Regulating Language

12 December 2019

Language has faced an onslaught of changes in the face of globalisation, as influences from across the world fight against local ideals of what a language should be. Language academies—organisations that act as regulatory bodies of different languages—are leading the fight against changes to language they perceive as illegitimate. Massive growth in world trade over the past half-century has opened up similarly large transfers of pop culture and mass media, which has been difficult for many of these academies to push back against. Technological advancements made over this period have been a major source of language change, and the way these regulators have responded to this is especially interesting—the process of coining a new word can be more entertaining than you might think.

I’ll start with a quick comparison between languages with the word “computer”. In Standard Chinese, “computer” is translated as a compound of the word for electricity—diàn— and the word for brain—nǎo, which is pretty straightforward. Standard Chinese is the kind of language where it makes more sense to create compounds rather than try to emulate the pronunciation of an original word, which is something that regulators take into account. No such barriers exist with Japanese, apparently, which takes a much more laissez faire approach: their regulator’s translation is konpyūtā. I’m sure you can see the resemblance. French, which has a notoriously conservative language academy, uses ordinateur as its translation—quite different to English. This becomes a lot funnier once you delve into the etymology of the word “computer” and realise it’s actually derived from French in the first place.

What makes a language regulator “conservative”? If we focus on France’s Académie française for a second, we can see this in two ways. Firstly, it is relatively culturally conservative—its members are elected for life and they have a funny uniform with an intricately embroidered blazer and ceremonial swords. The second way is more closely related with language itself—in 2017, they condemned efforts to make French more inclusive by ending the “masculine prevails over the feminine” rule in the grammatical gender system, saying that doing so would put French in “mortal danger”. Similarly, they avoid borrowing words, particularly English ones, instead preferring to create equivalents based in French. Sometimes they come up with a completely different and unrelated word, as with the “computer” example, but other times it’s more simple. Gratte-ciel, for example, means “skyscraper”, literally—gratte is “scrape,” ciel is “sky”. The irony of the French seeking to avoid anglicisation of their language is that around a third of Modern English’s vocabulary is borrowed from French in the first place. I can see why they’d be wary, I guess.

The role these regulators play in society varies, but often they’re in charge of pretty important things, from basic things like producing dictionaries, to designating children’s names. In Iceland, for example, this means there is an actual list of names that you are permitted to use, and names that you specifically cannot use. I assume some of these would have been outcomes from court disputes, which is brilliant—including names like “Emilia,” “Thor” (though “Hafþor” is okay) and “Moon” (fair enough) among others.

Language academies are often the frontline mediator of globalisation for a given language. Their influence deter- mines how much language contact can occur. Of course, nothing guarantees that words from a foreign language won’t slip past regulators before they have a chance to come up with a decent translation for it, but many academies have enough of a reputation that citizens will listen to them. But their responses to these changes present some interesting questions. How does importing a lot of foreign vocabulary in a short amount of time change a language? Is it just an inevitability of the interconnectedness of the modern world, or does a language lose something when it borrows a word in its original form? From my perspective as an English speaker, which is so often the source of loanwords, I can certainly sympathise with the perspective of those who seek to keep their languages as their own, especially if introducing loanwords is seen by many in a community as a loss of cultural identity. But at the same time, I can’t help but oppose the ideals of language purity that regulators often peddle. A lot of the time, it’s little more than masked attempts to homogenise the way we use language, and as a linguistics student who firmly believes we should seek to describe language rather than prescribe it, that’s something I can’t support.

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