Thursday, August 31, 2006

Two Koreas Divided by a Common Language

The International Herald Tribune has a fascinating article on the divergence of the languages spoken in North and South Korea since the country was divided shortly after World War II. The basic problem is the isolation of the two peoples from each other. Combined with the fanatical isolationism and cultural protectionism of the North Korean regime (which had a less fanatical analogue in the South prior to the establishment of consensual government there in the late 1980s), the two societies have been impelled to conduct a controlled experiment in linguistic evolution. (The experiment bears some resemblance, although over a much shorter period of time, to that which lead to the US and Britain becoming, in the words of George Bernard Shaw," two countries divided by a common language.")

The article cites two ways in which the languages have separated. First, in the north, the government has for political reasons constrained the meanings of certain words. The traditional Korean word for "parent" has been reserved in the north for the supreme leader (currently Kim Jong-Il), and is said to mean (with that totalitarian flair that only the North Korean government possesses) "one who gives the people their most valuable political life and blesses them with a love unsurpassed by that of their biological parents." The second is the wide use in the South of foreign, especially English words.

In essence, the Northern regime is engaging in linguistic central planning, while the South has a linguistic free market. As usual, and as I have argued previously in the context of language, the free market will triumph. After reunification (which is likely in the near future) Northerners will speak much more like Southerners than vice versa. And this is because the language of the South is more efficient -- an equivalent amount of information can be expressed with less time and effort. The information in question might be that a company using English in its advertising is cool or that the coming play in the soccer game will be a "corner kick." (To use an example from the article, it is considerably easier to simply transliterate "helicopter" into Korean as in the South than to do what the North Korean government insists on doing, which is to use the Korean for "vehicle that goes straight up after takeoff.")

The article also illustrates the extent to which protected culture is stagnant culture. North Korean dance is apparently little changed from what it was prior to the war. Some South Koreans love to watch the North Korean defectors perform such dances, because for them it is a nostalgic throwback. (One of the most striking things about societies that have abandoned or faced down hard-line communism is the way they romanticize those difficult days. In China, eastern Germany and South Korea there are apparently restaurants or caf├ęs built around Maoist or communist themes, i.e. around the idea that food and service should be awful.) In Hawaii, Japanese-Americans and their temples and businesses still employee Chinese characters of the prewar style, while Japanese themselves now employ characters -- some of which have been simplified -- devised by the Japanese government after the war. Of course, preservation of cultural history is valuable to the extent that any kind of diversity is valuable. But the difference between a vibrant society like the South and a stagnant one like the North is that in the North, archaic culture and totalitarian culture are all the culture there is.

In addition to the utility of the English as a global second language, the tendency of languages to evolve efficiently, and the tenuous nature of the North Korean regime, the article supports one other prediction I have made in the past: the tendency of intellectuals with highly specialized cultural knowledge to resist wherever possible the intrusion of foreign cultural influence. Both governments are apparently working on a joint dictionary to try to preserve the common Korean language. Alas, the South Korean linguists, living in the society where the language has evolved most interestingly, are adamant that the North Koreans be deferred to on matters of linguistic purity. "We negotiate and leave out words with too much of a political problem," said Lee [Jae Kyu], of the South Korean panel of linguists. "We will also leave out many of the foreign words South Koreans have indiscriminately adopted."


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