"Bad" borrowings in North Korean

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Last week, the Daily NK (from Seoul) published an article by Kang Mi Jin about "Loanwords frequently appearing in the Rodong Sinmun" (11/25/16), South Korean original here.  Rodong Sinmun is the official newspaper of the North Korean Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea.

A source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on November 21 that the authorities have been delivering public lectures on the need to “actively fight to eradicate the bad habit of using foreign languages, including words of Japanese origin and the language of the puppet regime (South Korea)." However, many have pointed out the increasingly frequent usage of foreign words in the Rodong Sinmun.

Haewon Cho notes:

As written in the article, the North Korean government has tried to eradicate bad habits of language use (e.g., Japanese loanwords, South Korean language, and non-standard expressions that are not listed in the official language dictionary). However, many "bad" expressions are still used in North Korea, including state-run publications. The following excerpt from The Korean Language: Structure, Use and Context, written by Jae Jung Song, may be helpful for understanding borrowings into North Korean from various sources:

Another area in which Standard South Korean and Standard North Korean deviate considerably from each other concerns loanwords. North Korean loanwords (that is, those which have survived North Korea's nativization drive) tend to reflect Russian or Japanese influence and South Korean loanwords English influence, e.g., (Standard South Korean preceding Standard North Korean) khep versus koppu 'cup', thayngkhu versus ttankhu 'tank', and paylensu versus palansu 'balance'.    (p.172).

Here are the five questionable words mentioned in the article (with Yale Romanization):

"gopu (cup)" ‘고뿌 koppwu –> from Japanese’ (컵 khep –> a loan word borrowed from English, used in South Korea)

"zak (zipper)" ‘자크 cakhu –> from Japanese’ (지퍼 ciphe–> a loan word borrowed from English, used in South Korea)

"hama (hammer)" ‘함마 hamma –> from Japanese’ (해머 hayme, a loan word borrowed from English, used in South Korea)

"rice box (lunchbox)" ‘밥곽 papkwak –> used by North Korean people, but not listed in the official North Korean dictionary’ (도시락 tosilak in South Korea)

"rice bowl (rice-washing bowl)" ‘쌀함박 ssalhampak –> used by North Korean people, but not listed in the official North Korean dictionary’ (이남박 inampak in South Korea)

For koppwu, we have the following note in the Wikipedia article on Japanese gairaigo ("loan / borrowed words") that shows how:

cognates or etymologically related words from different languages may be borrowed and sometimes used synonymously or sometimes used distinctly.

The most common basic example is kappu (カップ?, cup (with handle), mug) from English cup versus earlier koppu (コップ?, cup (without handle), tumbler) from Dutch kop or Portuguese copo, where they are used distinctly. A more technical example is sorubitōru (ソルビトール?) (English sorbitol) versus sorubitto (ソルビット?) (German Sorbit), used synonymously.

By chance, the last sentence in the Korean version of the article (missing from the English) mentions the Central Committee, called dang jung-ang 당 중앙, which is simply the Sino-Korean reading of Chinese dǎng zhōngyāng 党中央 (Party Central Committee).

The differences between North Korean and South Korean have in certain respects become so dramatic that some would think of them as two distinct languages:

"Is Korean diverging into two languages?" (11/6/14)

[h.t. Michael Rank; thanks to Jichang Lulu]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 8:15 am

    For some older remarks of NK on borrowings, etc., see:

    "Ban loan words, says North Korea"

    "Some remarks from North Korea on language"

  2. Max said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 4:09 pm

    Is there active borrowing from Japanese today, or were these words already loaned during the Japanese colonial period? (if it's the former, I'm surprised that there is enough Japanese contact in NK; if it's the latter, I'm surprised there were so many English loanwords in Japanese before WWII)

  3. jick said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 4:45 pm

    I believe that "paylensu" should be payllensu (밸런스).

  4. Nathan Hopson said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 6:50 pm

    @Max: The (significant) ethnic NK community in Japan maintains contact and relations with the homeland. I would assume that if there are new borrowings, this is one important route.

