Word appropriation: To be, or not to be… formalized?

Andrew Cross, Microsoft Research India

English-adapted words, especially around technology use, are increasingly common in other languages. For instance, to tweet in Spanish is often called “tuitear”, taking the original English word and adding a Spanish grammatical ending. Similarly, “le hardware” or “le software” are used in French to describe the rather obvious English-counterparts (for other interesting Franglais phrases, check out an amusing list here). Some words, like “computer”, “bus”, or “phone/mobile” are almost universally understood around the world.

While widespread adoption of these words gives a certain uniformity and intelligibility to global conversations, there are those who lament this trend and think it undermines the original language and therefore culture. Language institutions like the Academie Française or the Real Academia Española regularly wrestle with what words to embrace from other languages, versus promoting more local renderings of the same idea (one example the director of the Real Academia Española gives is his preference to use “auto-photo” instead of “selfie”). One clear goal of defining a unified dictionary of a language as geographically dispersed as Spanish, a majority language in over 20 countries, is not only to protect the language from being infiltrated by outside influence, but also to build an identity and cultural unity for speakers and countries that use the language.

And so emerges a funny paradox that is by no means limited to the human interpretation of “language” – on the one hand you have an organic blend and evolution of language through increasing global travel, business, and media. On the other, you have a need or desire to canonize certain aspects of language both for utility (one needs to be understood), and for preserving a certain culture associated with a language. At one extreme, wholesale adoption of outside languages could lead to the ultimate demise of a language. But at the other extreme, the outright rejection of any word deemed “foreign” undermines the very nature of language dynamics.

Which brings the conversation back to technology. The global world is much more connected which presents more opportunities for languages to interact and evolve. With the near immediacy for interchange available through the internet, one can expect many of these new blends and linguistic evolutions to brew locally, but make their international debut online. How will this debate play out as words like “selfie” or “friend request” or “email” become increasingly common in online forums? Perhaps more importantly for bodies governing the words that are officially part of a language, can (or should) such standardizing efforts keep up with the rapid spread of foreign words in the new era of the internet?

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