Tag Archives: Korean language

Re-learning your mother tongue in Korea

Read this post from Jason Strother who lives in Seoul. Or listen to the podcast above, which also includes a conversation with Korean-American Heidi Shin who recently made a trip back to Korea with her mom. Both found that they were speaking an antiquated form of the language.

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 (Photo: Jason Strother)

Looking up the word for ice cream on the Univoca app (Photo: Jason 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.

The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology (Photo: Jason Strother)

The Univoca app includes a video explaining South Korean dating terminology (Photo: Jason Strother)

“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.

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.

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.

Editors confer at the offices of the unified Korean dictionary. (Photo courtesy  Han Yong-woo)

Editors confer at the offices of the unified Korean dictionary. (Photo courtesy Han Yong-woo)


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.


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Windows 7 in African languages, unfortunate name translations, and the new Klingon

For the latest podcast, I have five language news stories from the past month:

5. African languages to get their versions of Windows.

Microsoft says by 2011 it will release versions of its new Windows 7 operating system in ten African languages:  Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, kiSwahili and Amharic. It’s a big boost for those languages, as well as for the people who prefer to speak and write in them, rather than English or French.

4. The government of Moldova moves to change the name of the country’s official language.

Most people who live in small eastern European nation of Moldova speak a dialect of Romanian.  But in Moldova, the language is known officially as Moldovan. This is an act of  placation: it placates non-Romanian- speakers in Moldova and, more importantly, in Moscow. Calling the language Romanian is seen by some in the Kremlin as tantamount to a vote for unification with Romania. Russia, of course, doesn’t want that: it views Moldova, a former Soviet republic, as part of its “Near Abroad”.  But Moldova recently elected a pro-Western government. One of its first acts was to change the name of the language on its official website from Moldovan to Romanian. What’s more, the President-elect has declared himself a speaker of Romanian. (He also declared himself “a Romanian.”) That’s in sharp constrast to his  pro-Moscow predecessors, who insisted on translators when they had meetings with Romanian officials.

3. South Korean birthing centers go multilingual.

South Korea doesn’t have much of a history of immigration; very few foreigners have learned Korean, at least with a view to settling there. Now though, there’s a shortage of women, especially in the countryside. So South Korean men have starting marrying women from other Asian countries. And they’re having children.  Most of women speak very little Korean, so doctors and nurses are learning a few words in Chinese, Thai and Tagalog.  That’s just the start of what appears to be quite  an ordeal. Even with Korean speakers in their families, the women and their children have a hard time integrating, linguistically and otherwise,  into Korean society.

2. Unfortunate foreign meanings of baby names and how YOU can protect yourself (should you wish to).

A London-based translation company with an eye for publicity is offering what appears to be a unique service: for about $1,700, it will run a translation check on the name you have chosen for your baby. It will, of course, alert you if that name means say, pickpocket  in Japanese (“Suri”) or shut up in Yoruba (“Kai”). Maybe the celebs, with their surfeit cash and zany name choices will be tempted. For the rest of us, there’s Google Translate. Or we could just call our firstborn, I don’t know, Jessica. Or John.

1. Na’vi, invented for the silver screen, hopes to emulate Klingon.

Klingon’s been in the news a lot recently. There was the (recycled) story of the man who tried to raise his son bilingually — in Klingon, and just to be on safe side, English. Then there’s the story of a new Klingon dictionary in the works. Now, there’s another nod to Klingon. James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar is scheduled to annex and occupy the cinematic world on December 18.  Much of the movie takes place on a planet whose inhabitants are 10 feet tall, have tails and blue skin, etc etc. And they speak their own language. Tolkein created Elvish . Star Trek came up with Klingon. And now Avatar has midwifed Na’vi. Cameron  commissioned University of South California linguist Paul Frommer to dream up a new language. And he did.

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