You say "lady" I say "feudal slave": Korea's language divide

You say "lady" I say "feudal slave": Korea's language divide
This picture taken on October 28, 2014 shows Han Yong-Un, a South Korean doctor of literature, with South (R) and North (L) Korean dictionaries at his office in Seoul. North and South Korea have never found dialogue easy, but academics from both sides currently meeting in Pyongyang are trying to steer things in the right direction by at least getting them to speak the same language.

SEOUL - North and South Korea have never found dialogue easy, but academics from both sides currently meeting in Pyongyang are trying to steer things in the right direction by at least getting them to speak the same language.

A 25-year old effort to produce a unified Korean language dictionary is, its compilers say, entering the home stretch in its bid to bridge a growing gap in vocabulary, if not ideology.

Last week, a group of South Korean linguists and lexicographers involved in the dictionary project left for their first meeting in North Korea for five years.

"It's important work," said chief editor Han Young-Un who believes a growing divergence in Korean usage risks becoming as big a barrier to eventual North-South unification as the heavily militarised border dividing the peninsula.

Speaking to AFP before he left for Pyongyang, Han said the problem was especially pronounced in the language used by professionals like doctors and lawyers.

"It's so marked that architects from each side would probably have difficulty building a house together," he added.

After the 1910-45 occupation of Korea -- during which Korean was banned in schools and government -- both sides of the newly divided peninsula put a priority on the Korean language and literacy.

But more than six decades of almost total separation have seen their common language split almost as radically as their economies and politics.

Some common words have polarised meanings, such as "agassi" which means "young lady" in South Korea, but "slave of feudal society" in the North.

The real problem is the far larger number of words that have exclusively entered each country's lexicon and are mutually unintelligible.

Han estimates such differences now extend to one third of the words spoken on the streets of Seoul and Pyongyang, and up to two thirds in business and official settings.

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