  5. David Morris said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 9:42 pm

    SK has a National Institute for the Korean Language, which seeks to “remove incorrect loanwords, foreign languages, and Japanese words and to use correct Korean language”. Everyone ignores it.

  6. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 8:02 am

    A rather mystifying North-Korean loanword is 'wak' 와크 wakeu, a sort of foreign trade license (often resold in the black market). 'Wak' is said to come from a Russian acronym ending in к for комитет 'committee', perhaps something like ОК or ВАК, but I haven't found a plausible (Soviet) source for the loan.

  7. jick said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 10:43 pm

    > SK has a National Institute for the Korean Language (…) Everyone ignores it.

    Only if. Since they have a monopoly on language policy, everyone eventually ends up subject to their whim, or end up having to learn two forms (one that makes sense, and one that is "correct"), however absurdly they butcher our own language. For example:

    (Using Yale Romanization for the convenience of most readers here)

    (1) The name of the delicious "Chinese style" black bean sauce (popularized by Chinese cooks in Korea) is ccacang (짜장), yet they insisted for decades that it should be cacang (자장), even when virtually nobody says that. They recently relented and decided that both are correct forms. (Never mind one of them is clearly incorrect IMO.)

    (2) The standard spelling of the Californian city of San Jose is, inexplicably, sayneceyi (새너제이), even though it violates every transliteration rule they've made themselves. (It would be the logical choice… if the city was called Sanner Jay.) They never provided any explanation. The obvious answer, sanhosey(산호세), is still widely used by most people.

    (3) One day they discovered that the "sound insertion rule" (사잇소리) in spelling was not universally applied: in fact it did not apply for a large collection of compound words, including coytaykap (최대값 maximum value), kkokcicem (꼭지점 vertex), or koyangikwa (고양이과 Felidae). So they did the only obvious thing: they changed the spelling of ALL such words so that the rules should apply universally!

    Even Korean Wikipedia, usually full of spelling Nazis, gave up on the "correct" spelling (koyangitkwa) for Felidae, which is saying something.

  8. Jongseong Park said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 6:18 am


    (1) 자장 jajang is the transliteration of Chinese 炸醬 zhájiàng according to the Loanword Transcription Rules for Chinese. Apart from a small number of exceptions such as 껌 kkeom for 'gum' (which would be 검 geom if the rules were followed), only the forms using the plain consonants (lenis series) are considered standard even if most people pronounce them as tense consonants. So you have 잼 jaem 'jam', 재즈 jaejeu 'jazz', 버스 beoseu 'bus', 빌딩 bilding 'building', etc. as standard even if most people pronounce them as if they are spelled 쨈 jjaem, 째즈 jjaejeu, 뻐쓰 ppeosseu, 삘딩 ppilding. This is not even limited to loanwords. 자르다 jareuda 'to cut', 공짜 gongjja, 세다 seda 'to be strong' etc. are usually pronounced as if written 짜르다/짤르다 jjareuda/jjalleuda, 꽁짜 kkongjja, 쎄다 sseda . So at least they were being consistent when they insisted on 자장 jajang regardless of the usual pronunciation.

    (2) I can't defend 새너제이 Saeneojei for San Jose. Ostensibly, it is a transcription of [ˌsæn.ə.ˈzeɪ], but this is an extreme reduced pronunciation that doesn't appear in most references. Furthermore, it ignores the word boundary in the original. According to more recent internal guidelines, transcriptions for English are supposed to take the original, unreduced forms as the basis whenever there are multiple pronunciations due to regular sound changes and reductions. So we should be taking [ˌsæn.hoʊ.ˈzeɪ] as the original pronunciation, which would give 샌호제이 Saenhojei. I would even prefer 샌호제 Saenhoje because I believe it is best to map English /eɪ/ to 에 e when it corresponds to the spelling 'e' in an open syllable. I have pushed for this numerous times with the National Institute of the Korean Language, but it hasn't been accepted. So San Diego is officially 샌디에이고 Saendieigo, although most people say 샌디에고 Saendiego.

    There is an argument for transcribing at least some Spanish-language toponyms in the U.S. according to the Spanish pronunciations, but this is not the current practice. It wouldn't fly for Los Angeles, for example.

