Academics try to get North and South Korea to speak same language
When one word has come to mean both 'lady' and 'feudal slave', the task facing academics in compiling a unified dictionary seems daunting
North and South Korea have never found dialogue easy, but academics from both sides now meeting in Pyongyang are trying to steer things in the right direction by at least getting them to speak the same language.
A 25-year effort to produce a unified Korean-language dictionary is, its compilers say, entering the home stretch in its bid to bridge a growing gap in vocabulary, if not ideology.
Last week, a group of South Korean linguists and lexicographers involved in the dictionary project left for their first meeting in North Korea for five years.
"It's important work," said chief editor Han Young-un, who believes a growing divergence in Korean usage risks becoming as big a barrier to eventual North-South unification as the heavily militarised border dividing the peninsula.
Han said 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 added.
After the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of Korea - during which Korean was banned in schools and government - both sides of the newly divided peninsula put a priority on the language and literacy.
But more than six decades of almost total separation have seen their common language split almost as radically as their economies and politics.
Some common words have polarised meanings, such as agassi which means "young lady" in South Korea, but "slave of feudal society" in the North.
The real problem is the far larger number of words that have exclusively entered each country's lexicon and are mutually unintelligible.
Han estimates such differences now extend to one third of the words spoken on the streets of Seoul and Pyongyang, and up to two thirds in business and official settings. "At the moment there is still no problem in basic communication, but the language rift will become unbridgeable if left unchecked," Han said.
The dictionary's target is 330,000 entries and the committee has so far managed to come up with concrete definitions for 55,000 words.
The work was slow at first as the two sides got to know each other, but soon picked up pace and Han said he was confident a 2019 completion target could be met if the committee could go about its work uninterrupted.
Unfortunately, even the peaceful work of lexicography is not immune to the volatile nature of relations between North and South Korea, who have remained technically at war since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean conflict.
One factor behind the divergence in the two versions of Korean was the North's decision to "purify" the language by eliminating the many words of Chinese origin and coining new "native" terms to replace them.
In South Korea, Sino-Korean words still comprise more than half of the vocabulary.
At the same time, the North incorporated Russian loanwords - such as gommuna for "community" - while the South borrowed heavily from English to coin terms like "eye-shopping", meaning browsing.
North Korean defectors such as Park Kun-ha, who fled in 2005, say the prevalence of English loanwords is a major obstacle to adapting to life in the South.
"It's incredibly frustrating. They are everywhere, and it's essentially like learning a foreign language," said Park.