13 Words That Differ in the North and South Korean Dialects

The two dialects have diverged so much that defectors from North Korea often struggle to get a grasp on the words and phrases used in South Korea.
The dialects of the two countries have been diverging.
The dialects of the two countries have been diverging. / simon2579/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images
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In the nearly eight decades since the division of the Korean peninsula, the dialects of North and South Korea have diverged massively. The reason for the most marked changes can be traced back to 1964, when North Korea’s first Supreme Leader, Kim Il-Sung, decided to remove Chinese, Japanese, and English loanwords from their language, substituting them with native Korean vocabulary. He named this new North Korean dialect the “Cultured Language” and referred to the dialect in South Korea as “Standard Language.”

The two dialects have now transformed to the point that North Korean defectors often struggle with unfamiliar language when arriving in South Korea; it’s said that vocabulary is around 30 to 40 percent different in daily life and up to 60 percent different in professional life. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification regularly publishes a list of commonly confused words to aid new defectors, and there’s even an app, Univoca, that translates South Korean vocabulary into North Korean. Here are just a few of the words that differ between the two dialects.

1. Shampoo

In South Korea, the word for shampoo, 샴푸 (pronounced “syam-pu”), is derived from the English shampoo. In North Korea, however, it’s 머리물비누 (“meo-ri-mul-bi-nu”), which literally means “head water soap.” The word is derived from the native Korean words 머리 (meori, “head” or “hair”) plus‎ 물 (mul, “water”) and‎ 비누 (binu, “soap”).

2. Vegetable

Close up of heads of asparagus
The North and South Korean words for ‘vegetable’ are different. / Jonathan Knowles/DigitalVision/Getty Images

In South Korea, the word for vegetable, 야채 (pronounced “ya-chae”), is derived from the Chinese words 野 (je, “wild”) and 菜 (coi, “vegetable”). The North Korean word for vegetable is 남새 (pronounced “nam-sae”), which is derived from Middle Korean.

3. Juice

As with shampoo, the South Korean word for juice, 주스 (pronounced “ju-seu”), is derived from English. But in North Korea, it’s 단물 (“dan-mul”), “sweet water”; the word is derived from the native Korean words 단 (dan, “sweet”) and‎ 물 (mul, “water”). When used in South Korea, 단물 means “soft water” or can be metaphorically used to mean “the lion’s share.”

4. Practice

The word for practice in South Korea is 연습 (pronounced “yeon-seup”), which is derived from the Chinese term 練習 (lin zaap, “practice”), while in North Korea, it’s 련습 (“ryeon-seup”).

Although these two words seem very similar at first glance, this is actually a very common pronunciation and orthographic difference between the two dialects. In South Korea, it’s common to either omit the letter r (and the “r” sound) in words or replace it with an n, whereas in North Korea, they tend to keep it. Other examples are cold water—냉수 (naengsu) in South Korea versus 랭수 (“raeng-su”) in North Korea—and territory, which is 영토 (yeongto) in South Korea and 령토 (ryeongto) in North Korea.

5. Mask

Surgical face masks in a pile
The word for ‘mask’ in South Korea is derived from English; in North Korea, it’s derived from Native Korean words. / Alicia Llop/Moment/Getty Images

The word for mask in South Korea— 마스크 (pronounced “ma-seu-keu”)—is derived from English; in North Korea, it’s 얼굴가리개 (“eol-gul-ga-ri-gae”), which literally means “face screen.” The term is derived from the native Korean words 얼굴 (eolgul, “face”) and 가리개 (garigae, “screen”). This term is in use in both countries: It usually refers to surgical face masks in North Korea, but in South Korea, it’s typically used for visors or transparent face shields.

6. Mobile phone

In South Korea, people use 휴대폰 (pronounced “hyu-dae-pon”) to refer to their cell phones. The word is derived from the Chinese term 攜帶 (kwai daai, “portable”) and the English word phone. They also use 핸드폰 (“haen-deu-pon”), meaning “hand phone,” which is fully derived from English.

