large, language regulation tends to be conservative but is also driven by natural language evolution rather than vice versa.

  40. Eidolon said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 9:02 pm

    There is a forceful cause for why North Korea was especially sensitive to Chinese loanwords over Russian ones: Japanese Imperialism. When the Japanese colonized Korea, one of their primary propaganda vehicles was that they were justified in doing so because Korea has never been culturally and politically independent in the first place – ie Korea has been a cultural and political appendage of China for its entire history. Thus, the Koreans 'lacked their own identity' and so there's no issue with imposing a Japanese one on them. Korean nationalists bitterly and deeply resented this portrayal, and in an effort to establish an independent identity, they actively 'de-sinicized' and strove to create a cultural, political, and ethnic narrative wholly separate from Chinese civilization.

    North Korea, though Communist in theory, is in fact deeply nationalist and virulently anti-Japanese, and so it is logical that they'd attack the Chinese 'contamination' of Korean culture over the Russian one.

  41. Jongseong Park said,

    November 11, 2014 @ 5:31 am

    I don't entirely disagree with Eidolon, but I would emphasize that Korean nationalists were not merely reacting to Japanese insinuations that Korea was a cultural appendage of China, but to the expansion of Sino-Korean actively brought on by the Japanese themselves.

    Japanese colonization led to more use of Sino-Korean than before for the simple reason that colonial authorities preferred things in Chinese characters (shared by the Japanese) than in the Korean alphabet for administrative convenience. A favourite topic of contemporary nationalists is that of place names, which were standardized during Japanese colonization in Sino-Korean form, displacing the earlier native forms in many cases. Bigger towns already had Sino-Korean names given by Koreans, but Japanese colonial administrators extended this to the smaller place names which had remained exclusively native Korean until then.

    In addition, much of the vocabulary of modernity was imported wholesale from Sino-Japanese in this period (the "neo-Sinitic" terms I mentioned in earlier comments) and turned to Sino-Korean.

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