Exploring Kim Jong-Il’s death through language

Kim Jong-Il from Team America

Reader “Jonathan”, an old friend, linguist and blog reader, emailed me this article recently.

The article shows how newspaper headlines in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea all announced Kim Jong-Il’s death using different Chinese characters, or Chinese-based words.1 In the photo shown, the top photo is of a news show from Taiwan (台湾), the middle photo is Japan (日本) and the bottom photo is South Korea (韓国). North Korea uses the more archaic name 朝鮮, by the way.

As noted in the excellent article, the Taiwanese news used more indirect, polite words like “passing away” (病逝), or “departed from this world” (去世). Meanwhile mainland China used terms (逝世) to describe Kim Jong-Il’s death as they would use to describe Chairman Mao’s passing, giving more respect to Kim. This makes sense given that China and North Korea are close allies.

Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea were more direct, less polite. In the case of South Korea, newspapers used the term samang (사망, 死亡) which is a Chinese-derived word meaning “demise or death”, rather the more poetic and respectful seogeo (서거, 逝去). The native word, chukda was avoided as well as it simply means “to die” and perhaps is too rude.

In Japan’s case, they also took a middle-route like South Korea. Instead of using the native word like shinu (死ぬ), the went with the bland, formal word shibō (死亡) mostly. Speaking from limited experience in watching Japanese news, usually 死亡 is used when talking about tragedies like fires or train crashes were people have died. It’s just bland and matter of fact, but not particularly respectful either. For example if the Emperor passes away, they might say hōgyo (崩御), which is far more poetic and respectful.

Interestingly, I checked out English-language newspapers and there’s less variation:

  • The BBC simply said “Kim Jong-Il Dead”.
  • The Irish Independent, my favorite paper from Ireland, said “North Korea’s ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il dies on train leaving nuclear nation in consternation” which sounded a little more polite, less blunt.
  • Fox News and Yahoo News both said, “North Korea’s Kim Jong Il Dies at 69

I think this may be more cultural than any limitation of English. Neither the US, nor Britain and Ireland were particularly friendly with North Korea, of course. But also, in my opinion, English tends to express death more directly anyway. I think if a respected US president were to die, the news headlines would be similar. That’s just a guess though.

Anyway, interesting stuff. Thanks Jonathan!

P.S. On a side-note, I often read the blog “Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things“, and I thought the December 19th entry was very clever. 🙂 He also changed the text from “the dear leader likes to look at things” to “the dear leader liked to look at things”.

P.P.S. I love getting suggestions and articles from people. It helps me write about subjects people are genuinely interested in. I can’t promise to do them all, but I certainly try my best. 🙂

1 Chinese characters, or hanja, are used in Korean language very sparingly. Most Koreans I’ve met tell me they know maybe 50-300 characters at most, compared to Japanese which has a bare minimum 2000 characters required for basic fluency (though usually more are required). However, as explained before, a lot of Korean words are inherited from Chinese culture as compound words, or sometimes more recently from the Empire of Japan as Japanese-produced Chinese compound words (e.g. medical words, political words, etc). If you’re curious, Kim Jong-Il’s name in Hanja is 金正日 by the way.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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