Similar But Different : Linguistic Distinction Between North and South Korea

Sat, 21 Nov 2020

When we talk about the Korean language, we automatically think of the language commonly used in Korean dramas, films, and songs, which is South Korean. The “Korean” language foreigners generally learn, also refers to the South Korean language. However, did you know that the opposing country, North Korea, uses the same language, yet most citizens of both hardly understand each other?


Following the second world war, the initially united Korea peninsula was divided into two, becoming North and South Korea. The North is known to be one of the most secretive and isolated countries in the world, while the South implements a modern lifestyle following globalization. Citizens of both countries are constantly separated by a heavily armed “demilitarized zone”. 


With over 70 years of separation, it is without a doubt that cultural and lifestyle aspects have undergone a significant change, including the use of the Korean language. Despite speaking the same language, the Korean language, there are distinguishable differences in their way of using the language. In the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang where both countries’ Women’s Ice Hockey team were combined, South Koreans and North Koreans find it difficult to communicate as the Hockey terms in both countries are very much different.


Curious in how distinct they are? Let’s uncover some key differences between the Korean language used by the two countries!




The common dialect in South Korea is a Seoul dialect, where the speakers make use of English loanwords in their vocabularies, since they are more exposed to different cultures outside their country. On the other hand, due to the controlled environment, North Korean citizens are urged to avoid the use of borrowed words and use a rather formal way of speaking, hence, the dialect they generally use is the Pyongyang dialect.




As a result of the difference in dialects, their pronunciation and writing of words slightly differ as well. For instance is the common surname “Lee”, in South Korea, they generally do not pronounce, nor write all the initial ㄹ(r or l), as how North Koreans do. Hence, “Lee” is written as 이, and pronounced as “I” or “Yi”. On the other hand, in North Korea, it is written as 리 and pronounced as ”Ri.” If you watched the K-drama Crash Landing On You, you’ll notice that the main character Ri Jeong Hyeok (리정혁)’s surname is written as 리, and not 이, since he came from North Korea! 


Some other examples of both countries’ pronunciation differences are as follows;


Term : White

North Korea :  희여 (hiyŏ)

South Korea : 희어 (hieo)


Term : Jump

North Korea : 뛰여 (ttwiyŏ)

South Korea : 뛰어 (ttwieo)


Term : Thankful

North Korea : 고마와 (komawa)

South Korea : 고마워 (gomawo)




As mentioned previously, South Koreans use English borrowed words as their language, often known as “Konglish”, meanwhile North Koreans have their own developed terms in Korean for vocabularies that are commonly borrowed from English. For instance, the words ice cream, keyboard, and juice.


Term : Ice Cream

South Korea : 아이스크림 (a-ee-seu-keu-rim)

North Korea : 얼옴보승이 (uh-reum-bo-soong-ee)


Term : Keyboard 

South Korea : 키보드 (ki-bo-deu)

North Korea : 건반 (gun-ban)


Term : Juice

South Korea : 주스 (joo-seu)

North Korea : 과일단물 (kwa-il-dan-mul)


So, Did The Differences Surprise You?


The distinction between the both might as well be perceived as a different language altogether. While it is a lot more common that people learn the South Korean language, it does not close the possibility of learning the one implemented in the North as well! 


Although, since the South Korean language is the one used on a global scale, it would benefit you to start learning it first, and you can do so at LingoTalk, we offer affordable prices for one-one-one courses, personalised to your preferred schedule and study area!


So, see you in class, Lingobuddies!


Korean Language


North Korea

South Korea





North Korean Language

South Korean Language

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