    (3) Careful—사잇소리 saitsori 'sound insertion' is the phenomenon, and 사이시옷 saisiot 'inserted siot' is the orthographic ㅅ siot meant to represent this phenomenon. The issue here is one of spelling.

    최대 값 choedae gap 'maximum value' was originally considered two words, but were added to the standard dictionary in 2008 as a compound word 최댓값 choedaetgap based on the recognition that most people considered it a single word by then. The inserted siot here is regular, but is new to people since it was not officially written as a single word before.

    꼭짓점 kkokjitjeom 'vertex' is more of a mess since it was written as 꼭지점 kkokjijeom in textbooks in contrast to the spelling in the dictionary. It was also in the mid-2000s that they unified to a single spelling. Unfortunately, people were obviously more familiar with the spelling in textbooks rather than the one in the dictionary, so it was disruptive for most people when they went with the dictionary spelling.

    I can't defend 고양잇과 goyang'itgwa 'Felidae'. I think the inserted siot is superfluous before the suffix -과 科, which always becomes tense anyway. The problem with a lot of the inserted siot cases is that the current rules for using them were defined in 1988, but it is more recent that these have been applied to more specialized technical terms, so people are just not used to seeing them with the inserted siot.

    North Koreans have mostly done away with the inserted siot altogether (after briefly experimenting with the apostrophe to mark sound insertion) except in a small number of fossilized cases such as 샛별 saetbyeol 'morning star (Venus)'. But it would be even more disruptive for South Koreans to insist on North Korean spellings such as 치솔 chisol, 이몸 imom, and 바다가 badaga for South Korean 칫솔 chitsol 'toothbrush', 잇몸 inmom 'gingiva (gum)', and 바닷가 badatga 'seashore'.

    There is no easy solution to the inserted siot issue, so I would go easy on the National Institute of the Korean Language for trying to make things regular, even if I don't agree with all their spellings.

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 6:25 am

    @Jichang Lulu:

    와크 wakeu indeed seems to come from ВАК, standing for Высшая аттестационная комиссия (Higher Attestation Commission).

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 8:26 am

    고뿌 koppu for 'cup' (switching to McCune–Reischauer since we're talking about North Korea) is standard North Korean. Even though the form is obviously taken from Japanese コップ koppu, North Korea's Chosŏnmal Taesajŏn (조선말 대사전; 'Great Dictionary of the Korean Language') explains the etymology simply as English 'cup' with no mention of the Japanese, which is understandable given North Korean sensibilities.

    쟈크 chyak'ŭ (n.b. not 자크 chak'ŭ) for 'zipper' appears in the Chosŏnmal Taesajŏn with the etymology given as English 'chuck', again with no mention of the Japanese チャック chakku. This is especially curious since the Japanese term comes from 巾着 (きんちゃく ‎kinchaku, 'Japanese traditional bag'), not from English 'chuck'. I guess North Koreans would rather invent a false etymology than admit to using Japanese loanwords.

  11. jick said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

    (1) I believe that it is historical revisionism to declare jjajang as a Chinese loanword. The particular dish was popularized by Chinese-Korean (hwagyo) restaurateurs, has been immensely popular in Korea for decades, and (as far as I know) has only a loose relation to the original Chinese dish after which it was named.

    In case a language borrows a new word, of course there will be confusion and variant spellings, so in that case it makes sense for an authority to step in and decide the "standard" spelling (and pronunciation). However, you can't just take a word every Korean uses, declare it retrospectively to be a loanword, and force a spelling and sound that no one uses. The only predictable outcome is total confusion, and decades of prescriptivists ranting that we are ALL using our own language wrong, for the crime of calling the dish as it should be rightfully called, jjajang.

    Please note that the official position of the National Institute has not been "Please write it as jajang even though you say jjajang": they were officially at war with the pronunciation as well.

    (3) "Trying to make things regular": that's the problem. Standard spellings for technical terms like 꼭지점, 최대값, or 고양이과 had been very well established for decades. Korean isn't exactly an endangered language spoken in Amazon: we've been doing (western) math and zoology for a century.

