Posted by: rbbadger | May 31, 2009

Constitutional Court ruling on the Korean language

Korea, like a few countries around the world, has not one but two Supreme Courts.  The Supreme Court of Korea, which also oversees the administration of courts throughout the country, is the highest court of appeals for civil and criminal matters.  However, in cases which involve the Constitution, the Constitutional Court gets involved.  Their rulings are final and they may not be appealed.

Korean has a number of dialects.  Unlike in English, where what makes one dialect different from another is usually pronunciation, Korean dialects differ remarkably from each other in terms of vocabulary as well.  The Seoul dialect is the national standard and this is what is taught to the children in school.  An organization of dialect researchers challenged the constitutionality of the law which states that the Seoul dialect is the national standard and that all official documents or textbooks must be written it.  By a 7-2 vote, the Constitutional Court rejected the appeal.  Thus, the Seoul dialect is the sole national standard.

Fortunately, though, all Korean dialects are mostly understandable to speakers of the Seoul dialect, though some of the unfamiliar words that dialect speakers use may be confusing.   Some Koreans do complain that it is difficult to understand people from Busan when they speak the dialect, but nearly everyone complains at how impossible it is to understand people from Jeju-do, an island province which is sort of Korea’s Hawaii.  A Korean friend of mine once went to Jeju to witness the marriage of his brother to a girl from Jeju.  When his brother’s wife family started speaking the Jeju dialect, he simply could not understand them.  Unlike Chinese, Korean dialects (with the exception of the Jeju dialect) are mutually comprehensible.  The distance between Cantonese and Mandarin is incredibly vast in terms of pronunciation.



  1. Christine,

    I tried to reply to your comment, but I accidentally deleted it. Yes, there are a few dialects of Korean, but generally everyone can understand the different dialects except for the Jeju dialect. Language changes over the years. Our native language bears scant resemblance to the language our Viking and Anglo-Saxon ancestors spoke. In fact, there is only one language which remains close to the language of the Vikings and that is Icelandic. Speakers of Icelandic can read the original sagas in their original language without having to resort to translations.

    China, too, has one national standard. Chinese children are taught Putonghua, the dialect of Beijing. However, in places like Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Shanghai, and other places, you’re very likely to hear the dialects still spoken. The only exceptions are Hong Kong and Macau. There, the official language is Cantonese. However, more and more Hong Kong people speak Putonghua, mostly because they are now a part of China and if their job entails dealing with the Mainland, they’ve got to know how to speak it. Fortunately, though, learning another dialect is much easier for them than learning English or another language.

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