How Korean is Becoming Two Languages

How Korean is Becoming Two Languages

           by Richard Walker                 Last updated on Feb. 27, 2019

An interesting situation involving translation arose between North and South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. After being divided for 70 years by a war that hasn’t formally ended, their respective Women’s Ice Hockey teams were somewhat coerced into playing together as a single team less than a month before the games. 

Since South Koreans use English hockey terms and North Koreans developed Korean equivalents, communication was difficult at first. One major difference is that South Koreans use the word “Pass”, while North Koreans use “yeol lak” (연락) or “communication” instead. The head coach of the joint team actually had to create an English to Korean to North Korean dictionary for hockey terms, so the two groups could communicate. Fortunately, they managed to get along and do better than expected.

It wasn’t always like this. Before they became two countries, a Korean Language Society was formed to define the National Orthography(spelling system) in 1933. This was called Hangeul Matchumbeop Tong-iran (한글 맞춤법 통일안), and was used until 1945. Following the establishment of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) in 1948, their policies regarding language started to diverge. From the 1960s until 2003, the leadership of North Korea created their own language policy based on the soviet model. South Korea continued to follow the 1933 rules and any subsequent amendments.

After over 70 years of separation, it’s estimated that about a third of everyday words used in North and South Korea are different. This is a similar rate of divergence to that of U.S. and British English, which have been separated by an ocean for nearly 250 years. Part of this has to do with a centralized effort by North Korea to regulate the language and the fact that people are prohibited from viewing South Korean media; whereas American T.V. is popular in the U.K. and vice versa. Some of these differences also exist due to factors such as adoption of Japanese and English Loanwords in the South and Russian Loanwords in the North.

Since the languages are becoming increasingly different, a joint association of linguists from both countries was formed to compile a South to North Korean dictionary in the event reunification occurs. This project is called Gyeoremal-keunsajeon (겨레말 큰사전). Although it’s roughly 75% complete, the effort was suspended due to increased tensions from nuclear testing and the closing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the north.

Although we don’t get many requests for North Korean translation, it’s fun to learn about their unique words and grammar. Here are some interesting differences between the two versions of Korean.

Background Info

  • In South Korea, they refer to their language as Hangul whereas in North Korea, it’s known as Joseon-gul. North Koreans use the word “Joseon” as a not-so-subtle way to claim authority over both the north and south, since it was the historical name of the first kingdom of Korea, and the name of the last dynasty that controlled the entire peninsula.

  • There have been different dialects in Korea for thousands of years. Currently in South Korea there are the Seoul and Gyeonggi-do dialect, Gangwon-do in the east, Chuncheon-do in the west, Gyeongsan-do in the southeast, Jeolla-do in the southwest, and even Jeju-do on the southern island.

  • Pyeongyang in North Korea was the original capital of Korea according to legend of Dangun, the Korean foundation myth. It was also the capital of numerous dynasties spanning centuries, including Gojeoseon (2,333 BC??? to 108 BC) and Goguryeo (37 BC to 668 AD) during the three kingdoms period. The dialect of Korean in the north was initially different from what was spoken in the south when the country split.

  • South Korea adopted Japanese and English Loanwords, while the North creates Korean versions and uses Russian Loanwords when necessary. This is to keep the language purely Korean and to follow the dialect of Pyong’an.

  • The tendencies of North Korea often leave westerners baffled. Many of these idiosyncrasies can be explained by its history and culture.

  • The founders of North Korea were considered freedom fighters against Japanese occupation. They think of themselves the true Korea, while they view South Korea as a puppet of the U.S. and Japan.

  • North Koreans strongly reject anything related to capitalism, including goods, which they think are inferior, and even words. Therefore, they reject Japanese and American influence and created Koreanized versions of words.

  • The majority of South Koreans aren’t worried about the North invading. They are more concerned with their hectic daily lives and the effect on the KOSPI and KOSDAQ Stock markets when North Korea does something provocative.

  • North Korea’s weapons, especially their artillery aimed at Seoul, are mostly from the Korean War period, so they are not guaranteed to work. Militarily, their main chance is to bombard Seoul with these weapons and send their million troops who are malnourished and poorly equipped across the border to overwhelm South Korea numerically.

  • North Korea’s playbook is similar to the “carrot and the stick” method. They will threaten military action then give the South hope of reconciliation only to break it off when things are looking up. They have done this numerous times in the past 70 years and it is largely to gain aid and maintain power over the populace. It’s also highly unlikely that they will denuclearize, given how Ukraine and Libya have fared after doing so.