    And then this Institute declares a spelling rule that is at variance with actual usage (including journals and college textbooks: we're not talking about street slang here), sits on it for years, realizes that the rule doesn't match reality, and has the nerve to force the rule, because obviously (to them), when a rule doesn't match actual language, it's the language that is at fault.

    So the net result is that instead of one accepted form, these words now have two forms. So much for making the language regular.

  12. jick said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

    (1) By the way, when jajang was a *cause célèbre* of Korean prescipritivists crusading against double consonants, everybody immediately asked, "But what about jjamppong?"

    Jjamppong 짬뽕 (ccamppong in Yale) is another popular dish popular in Chinese restaurants in Korea. The name is from a similar Japanese dish chanpon(?), so if we follow the rules, it should be written janpon 잔폰, I believe. (canpon in Yale)

    The answer? "Oh, jjamppong is different, because it is actually pronounced jjamppong."

    …I still can't believe people could say that with a straight face.

  13. jick said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

    (…actually scratch the "answer" part from my last comment. I'm sure I read it somewhere but I might be misremembering it. Sorry for the confusion.)

    (…seems like I can't edit comments here, can I?)

  14. Jongseong Park said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

    Allow me to keep playing devil's advocate here… 짬뽕 jjamppong really is different in that if the Transcription Rules for Japanese are followed, ちゃんぽん chanpon would have to be written 잔폰 janpon, with an aspirated ㅍ p instead of tense ㅃ pp. Established pronunciations with tense medial consonants standing for voiceless consonants in the Japanese original tend to be treated as exceptions.

    Compare 조끼 jokki 'waistcoat' (from チョッキ chokki), 모찌 mojji 'a type of rice cake' (from 餅, もち mochi), and 잉꼬 ingkko 'budgerigar' (from インコ inko), which would have to be written 좃키 jotki, 모치 mochi, and 인코 inko respectively were the rules to be followed. Since the established pronunciations don't simply correspond to what you would get from the rules plus a plain consonant turning into a tense one, no effort is made to make these obey the rules.

    The choice of basic technical terms in Korean is actually a very complicated subject. The 1st curriculum of South Korea (1954–1963) made a point of adopting pure Korean vocabulary whenever possible, while the 2nd curriculum (1963–1973) brought back Sino-Korean vocabulary in a big way. The current loanword transcription regime was introduced with the 5th curriculum (1987–1992). Some of the most basic technical terms that we take for granted today were only introduced in the 1st curriculum or even in one of the later ones. 꼭지점 kkokjijeom, without the inserted siot, was introduced in the 2nd curriculum. There tends to be an illusion of stability due to the recency effect, because every generation believes that everyone else is familiar with the terms as they learnt it at school. Every once in a while, people find out about all the terms that were changed in the latest curriculum revision and tend to overreact, unaware that such changes have been happening pretty regularly (although there have been some really bad changes recently to be fair, particularly in chemistry).

  15. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 6, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    @Jongseong Park

    Thanks for that! The initialism makes sense, but the connection to the Высшая аттестационная комиссия or VAK would be remarkable. The VAK is a venerable Stalinist institution, charged with conferring the highest academic degrees (notably the DSc or Доктор наук). In Soviet times, its functions included withholding that conferral to political or ethnic undesirables. It still exists in several post-Soviet states, such as Russia, where suspicions exist about its role in the fake degree industry. I don't know if North Korea has or had a similar institution (China, for example, doesn't have an analogous centralised organ).

    At any rate, I haven't seen the name used to refer to a trade-related, rather than academic, institution. Have you spotted any references specifically linking 와크 to VAK?

  16. Jongseong Park said,

    December 6, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

    @Jichang Lulu:

    I don't have a reference, and the only source I could find which gives a Russian etymology (or any etymology at all) is this article, which says:

    김 씨에게는 북한에서 ‘와크(러시아어로 대외교역위원회를 뜻하는 바트에서 나온 것으로 보임)’라고 불리는 해외무역거래허가증이 있다.
    "Mr Kim has an overseas trade transactions permit called 와크 wak'ŭ in North Korea (which seems to be from Russian 바트 pat'ŭ meaning Committee for Foreign Commerce)."

