Korean is virtually two languages, and that’s a big problem for North Korean defectors

The Univoca smartphone app gives users the North Korean versions of South Korean words.

Almost every language comes with an accent its speakers love to mock, and Korean is no exception.

South Koreans enjoy making fun of the North Korean dialect, which sounds quaint or old-fashioned to Southerners. Comedy shows parody the North’s style of pronunciation and make fun of North Korean words that went out of style in the South years ago. And all that spells trouble for North Korean defectors.

“I had a very strong North Korean accent," says 28-year old Lee Song-ju, who defected to South Korea in 2002. “People just kept asking me about my hometown, my background. So whenever I was asked by them, I had to lie.”

Lee says South Koreans would have looked down on him if he'd told the truth. “I wouldn’t have made any friends,” he says. So Lee, like many of the 28,000 other defectors in South Korea, tried to pick up the local accent in a hurry.

Looking up the word for 'ice cream' on the Univoca app
Looking up the word for 'ice cream' on the Univoca appJason Strother
But accent differences are just the start of the linguistic frustration and confusion that many North Koreans feel when they first arrive in the South. An even bigger challenge is learning all the new words South Koreans have acquired in the seven decades since partition, many of them borrowed directly from English.

“There’s been a lot of linguistic change, particularly in the South with the influence of globalization," says Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a refugee support group in Seoul. 

Now some South Korean researchers are trying to help recent arrivals from the North bridge that language gap.

Smartphone App

One way is with a new smartphone app called Univoca, short for "unification vocabulary." It allows users to type in or snap a photo of an unknown word and get a North Korean translation. There’s also a section that gives practical language advice, like how to order a pizza — or an explanation of some dating terminology.

“To create the program’s word bank, we first showed a typical South Korean grammar textbook to a class of teenage defectors who picked out the unfamiliar words," says "Jang Jong-chul of Cheil Worldwide, the firm that created the free app.

The developers also consulted older and highly educated defectors who helped with the South-to-North translations. Univoca’s open-source database has about 3,600 words so far.

The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology.
The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology.Jason Strother
Testing the App

Upon first hearing about the new app, defector Lee Song-ju says he was skeptical about its proficiency. So he gave it a test run around a Seoul shopping plaza, where borrowed English words are everywhere.

With smartphone in hand, Lee walked past several stores, cafes and restaurants, all with signboards or advertisements featuring words he says would have made no sense to him back when he first defected.

The results were hit-and-miss. He stopped in front of an ice cream parlor and typed "ice cream" into his phone, but what appears on the screen didn't seem right. The program suggested the word “aureum-bolsong-ee," which literally means an icy frosting.

“We didn’t use this word when I was in North Korea," he said. “We just say 'ice cream' or 'ice kay-ke,'" the Korean way of pronouncing “cake." Apparently North Korea isn’t so good at keeping English words out after all.

But after entering the word “doughnut," Lee brightened up. “This is correct," he said. “In North Korean, we say 'ka-rak-ji-bang' for doughnuts,"which translates as “ring bread." We asked an illustrator to draw some of the more interesting translations for us. You can check those out in this related story.

After testing out the app in a few more locations, Univoca won over Lee. All the app’s functions are “really useful for North Korean escapees who just arrived here," he said.

Editors confer at the offices of the unified Korean dictionary.
Courtesy of Han Yong-woo

Unified Korean Dictionary

Smartphones aside, there’s a more traditional method Korean linguists are using to confront the North-South language divide.

Han Yong-woo is a South Korean lexicographer who, for the past several years, has been assembling the first unified Korean dictionary. His researchers are meeting with their North Korean counterparts this month in China to identify and translate uncommon words from each side of the peninsula. 

Some South Koreans regard the North Korean vernacular as more “pure” because of its perceived lack of foreign loan words. But Han disagrees, noting there’s no such thing as a pure language.

“All languages are living and growing, including North Korean," he says. “Over the years they’ve borrowed foreign words too, but mainly from Russian and Chinese.”

For instance, Han says, the word “tractor” made its way from English to North Korea via their former Soviet neighbors.  

Political tensions are getting in the way of completing the joint dictionary, but Han hopes the project will be wrapped up in a few more years. And even if no political unification seems likely, he's optimistic the dictionary might help unify the peninsula linguistically instead.

Also in this episode of The World in Words podcast: a conversation with Korean-American Heidi Shin about how she learned Koreanand why it's of limited use in today's South Korea. And here's a story Heidi reported on South Korea's 'mermaid' divers. 

The World in Words podcast is on Facebook and iTunes

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