  • As with most things, the truth is far more nuanced and complicated than what is condensed and passed off as news. North Korea is a media black hole making reliable news hard to come by. Also, there is a wide gulf in cultures between the west and east, so understanding events in context is difficult. Therefore, a lot of information on North Korea is inaccurate and sensationalized to increases views (no, North Korea didn’t claim to have discovered unicorns). It’s important to check sources when reading about the country.

Some language differences exist because words with the same form have had their concept changed under the influence of socio-political factors in North Korea.

Divergent meanings due to socio-political factors

The Korean Peninsula is called Hanbando(한반도) in the south, while it is referred to as Joseonbando (조선반도) in the north. As mentioned above, North Koreans use the name “Joseon” to claim authority over both the north and south.

Hanguk jeonjaeng (한국 전쟁) is what South Koreans call the Korean War, but North Koreans call it Choguk’aepangjŏnjaeng(조국해방전쟁) or “Liberation of the Fatherland War”. Again, another reference to that fact that northerners think that the south is occupied by capitalist forces.

South Koreans call elementary school, chodeunghakkyo(초등학교), while North Koreans call it sohakkyo(소학교). Sohakkyo was actually used before the Japanese occupation(1910-1945), when it was changed to 보통학교, which were basically colonial slave training facilities.

Then in 1938, it switched to 심상소학교, and in 1941, 국민학교. After the Korean war, North Korea changed it to 인민학교, or “people’s school”. South Korea wanted to use the same name too, but 국민학교, or “national school”, sounded better to the anti-communist government. The R.O.K. kept using 국민학교 until 1995, when they changed it to 초등학교. North Korea changed the name to 소학교 (small school) in 2002, following the trend of other east Asian countries.

In South Korea, the word for friend is chingu (친구), but in the north it is dongmu, (동무) or “comrade”, which is a soviet concept.

Eobeoi (어버이) for instance means “parents” in South Korea but has been altered to mean the “symbolic title of Kim Il Sung” in the North, which implies that he is the father to everyone in Korea.

Agassi means “girl” or “miss” in the South but it means “slave of feudalism” to Northerners.

Another interesting example is “gungjeon” or “palace” in the South, which means “large palace-like building for social activities” in the North. This is where mass rallies are held by North Koreans.


Character Order

In South Korea, vowels are in this order:

ㅏ ㅐ ㅑ ㅒ ㅓ ㅔ ㅕ ㅖ ㅗ ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅛ ㅜ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟ ㅠ ㅡ ㅢ ㅣ

with consonants in this order:

ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ

In North Korea, vowels are ordered like this:

ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ ㅐ ㅒ ㅔ ㅖ ㅚ ㅟ ㅢ ㅘ ㅝ ㅙ ㅞ

with consonants in this sequence:

ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅆ ㅉ ㅇ

Character Names

Some characters and digraphs have different names in the North and in the South.

Character Usage

Both countries use the same characters, however, in South Korea, the letter ㅌ that represents the letter T is written as ㄷ with a separate horizontal stroke on top. Character organization is different as well.

Additionally, the digraphs and trigraphs in South Korean vowels,ㅔ, ㅖ, ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ, ㅢ  and the consonant digraphs ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ are not used separately and require a ㅇ for vowels and a vowel for consonants respectively. In North Korea, they are used as separate letters.

Some letters and digraphs have different names in the North and South.

Letter South Korean name North Korean name
  기역  기윽 
  디귿  디읃 
  시옷  시읏 
  쌍기역  된기윽 
  쌍디귿  된디읃 
  쌍비읍  된비읍 
  쌍시옷  된시읏 
  쌍지읒  된지읒 


As we touched on earlier, the North Korean language is based on the Pyong’an dialect, while South Korean is based on the Seoul dialect. This leads to some notable divergences. It’s difficult to make generalizations regarding how both languages sound, since there is a large amount of variation within each dialect. Some generalizations are that North Korean sounds more old-fashioned and militant to South Koreans. This is exacerbated by state news announcers in North Korea who sound like they are declaring war, even when they’re reading the weather forecast. Not surprisingly, North Koreans will often lose this accent when living in South Korea. On the other hand, South Korean sounds smoother and weaker to North Koreans.