    This is even more confusing. Perhaps 바트 pat'ŭ is a typo for 바크 pak'ŭ, but maybe the Russian original really is ВАТ. Also, Committee for Foreign Commerce seems to have little to do with Высшая аттестационная комиссия (Higher Attestation Commission).

    Other sources simply say that 와크 wak'ŭ means 허가증 hŏgachŭng 'licence permit'. Still others say it means 지표 chip'yo 'indicator, index'. Another opines that it seems to be a combination of the concepts of an overseas trade transactions permit and and trading quotas.

    Now I am much less certain about my earlier assertion, which came from a half-remembered recollection about the word being based on a Russian initialism and having to do with a licence (or attestation). Is there really a Russian term meaning Committee for Foreign Commerce that sounds roughly like it could be the source for 와크 wak'ŭ?

  17. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 7, 2016 @ 2:33 am

    @Jongseong Park

    I had seen the Dong'a Ilbo story. I still can't offer a plausible Soviet initialism I'm afraid.

    I'm glad you bring up 지표 chip'yo, that only adds to the mystery, in two separate ways.

    One is that chip'yo and wak'ǔ often occur in similar contexts and both seem to mean 'foreign trade license', but the relation between them isn't clear. Not just to me: this (page 14 of the pdf) report isn't sure either.

    More on topic if we're talking NK-isms: chip'yo 지표 指標 means 'index', but perhaps what's being used here is its homonym 紙票, which in NK can mean 'banknote' and perhaps refers to some sort of paper slip.

    Perhaps wak'ŭ and chip'yo are rough synonyms, with wak'ŭ originally referring to the organ issuing the permits and chip'yo to their physical, printed embodiment. Wak'ŭ could conceivably be frowned upon as 'foreign' or 'bastardised' or 'broken', while chip'yo could be fit for government use as run-of-the-mill (Sino-)Korean. But this is just speculation.

  18. Jongseong Park said,

    December 7, 2016 @ 9:38 am

    @Jichang Lulu:

    It does look like there is some sort of conflation going on here that leads to wak'ŭ and chip'yo being used as rough synonyms. Good point that chip'yo could be something other than 指標 'index'. North Korea's 조선말대사전 Chosǒnmal Taesajǒn (1992) gives two definitions for 지표 紙票 chip'yo:

    ① 종이로 된 표쪽지. [a slip of paper]
    ② 《종이돈》을 달리 이르던 말. [a word that was used for 'banknote']
    례구: 주머니에서 ~ 몇장을 꺼내서 점포주인에게 주다. [eg. take out a few — from the pocket to give to the store manager]

    South Korean dictionaries also give the first definition (paper slip or ticket), but mark the second definition as an exclusively North Korean usage.

    What is interesting is the past tense in the definition, suggesting that chip'yo is an outdated term for 종이돈 chongidon 'paper money'. The latter is also used in South Korea for 'banknote', but the Sino-Korean term 지폐 紙幣 chip'ye (which doesn't appear in the North Korean dictionary) is more common. If chip'yo for 'banknote' is outdated in the North, it is more plausible that from its first definition it could take on the meaning of a paper slip having to do with a foreign trade permit.

    The North Korean dictionary also has entries for 지표 指標 and 지표 地表, but none of the definitions seem to have anything to do with the sense relating to foreign trade licences.

    [VHM (on 12/23/16): For a summary of Jongseong Park's exchange with Jichang Lulu about the mysterious 와크 wakeu loanword, see the latter's post here.]

  19. anonymous coward said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 4:25 am

    The VAK is a venerable Stalinist institution, charged with conferring the highest academic degrees (notably the DSc or Доктор наук). In Soviet times, its functions included withholding that conferral to political or ethnic undesirables.

    Good Lord, no. It's a government agency that certifies (and makes rules for) thesis committees. It has nothing to do with 'highest academic degrees' and it certainly cannot 'withhold' something from an 'undesirable'; it is mostly concerned with things like proper citation rules and lists of what publications are counted as properly peer-reviewed.

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