▲ Professor Hong Jongseon stressing the importance of the Gyeoremal-keunsajeon. Photographed by Suh Jaehee
If a South Korean said, "Go wash your hands in the sink," to a person who was from the North, the person would not be able to understand where the person was referring to. This situation could occur because the North Korean word for sink is gaesudae. This is just one example that shows how the gap between the language use of South and North Koreans is expanding, therefore stressing the need for the integration of the Korean languages with the effort of people from both countries.
With the belief that the language of an ethnic group is the essence of people, the Joint board of South and North Korea for the compilation of Gyeoremalkeunsajeon has been struggling to create a unified Korean language dictionary named Gyeoremal-keunsajeon since February 20, 2005. Although there have been other efforts to consolidate the Korean language from the South and the North, this is a project that has been agreed upon by both governments, even including an consent from the past North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.
Just as how numerous dialects exist in the same country, there being a gap between the languages of the South and the North is completely natural. However, as the interchange between the two countries has almost been cut off, and since the public does not actually have a chance to communicate with one other, that gap has been growing ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Before that gap becomes too big, and a situation in which Koreans from the South and the North are not able to fully communicate with one another, the effort for the integration of the language must be fully supported.
According to Professor Hong Jongseon (Korean Language and Literature) who is on the board of directors of the Joint Board, one of the biggest differences in language is in loanword orthography. For instance, while South Korea might simply call juice as juice, the North calls it danmul, meaning sweet water. In addition, even the grammatical standards differ between the two countries. For example, while the South has nine parts of speech, the North has eight, stressing the importance for the Gyeoremal-keunsajeon, which will hopefully manage to find a middle ground for these differences.
Specifically, the researchers of the South and the North each take responsibility of gathering the words for Hangeul's 14 consonants. For instance, if the first letter of the Korean alphabet was allocated to the South for them to make a dictionary, the North would be in charge of the next alphabet. After they each complete their draft of the dictionary for each of the letters, they would exchange the documents and make modifications that the two countries could each agree on. In addition, Professor Hong also explained that the members of the Joint board from both countries meet four times every year in Pyongyang to settle issues that had been especially brought forth as discordance in the dictionary compilation process.
However, there is much more to the dictionary than just the fact that it documents how a word is used in both the South and the North. Words in various dialects and those used by overseas Koreans were also studied and recorded in the dictionary. Professor Hong then added that out of approximately 500 thousand words in the official Korean Language Dictionary, Koreans actually use only half of those words. Therefore, the Gyeoremalkeunsajeon excludes these unnecessary words on grounds that they are not considered as standard language and replaces them with words that Koreans use in everyday life. "Every word that Koreans use is our precious language," stressed Professor Hong when asked about the reason for this act.
To sum up, the Gyeoremal-keunsajeon is doing much for the Korean language and the Korean race as a whole in putting the scattered pieces of the language together. Nevertheless, there is still much to do before the completion of the dictionary successfully carries out that ultimate goal. For instance, considering how there has been frequent political conflict between the South and the North, from 2008 to 2013, there has been no meetings between the two countries to discuss issues on the Gyeoremal-keunsajeon. These kinds of political problems also caused the dictionary's original date of completion to be delayed from 2014 to 2019.
The most recent conflict between the two countries on August has postponed its completion even more. Likewise, the unification of the Korean language might be lost forever if the stagnation of the political relationship continues to intervene in the dictionary making process. Therefore, like what Professor Hong had emphasized, "The language of a race should not be influenced by ideologies of the political world."
In a situation where South and North Korea are seemingly walking on thin ice, one might wonder why unification of the Korean language is actually necessary if the entire peninsula is split into two. However, according to Professor Hong, “An atmosphere in which people from both countries are willing to communicate and understand should be created even before the political and economic unification of the South and the North.” Regardless of the political and economic effects of the unification of Korea, people should be aware of the importance of this dictionary.
Even though the country is in a state of division, people being able to fully comprehend the emotions of one another with the same language can play a large part in bringing the unification of countries closer. Students should especially be conscious that these outcomes do not just come without difficulty, and should actively support the compilation process. One day, if the unification of South and North Korea does indeed occur, Koreans should at least be able to talk to each other as they are of one race, using the same language, living on the same land, and that is why the Gyeoremal-keunsajeon is struggling to make its way into the world.