Korean Language Blog

North and South Korean Language Split: Can They Understand Each Other? Posted by on Nov 6, 2015 in Culture, Korean Language

Over sixty years after North Korea and South Korea agreed to a ceasefire (along with the United States and United Nations participants), the two countries have taken different political pasts, clearly.  But this has transferred into the linguistic fear as well, with North Korean defectors struggling to adjust to South Korean hangul.  Imagine trying to adjust to your central tongue.  But those diverging political pasts, especially with the growth of Western influence and globalization, also are reasons why the two countries have major differences.  And the lack of outside engagement plays a large role as to why the two countries have a hard time understanding each other.

In short, people from North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) and South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) can understand each other.   But the dialects, or saturi 사투리, are much different–the way they are in different parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and North Ireland, and between the American Deep South with, well, the rest of the US.  And North Koreans will have trouble understanding Western words that have crept into the South Korean version.  Furthermore, North Koreans have a stress on certain constants and vowels, producing what South Koreans feel as an archaic and unsophisticated version of the language.  However, these analyses are usually not purely linguistic arguments, just like the differences didn’t result strictly due to regions, but rather more likely from linguistic norms derived from cultural and social adaptation (or lack thereof).

As globalization moved in East Asia, the ROK adopted words such as ice cream, internet (and many other computer related words like keyboard), and service 서비스 (meaning “complimentary”), to name a few.  But in the DPRK, this has not been the case.  From a purely linguistic standpoint, it would be like traveling back in time nearly a century and trying to have a conversation.  (However, as you will see below, you can talk about modern day words; it would, though, be an entirely different word.)

From the North Korean style, they believe they speak a purer form of the language, much like your great-grandparents would tell you had you traveled back in time.  For a language which has a lot of pop culture, K-drama, and hierarchical aspects, as well as heavy on tones, a North Korean speaking in South Korea can lead to a lot of ridicule and a major culture shock, requiring a crash course on their own native language upon arrival in the ROK.

One example is the South Korean word for lotion (로션), a straight adoption of the English word.  In North Korea, it is 살결물, or skin water.  This is a microcosm of how different the most reclusive and secluded country is compared to a the G20 nation, highlighting growing differences between the communist DPRK and the capitalistic ROK from a linguistic point of view.

The differences in pronunciation and spelling are usually a difference between a ROK Westernization and those same products or ideas literally translated from the idea into the DPRK version.  There is definitely a political motivation.  Here are a few more examples of the growing gaps between the two:

  • ROK: hangul 한글; DPRK: 조슨글 Joseon-gul, named after the Joseon Kingdom/dysnasty, the last in Korea
  • ROK: juice 주스; DPRK: 단물 danmul (sweet water)
  • ROK: surname Lee 이; DPRK: 리 Ri
  • ROK: seat belt 안전 벨트 ahn-jeon belt; DRPK:  결상끈 geol-san ggeun, or slip-on belt
  • ROK: caramel 캐러멜; DPRK: 기름 사탕 gi-reum-sa-tang, or oily candy.

This article, if comprehensive, would go on and on.  So, I apologize for the source, but this Wikipedia page also explains the very detailed differences.  You can also check out the different sounds here.  Additionally there is a Korean app is bringing more awareness and working as a game changing app which works as a joint dictionary/translator for those who are struggling to adapt or wanting to understand.  Click on the video below to see the some more differences and how innovators are looking to combat the language problem on the peninsula.


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About the Author: Tony Kitchen

Tony is a seasoned traveler who lived in Busan, South Korea from 2008-2012. While living in South Korea, he traveled extensively around Asia. After leaving, he spent 100 days traveling from Russia to Germany and many places in between. Currently, he lives and works in Budapest, Hungary, focusing on South Korean and East Asian business. Tony has an M.A. in International Relations with a specific focus on South Korean-U.S. relations and North Korea.