In North Korea, it’s 손전화 (“son-jeon-hwa”), literally meaning “hand telephone.” The term is derived from the native Korean word 손 (son, “hand”) and‎ the Chinese term 電話 (din waa, “telephone”). This loanword was already in common use for landline phones before the language reforms, so it was never replaced with a native Korean alternative.

7. Diet

The word for diet in South Korea—which was derived from English—is 다이어트 (pronounced “da-i-eo-teu”). In North Korea, it’s 살까기 (“sal-kka-gi”), which literally translates to “taking off flesh.” It’s derived from the native Korean words 살 (sal, “flesh”) and 까다 (kkada, “to take off”).

8. Friend

The word for friend in South Korea is 친구 (pronounced “chin-gu”); it’s derived from the Chinese term 親舊 (can gau, “relatives and old friends”). In North Korea, friend is 동무 (“dong-mu”). Originally, 동무 was used across the whole Korean peninsula, but the North Koreans eventually adopted it as the equivalent of the Communist term comrade and so, according to the BBC, it was “subsequently purged from the South Korean vocabulary.”

9. Doughnut

Doughnuts with pink icing on a pink plate sitting on a pink table
In North Korea, the word for ‘doughnut’ literally translates to “ring bread.” / Nadia Palici/500px/Getty Images

Looking to order a doughnut in South Korea? Use 도넛 (pronounced “do-neot”), which is derived from the English word. In North Korea, though, you’d want to use 가락지빵 (“ga-rak-ji-ppang”), literally “ring bread”; it’s derived from the native Korean words 가락지 (garakji, “ring”) and‎ 빵 (ppang, “bread”).

10.  Milk

In South Korea, the word for milk is 우유 (pronounced “u-yu”), taken from the Chinese term 牛乳 (ngaujyu, “cow’s milk”). North Koreans use 소젖 (pronounced “so-jeot”), which literally means “cow milk”—the phrase was created by combining the native Korean words 소 (so, “cow”) and‎ 젖 (jeot, “milk”).

11.  Ice cream

The South Korean word for ice cream, 아이스크림 (pronounced “a-i-seu-keu-rim”), came from English. The North Korean dialect uses 얼음과자 (“eor-eum-gwa-ja”), or “ice confection,” which comes from the native Korean word 얼음 (eoreum, “ice”) and‎ the Japanese 菓 子 (kashi, “confection”); 얼음과자 is sometimes used in South Korea, but it refers to ice lollies or popsicles rather than scoopable ice cream.

12.  Tractor

Field with a tractor on the horizon
The North Korean word for ‘tractor’ is derived from Russian. / Nick Dolding/DigitalVision/Getty Images

The word for tractor in the South Korean dialect, 트랙터 (pronounced “teu-raek-teo”), is derived from the English word. North Koreans use 뜨락또르 (“tteu-rak-tto-reu”), which comes from the Russian word тра́ктор (tráktor). There aren’t many loanwords left in the North Korean dialect, but of the ones that are still widely used, most are taken from Russian. The Soviet Union supported North Korea during the Korean War, and ties between Russia and North Korea have been strong ever since—so Russian influence can be found sprinkled throughout the language.

13.  Country Names

Most names of countries differ between the North and South Korean dialects because South Korean names are typically derived from English, whereas North Korean names are taken from the country’s native name. Here are a few examples:

COUNTRY

SOUTH KOREA

NORTH KOREA

Spain

스페인 (pronounced “seu-pe-in”), derived from English

에스빠냐 (“e-seu-ppa-nya”), derived from the Spanish name, España

Poland

폴란드 (pronounced “pol-land-eu”), derived from English

뽈스까 (“ppol-seu-kka”), derived from the Polish name, Polska

Germany

독일 (pronounced “dog-il”), derived from the Japanese 獨逸 (Doitsu)

도이췰란드 (“do-i-chwil-land-eu”), derived from the German name, Deutschland

Mexico

멕시코 (pronounced “mek-si-ko”), derived from English

메히꼬 (“me-hi-kko”), derived from the Spanish México, where the pronunciation of the letter x is similar to the letter h

Vietnam

베트남 (pronounced “be-teu-nam”), derived from English

윁남 (“wen-nam”), derived from the Vietnamese name, Việt Nam