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Where do words come from? The role of language regulators

language regulators

In November 2017, the Global Language Monitor indicated that a new English word is coined every 98 minutes. Therefore, when the sun goes down today there will be about 15 new words in existence that didn’t exist this morning; that’s a lot of words! But what happens in this age of the Internet, when non-English speakers are constantly exposed to English words hot off the press? Who decides how you say ‘Brexit’ or ‘tweet’ or even ‘email’ in other languages?

Firstly, it’s helpful to say that English does not have a language authority or regulator, i.e. no one decides what something should be called, other than the hive mind of English speakers. The closest thing you have to authorities when it comes to the English language are dictionaries, including the two big beasts on either side of the Atlantic - Oxford (OED) and Merriam-Webster - and, to a lesser extent, style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style.

Every year, English dictionaries add new words that reflect the different ways in which language is being used. They tend to take a descriptive and not prescriptive approach, meaning they document how language is used, and not how language should be used. However, this kind of laissez-faire approach is not as common in other languages, with many having governing bodies that rule or advise on how a language should be used and what new concepts and ideas should be called in that language.

And it is indeed language rather than country that is key, as many of the bodies work across multiple countries where the same language is spoken. For example, the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española brings together the language academies or regulators of Spanish speaking countries, including the Spain based Real Academia Española, whose dictionary also lays out the language’s grammar rules. The corresponding body for German, the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung, also draws expertise from across the German speaking world, from Austria to Lichtenstein. Arabic, another language spoken over a range of locations, is likewise covered by the multi-country Academy of the Arabic Language.

Perhaps one of the best known regulatory bodies is the Académie Française, which governs the French language in France and endeavours, sometimes unsuccessfully, to protect French from the invasion of English words. They dedicated 2014 to the “reconquête de la langue française” (the recapture of the French language) and campaign against using updater instead of mettre à jour and mail instead of courier electronique. The Académie’s cousin in Canada, being in closer contact with the Anglosphere, has historically taken an even harsher line on anglicismes. As a product of the bilingual history of Canada, the Office québécois de la langue française also has the power to levy fines on companies that don’t include both French and English on their products. Interestingly, last year they lifted their ban on some English words, meaning cocktails and softball are now acceptable alternatives for coquetels and balle-molle.

So what is the role of these committees, other than keeping their languages “pure”? As seen, one task is to create terminology for their language and come up with ‘official’ translations for terms from other languages that might be needed. For example, the Terminology Committee of Foras na Gaelige – the body for the Irish language – creates 250 - 300 new Irish words a month and have recently had to find translations for terms as diverse as fidget spinner, tweet and hackspace.

Aside from the creation of new vocabulary, these bodies are often also responsible for proposing spelling reforms, which, while intended to simplify and standardise orthography, are not always very popular. For example, German introduced the Rechtschreibreform in the mid-90s, which proved controversial and saw the most unpopular changes reverted in the early 2000s. Reform proved equally tricky for the Nederlandse Taalunie, the body responsible for Dutch in the Netherlands and Belgium, and publishers of the “Green Booklet”, the official orthographic and grammatical reference of the Dutch language. The spelling reforms they introduced in the 2005 version so incensed some papers in the Netherlands that they boycotted it and issued an alternative “White Booklet” competitor. Of course, you can still have spelling reforms and controversy over such matters without bringing a language regulator into it. Just take a look at the agreement signed by Portuguese speaking countries in 1994 to bring their spelling closer together (by moving it closer to Brazilian spelling) and which is still in a sort of orthographic limbo, with the old and the new spellings still in parallel use in Portugal.

So, while language regulators clearly serve a role in updating a language, introducing vocabulary and infusing new life into it, as with everything, there are a lot of politics and power differentials involved, especially for languages spoken across different independent countries. Given the aversion many ‘British’ English speakers have to Americanisms, it is perhaps best that, to distort a phrase of Oscar Wilde’s, we have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, a language regulator.

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