Yanbian and Hamgyŏng
Dialects on a
Blind Date

Northern Exposures // A comedy sketch about blind dating in Yanbian and some good examples Hamgyŏng dialect of North Korean

Lesson 4 // Some Characteristics of Yanbian and Hamgyong Dialects

With a large delegation of North Koreans in South Korea for the Pyeongchang Olympics, there has been a lot of discussion in the news about societal and linguistic differences between the two Koreas. For instance, the northern and southern players on the unified ‘Korea’ women’s hockey team are accustomed to using very different terms on the ice rink. These differences, however, are by no means linguistically insurmountable and are perhaps more of a temporary curiosity than any long-term hindrance to communication. Speculation or fears of eventual linguistic divergence are highly exaggerated.

Korean, like many languages, traditionally has had a range of dialects, many of which still exist in some form or another. These dialects largely differ from each other based on regional characteristics that pre-date the 1945 division of Korea. One can imagine the peninsula divided into quadrants: northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest. Broadly speaking, dialects in the western quadrants share certain characteristics, while those in the eastern quadrants share certain characteristics. Dialects within the northern two quadrants and within the southern two quadrants of the peninsula all share certain characteristics, irrespective of modern political boundaries.

Modern standard Korean in both north and south is primarily based on the language as it is spoken in middle-western Korea, an area that roughly encompasses the Pyongyang-Seoul corridor and includes the former capital of Kaesong. Of course, each of these cities (or sub-populations within each city) retain some degree of their local dialects, which sometimes differ distinctly from each other. The dialect of Korean spoken on Cheju Island is the most distinct due to both isolation and borrowed words from other languages, such as Mongolian. It would be harder for someone in Seoul or Pyongyang to understand a person speaking the native Cheju dialect, than for these northerners and southerners to understand each other, despite more than seven decades of separation between them.

For the most part, differences between these dialects (with the exception of Cheju) are akin to differences between British, American, Australian, and Singaporean English, or, say, to within the British Isles itself. While accents, tone, and some vocabulary may vary, for the most part they are mutually intelligible and differences can easily be explained away in a few seconds. History also tells us that dialects can be combined and hybridized with each other in new and interesting ways. The example of China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region (연변조선족자치주)is an interesting case in point.

Located in China’s northeastern province of Jilin, Yanbian partially borders North Korea’s Hamgyong Province (함경도). Yanbian and Hamgyong share close historic, cultural, and linguistic ties and much of the Korean Chinese (조선족) population of Yanbian have ancestry from regions today located in North Korea. However, since the normalization of relations between South Korea and China in 1992, South Korean cultural influence has (re)entered the region, bringing with it southern Korean phrases and vocabulary.* As a result, the language spoken in Yanbian today share characteristics with both northern and southern Korean, and it makes for an interesting listen.

The following is a Yanbian sketch comedy about a blind-date (소개팅), a cultural modern phenomena, which in the Korean context, originated in modern South Korea. (Here are some rules for blind dates in South Korea.) This phenomena has origins in the traditional matchmaking of Korea and potential romantic introductions are also common in North Korea, where they are simply just known as introductions (소개) or matchmaking (중매).

What follow is a somewhat comedic example of a blind date gone wrong, and perhaps more interesting as unique hybrid of northern and southern culture and language with a little bit of China mixed in too.


So here are some things to look out for in the video.

1. The skit starts with South Korean K-Pop playing in the background, and the man starts his phone conversation with the Chinese way of answering the phone, ‘wei’ (喂), and then immediately switches to Korean. In Yanbian, it is common for Korean Chinese to answer the phone. Many people also tend to recite phone numbers in Chinese, perhaps for clarity’s sake as Sino-Korean numbers are more distinct from each other in Chinese.

2. In the first moments it is also clear that both characters are speaking in the Yanbian dialect. In the man’s Korean speech, you can also immediately hear the shortening of the Korean endings -세요 and -ㅂ니다 to –쇼 and -ㅁ다, respectively. You will hear the same in North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province.

Thus, -마세요 become –마쇼 and 축하합니다 become 축하함다. In their first interaction, the woman says 맛습니다 instead of 맛슴다 and this can also be used in formal questions when she asks him to sit: 빨리 앉겠슴까?

2. Another common dialect marker is the use of 아이 in the place of the negative 안. When the man takes of his shoes, spreads his leg wide, and looks at his socks the woman asks him: ‘Won’t you put your legs together?’ (그 다리가 점 모임 아이 되겠슴까?).

3. Another northern word in the skit is 인차 which is a stand in for 곧. When the woman says she needs to leave:

저 죄송한데 저는 약속 있어서 인차 가봐야 됨다.

4. Yet throughout the skit the characters address each other with as –씨 (Mr., Mrs., Ms.) a term commonly used in South Korea, while in the past Yanbian Koreans would have used the terms동지 / 동무, still used today in North Korea.

Despite the slap-stick nature of the comedy, the skit does take on the issue of urban-rural cultural divides that exist in modern China, South Korea, and North Korea, which at times seem larger than the more apparent political divides across the region. These might be harder to bridge than any linguistic divisions resulting from political division. Perhaps this is something to think about for the future.

Watch the whole video for some moderately comedic linguistic fun!

Northern Exposures is a primer to the language of today’s DPRK and northern Korea. It aims to introduce useful vocabulary, phrases, and grammar relevant to the region and related context to students of the Korean language. It assumes basic knowledge of Korean script.

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