By Alek Sigley.
I have a very lovely friend who is a professor of Korean studies in Australia and has come on our trips to North Korea twice.
Her background is Anglo-Australian, but while a teenager she went on Rotary exchange to Daejon in South Korea and learnt Korean there. Afterwards she studied in Yonsei University in Seoul. Now she speaks Korean fluently.
But since it was South Korea where she studied her Korean, the version of Korean she speaks is distinctively South Korean. On her two trips with us she would speak to the local North Koreans in Korean. This for the most part endeared her to them. It opened up possibilities for her to have interesting conversations with some of the people we met who weren’t guides or translators.
But there were a couple of occasions where differences between the languages of North and South Korea caused things to get lost in translation, and even friction. Thus it’s important for students of Korean to be aware of these differences if they intend to speak Korean to people in the DPRK. The anecdotes below should get this point across.
“Toilet” or “Makeup Room”?
It was mealtime and my friend needed to use the toilet. So she raised her hand and called over the waitress, asking her, “where is the toilet?” in South Korean dialect. The problem is that the North and South Korean words for toilet are different, and mean different things in North Korea.
The waitress brought her to an area where there was a mirror and desk for doing up one’s makeup. Rats. Eventually she was able to clarify that she wanted to use the toilet, and was shown where it was. But what explains the confusion?
When she asked the waitress where the toilet was, she used the South Korean word, hwajangshil (화장실; 化粧室). Now hwajang means makeup, and shil means room. In South Korea this compound word means toilet. But in North Korea is literally means a makeup room.
What she should have asked was “where is the wisaengshil?”. Wisaengshil (위생실; 衛生室) is the proper word for “toilet” used in the DPRK. Wisaeng means hygiene or sanitation, and shil means room.
“Comrade Waitress” versus “Hey”
The second anecdote also takes place in a restaurant setting. My friend wants to order some more bottled water. She raises her hand and calls over the waitress using the phrase that is standard in South Korea for such purposes. That phrase is yŏgiyo, or chŏgiyo, which is used to get someone’s attention, literally translated as “hey”.
It’s perfectly fine and considered by no means impolite to use this phrase in South Korea. But in North Korea my friend found that she had attracted an icy glare. The waitress eventually helped her with her request, but it was evident that they thought she was being rude.
Indeed, yŏgiyo and chŏgiyo are considered rude in North Korea when used in such a setting. The proper North Korean method would be to address restaurant staff using their title, and use the phrase chŏptaewon tongmu, or chŏptaewon tongji. This translates literally as “comrade waitress”. Chŏptaewon (접대원; 接待員) is gender neutral but North Korean restaurant staff are almost exclusively female. There are two words for “comrade” in North Korea, thus the two alternative phrases, for the differences between the two see the most recent instalment in this series.
In South Korea, the formal word for waiter or waitress would be chongŏpwon (종업원; 從業員), but its meaning is closer to a more general “employee” in the services sector. Regardless, it’s customary to just call them over using yŏgiyo or chŏgiyo rather than calling their title.
The word chŏptaewon is not used in South Korea. But when I explain this word to my South Korean friends they often say it sounds dodgy. This is because chŏptae can refer to businessmen treating their business partners to dinner and karaoke, which also usually means prostitution too. Thus chŏptae plus the won, meaning a person who does something, sounds something like a prostitute to their ears!
In North Korea, instead of chŏptaewon, one can also use the phrase pongsawon (봉사원; 奉仕員). Pongsa means service. In South Korea it means something closer to volunteer or community in service, but in North Korea it has a more general meaning. Won means a person who does something. Thus pongsawon means “serviceperson”. Thus, pongsawon tongmu, or pongsawon tongji. You can try it at home! But like chŏptaewon, do not use the phrase in the same context (calling over a restaurant employee) in South Korea. In South Korea it would mean something more like “volunteer”, although pongsacha (봉사자; 奉仕者) is more common.
As for why yŏgiyo or chŏgiyo are rude in North Korea, I would say that is because the language is in general more formal in the North. In South Korea yŏgiyo or chŏgiyo can be used when calling over restaurant staff, but not towards one’s professor—it’s still not exactly polite. Also, given that North Korea is socialist, it seems appropriate to accord working persons with a measure of respect and avoid the use of such informal (although not necessarily that rude) vocabulary, and address them by their job titles as a sign of respect.
One final note is that verb endings are often used quite differently between North and South Korea. As my friend also soon discovered, the yo (요) ending most often used in informal public situations involving conversation between strangers in South Korea is considered too informal in North Korea. In North Korea, when out in public and talking to strangers—whether at the shop or post office or asking for directions on the street, one should use the sŭpnida (습니다) verb ending. Doing the same in South Korea would be considered overly stiff and formal however. When I explain this to my South Korean friends they laugh and say it sounds like being in the army or like one is talking to one’s bosses at the company.