In the Seoul dialect, ㅈ, ㅊ and ㅉ are usually pronounced with alveolo-palatal affricates [tɕ], [tɕʰ], [tɕ͈]. This means they will sound more like a “ch” sound in English. In the Pyongyang dialect, they are predominantly pronounced with alveolar affricates [ts], [tsʰ], [ts͈]. This means that they sound more like an “s” sound. Also, 지 and 시 can be pronounced without palatalisation as [tsi] and in the Pyongyang dialect, which sound more like “sh” sound.


In Sino-Korean words, sometimes ㄴ and ㄹ letters that come at the beginning of a word are not pronounced or written in the South, but all beginning ㄴ and ㄹ are written in the North. For example, South Koreans typically don’t pronounce and write the initial ㄹ(r/l) and some of the initial ㄴ (n) while they are written and pronounced in North Korea. For example, the surname “Lee” is written as 이 and pronounced as “I” with a short ”i” sound. In North Korea however, it’s written as 리 and pronounced as”Ri.”

Also, the South Korean word 여자, meaning woman, is written as 녀자 in North Korea. But since this pronunciation was mandated in the north during the 1960s, it’s common for older speakers to be unable to pronounce initial ㄴ and ㄹ properly, so they pronounce such words the same way as they do in the South.

Vocabulary Differences

English South Korean North Korean
airport 공항 gonghang 항공역 hanggongyeok
become 되어 (돼) doeeo (dwae) 되여 doeyeo
bloom 피어 (펴) pieo (pyeo) 피여piyeo
boat 배 bae 젓기배 jeotgibae
border (be close to) 국경 (인접하다) gookgyung (injeophada) (린)접(하다) (rin)jeop(hada)
central area 중심부 joongsimbu 중앙부 joongangbu
cold water 냉수 naengsu 랭수 raengsu
corn 옥수수 oksusu 강냉이 gangnaeng-i
count 세어 seeo 세여 seyeo
cow cart 수레 sure 달구지 dalguji
crosswalk 횡단 보도 hwengdan bodo 건늠길 gunnumgil
doughnut 도넛 doneot 가락지빵 garakjibbang
dream 꿈 ggoom 잠나라 jamnara
elementary School 초등학교 chodeunghakkyo 소학교 sohakkyo
entrance 입구 ibgu 나들문 nadulmun
fall 낙하 nakha 락하 rakha
friend 친구 chingu 동무 dongmu
goalkeeper 골키퍼 golkipeo 문지기 munjigi (literally ‘gatekeeper’)
goose 거위 geowi 게사니 gesani
hammer 망치 mangchi 마치 machi 
handbag 핸드백 haendeubaeg 손 가방 son gabang
homeland 본국 bongook 조국 jogook
ice Cream 아이스크림 aisukuream 에스키모/얼음과자 esukimo/eoreumgwaja
jump 뛰어 ttuieo 뛰여 ttuiyeo
Korean Peninsula 한반도 Hanbando 조선반도 Choseonbando
Korean War 한국 전쟁 Hanguk jeonjaeng 조국해방전쟁 Choguk haebangjeonjaeng
lettuce 상추 sangchu 부루 buru
mask 마스크 masuku 얼굴가리개 eolgulgarigae
milk 우유 ooyu 소젖 sojeot
multi-national 다국적 dagookjeok 다민족 daminjok
near 가까워 gakkawo 가까와 gakkawa
past 과거 gwageo 어제날 ojaenal
Poland 폴란드 Pollandeu Eng. Poland 뽈스까 Ppolsukka Pol. Polska
practice 연습 yeonseup 련습 ryeonseup
rainbow 무지개 mujigae 색동다리 saekdongdari
restroom (lavatory) 화장실 hwajangsil 위생실 wisaengshil
sausage 소시지 sosiji 칼파스, 고기순대 kalpasu, gogisundae
scarf 목도리 mogdori 목수건 mogsugeon
stairs 계단 gyedan 디대 didae
stocking 스타킹 seutaking Am. Eng. stocking 스토킹 sutoking Br. Eng. stocking
store 가게 gagae 가가 gaga
take out 내어 naeeo 내여 naeyeo
territory 영토 yeongto 령토 ryeongto
thankful 고마워 gomawo 고마와 gomawa
tractor 트랙터 teuraekteo Eng. tractor 뜨락또르 tturakttoru Rus. трактор (traktor)
vegetable 야채 yachae 남새 namsae
white 희어 hieo 희여 hiyeo
woman 여자 yeoja 녀자 nyeoja


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