Language reflects the two Koreas’ different cultural and social systems. In North Korea there is no bank nor tax, and the term colleague refers only to fellow revolutionaries. Launched in 2005, the dictionary project was halted in 2016.
Seoul (AsiaNews) – After almost 70 years of separation, conflict and tensions have led the two Koreas into opposite directions, not only at the level of the people but also language.
A recent article by the Korea Herald analyses how the Korean language has evolved over the decades, following the different paths taken by the cultural and social systems of the two Koreas.
Linguistic differences are such that collaboration, for example, between North and South Korean doctors and architects is difficult. The problem came to the fore during the recent Olympics athletes when from the two sides came together in the joint Korean women hockey team.
To address the issue, in February 2005 the two Koreas set up a joint committee for the compilation of a unified dictionary, the Gyeoremal-keunsajeon to overcome the linguistic gap.
Meetings were suspended several times and the project was brought to a halt in 2016, but they could start again in the new climate of détente.
The inter-Korean committee, which consists of lexicographers and linguists from the two sides, has held 25 meetings since the project kicked off. Their goal is to select about 330,000 entries for the Gyeoremal-keunsajeon.
Up to now, the committee has selected 210,000 entries found in both or either South or North Korea’s existing dictionaries.
The remaining words, about 70,000, were newly collected from written documents and regional language surveys conducted by the lexicographers.
“The differences in the language come largely from vocabularies that have developed to reflect the lifestyles of the two Koreas,” Han Yong-un, the chief of the compilation department in South Korea’s committee, told The Korea Herald.
Only about 6 words out of 10 are mutually understood by people in the two Koreas. “Once, we (the committee members) were deciding on the different categories of taxes to include in the dictionary. But because the tax system does not exist in North Korea, their lexicographers asked us, ‘What do you live with after paying off so much tax to the country?’” The problem is that the concept of "eunhaeng" – bank – does not exist in North Korea.
Along with the different vocabularies, linguistic differences also come from political factors.
In the South Korean dictionary, the term “dongmu,” is defined as “colleague, close acquaintance,” but in the North Korean dictionary, it refers to as “a revolutionary colleague who fights together under the same ideology.”
The committee members also have to decide on a unified orthography. In fact, orthographic differences include word spacing and varying pronunciations of initial syllables.
Whilst vocabularies differ, it is users who decide the standard forms of the terms. However, for Han, it is important that the choice of rules not be seen as a “power game”.
“When we reported the results of our meetings, people would talk about how many more South Korean rules were accepted compared to the North Korean rules,” Han said. “It is not a power game. We strictly follow linguistic rules and development of the language to see what would be the most efficient forms to transfer to later generations.”
In line with the détente, South Korea’s joint compilation committee wants to see the project resume.
“We have not yet heard from the North to restart the project. We sent a request for a working-level consultation via fax mail, and are waiting for the response,” said Kim Hak-mook, the committee’s secretary-general.
The South Korean committee is working to extend its project operating period for another five years, as it is currently set to end in April 2019.
The publication of the final version of the dictionary is expected take about six more years as it has to go through proofreading and copy editing.