Languages of the 2018 Winter Olympics – what you need to know

by OFER TIROSH 21/02/2018

The Winter Olympics is in full swing, and athletes from around the world are enjoying their chance to win gold and glory for their countries up until 25 February. With the slick presentation of the event streamed to homes around the world seemingly effortlessly, in can be easy to forget the vast amount of organisation and preparation that goes into staging the competition. Even a single element – such as the languages used to deliver the Winter Olympics – takes thorough, careful, planning. 

Official Olympic languages

Over 200 nations take part in the Olympic Games, yet the games have just two official languages: English and French. Each Games is also presented in the language (or languages) of the host country, if different from the two official Olympic languages. Every announcement made is in each of these languages. 

However, there’s far more to the delivery of the Winter Olympics than the announcements made in relation to the various competitions. For those attending the events – whether as participants, support staff or simply audience members – translation services are often an essential part of the package. 

Translation at the Winter Olympics

Different teams take different approaches to translation at the Olympic Games. Some attend armed with their own interpreters. Others attempt to learn some of the host country’s language in advance. The US snowboarding team, for example, have key information printed in their jackets. Translations of phrases such as “Which way to the Olympic Village?” have been included in the jackets in order to assist the team in navigating their way around the South Korea Winter Olympics successfully. Currency, time zone and temperature conversions have also been included in order to assist the team. 

Those looking for a thoroughly modern approach have made use of multilingual apps to enjoy the Winter Olympics. The PyeongChang 2018 Official App, for example, is provided in five languages: English, French, Korean, Chinese and Japanese. 

Korean language facts

In terms of the 2018 Winter Olympics, many of those attending have taken the opportunity to learn a few words and phrases in Korean. The Korean language is spoken in both North and South Korea, yet over the past decades the language has evolved differently in the North than in the South. The Korean language in South Korea tends to include words borrowed from English, while in the North any borrowed words tend to be Russian. Political factors are one of the main causes behind this difference, with North Korea actively working to discourage the use of borrowed words. 

There are also variations in the way that the written language is presented. Both North and South Korea use the same alphabet, but there are distinct differences in the way that some vowels and consonants are written. In the North, for example, several are considered to be separate letters, while in the South they are kept together. Conversely, the South tends to keep words separate, while the North often pairs together words that combine to make up a single concept (think “cyber security” versus “cybersecurity”). 

Korean (in both the North and the South) is also interesting in that certain words change depending on who you are addressing. In many countries, more than one form of the word “you” is used in order to convey a greater degree of familiarity or respect. However, Korean takes the concept much further, with different speech levels using entirely different words. Using the wrong word can imply disrespect, meaning that Korean translation services are often essential for those visiting or doing business in Korea. 

A final language fact for those using the Winter Olympics as a chance to further their knowledge of the fascinating Korean language is that many nouns don’t change when they become plural. There are a number of words in English where this applies (sheep and fish are two examples which spring to mind), but the prevalence of this in the Korean language is much greater. Whether the word is single or plural is inferred from the context in which it is used. 

Final thoughts

The Winter Olympics is one of the most unifying events in the world and an unrivalled opportunity to celebrate linguistic diversity. Have you taken the time to pick up a few words of Korean in honour of the 2018 event? Leave a comment to let us know. 

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