Tag Archives: linguistics

The Divide between North and South Korean Players in the Unified Ice Hockey Team: Language

10 days before the Winter Olympic commenced in PyeonChang, South Korea, the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team had its first joint practice. The 38th Parallel had kept the players separated from either side of the Demilitarized Zone until this day, and now they had to overcome the last barrier: one of their languages.

North and South Korean women's ice hockey athletes talk during their training session in Jincheon National Training Centre in Jincheon

Players from North and South Korean women’s ice hockey teams talk during a training session at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, South Korea, on Sunday. | REUTERS

It turns out the biggest language barrier was due to the different system of adapting English ice hockey terms: South Korean team modified their sounds to fit Korean phonology, but North Korean team created new words partially through translation.

[In South Korea] Skating is called “seu-ke-ee-ting” and a “t-push” — a defensive technique by a goalie — is “tee-pu-sh.”

But the North created its own Korean-language words for each move, calling skating “apuro-jee-chee-gee,” while a t-push is a “moonjeegee-eedong,” literally meaning “a move by a gatekeeper.”

Source: Two Koreas’ Olympic ice hockey team faces unexpected challenge: language | The Japan Times

In order to bridge the gap, a list of approximately 70 ice hockey terms, different in North Korean and South Korean, was disseminated to players and coaches.

I once wrote about this difference in a proposal for my MA thesis research on English loanwords in Korean.

This research can potentially serve as a basis for bridging discrepancy between North and South Korean languages, since they have been diverging ever since their division in 1948: a big part of language divergence is treatment of loanwords in each language where North strictly restrain use of loanwords and South is more open to adopting them. For example, pama meori in South Korean for ‘permed hair’ with the English loanword pama versus bokeum meori in North Korean with native Korean word bokeum for ‘fried’.

Experts say nearly half of vocabulary words used in daily conversation in the North and the South are different, and the gap is bigger in professional work places: about 66%. Although the unified team became one despite of the language difference as one of the players testified below, it will still pose a big challenge in the potentially unified country, Corea.

“It was kind of a mess at first because of the different speaking styles and accents, but once I realized their genuineness, we were able to communicate emotionally,”


Korean’s women hockey team captain Ko Hye-in holds a jersey signed by all 35 members of the team. | HanKyoReh

Source: Unified Korean women’s hockey team says a tearful goodbye | HanKyoReh


After all, I am not alone. (“To Speak is To Blunder” by Yiyun Li in The New Yorker)

Original article in The New Yorker

This year, my husband and I made a scheme for reading The New Yorker. This came about to prevent stacking up a whole-year-worth of The New Yorker magazine issues without reading any of them. We pick one article to read from each issue and discuss about it after a week. Meanwhile, one person reads it and passes it onto the other.


Illustration by Jun Cen

This article is from the first issue of Year 2017. To Speak is To Blunder by Yiyun Li. She turns out to be a fiction writer, but this piece is about a personal history.

This picture describes Li’s current state very well. One of her identities is fading away: her identity in Chinese. After she moved to the United States, she started using English. Now she writes in English only, a foreign language to her.

At the beginning of this year, I started two blogs, one in Korean and another in English. The choice of running two blogs came to me naturally like “the switch from one language to another” felt “natural to” Li. I acquired another language, English, and quite often I think in this language. Then why not write in it? Of course, there were more factors under consideration such as the prospective readers of each blog, but most of all, it seemed unfair for me to choose just one language to write my blogs in. I spent 16 years using only Korean and 19 years using Korean and English. I could not abandon either.

Li chose to abandon her native language, Mandarin Chinese on purpose. Or rather she chose to live her life in her new language, English. By thinking in English and especilly remembering in English, she had more control over her memories. If the memories in Chinese from her childhood and youth were forced upon her, the memories in English were chosen by her. Furthermore, she rewrote her Chinese memories using English. In this new version of the memories, some painful elements were erased, and only the nostaligic ones remained.

When a person moves from one country to another (or one environment to another), it is like your soul flies to the new destination, except there is no airplane. You soul is moving through the air without any signage or safety net. You are on your own and need to figure which direction to take. A mother language is tied to the core of one’s soul. It is through the mother language a person first connects to the world around them and shapes their view of it. It is powerful to have a thought in a language. On a flip side,

can you draw a thought in your head without using a language?

An immigrant goes through constant challenges on their identity, and their language plays a big part in it. I often feel split or pulled in two opposite directions of maintaining my Korean identity and adopting American identity. I feel comfortable building relationships with Americans using English, but at the same time I constantly crave chances to connect with Koreans speaking Korean. As much as I am quite aware of my physical and mental states, I am aware of the linguistic dynamics in my heart.

After all, I was not alone.

There might be more people out there like me navigating through the confusing journey of finding one’s own identity as an immigrant (without an actual destination). At least, there is Yiyun Li, who wrote a whole-four-page article about a similar experience as mine on The New Yorker. I thank her for sharing her very intimate and personal story.

‘Flu Theory’ vs ‘Ripe Apple Theory’

Bad Language by Lars-Gunnar Andersson and Peter Trudgill (p.47)

Two theories are suggested for a person’s acquisition of a new word. Here is my summary:

  • Red apple with leaf isolated on white backgroundflu001Flu Theory: We pick up the word used by others and start using it right away, like cathing a flu virus from another person.
  • Ripe Apple Theory: Upon hearing a new word, we go through a lengthy process of considering and evaluating it and reach a decision to use it, like waiting for an apple to ripe.

Andersson and Trudgill continue with their analysis of ‘the role of attitudes and free will in language change.’ They acknowledge that both theories are somewhat true and this role plays a bigger part in language acquisition for adults than for children. That’s why we oftern say kids absorb everything they observe including language.

My Theory: Stone Inscription Theory

stoneAs a teacher of ESL, I thought of my students learning and memorizing new English vocabulary. I also thought of my own experience of learnign foreign languages. I rather liken the process to inscribing on a stone. When you hear a new word a couple of times, it merely makes a scratch on the stone (storage files in your brain). As you hear and see the word more and more, the inscription becomes deeper and deeper. Finally it sticks in your head so you can remember and retrieve it later.

Like all the other studies of human brain activities, finding out how a brain works in inquiring a new word is difficult. However, contemplating different theories about it may help deepen our understanding of it.