Date
18 December 2017
It's not just physical barriers that separate the two Koreas. The two sides just don't speak the same language. Photo: Bloomberg
It's not just physical barriers that separate the two Koreas. The two sides just don't speak the same language. Photo: Bloomberg

You say ‘lady,’ I say ‘feudal slave’

“England and America are two countries separated by a common language” is a witticism commonly attributed to George Bernard Shaw.

Well, quite apart from ideology and governance, the same is true of North and South Korea.

For more than six decades, the Korean language has evolved in a different direction on each side of the Demilitarized Zone. 

Experts estimate that one-third of the words spoken on the streets of Seoul and Pyongyang, and up to two-thirds in business and official settings, are now mutually unintelligible.

Take “agassi,” which means “young lady” in South Korea, but “slave of feudal society” in the North.

As though there were not enough obstacles already to the reunification of the peninsula.

To lower the language barrier, linguists and lexicographers from both sides are meeting in Pyongyang in the latest phase of a 25-year-old effort to produce a unified Korean language dictionary. 

Chief editor Han Young-Un told AFP 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 said.

It didn’t help that North Korea decided to “purify” the language by inventing new words to replace those of Chinese origin. More than half the words in the version of Korean spoken in the South have Chinese ancestry.

North Korea also borrowed many Russian words, like “gommuna” for “community,” while South Koreans created neologisms like “eye-shopping” (browsing), from English loanwords.

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RA/FL

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