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Set in their ways or progressive: How do languages move with the times?

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

If translation is a form of art, as we often like to say here at Launch in Translation, then each language is the clay we mould to create our work. But how malleable is the linguistic clay? At first glance, it is very tempting to see languages as made of a fixed set of grammar rules and of clearly defined words. After all, without those two core components, how would any language make sense and allow people to communicate? And yet, languages may not be so, well, literal… For if they were, why would dictionaries need to be regularly updated? And why would certain countries like France or Spain have established Academies to decide on linguistic matters?

Let’s take a deeper look at the different ways in which languages may turn out to be mutating objects after all.

A whole world of new words

Social Media New Terminology

As any Subject Matter Expert will tell you, the most obvious and common way in which languages keep evolving may well be the appearance of new terminology. In our tech-savvy world, between the Web and social media, each invention needs a name and existing words take on new meanings to reflect our modern ways of life: we tweet, we google, we tag, we swipe our hearts away… And over the past year, with the COVID-19 pandemic turning our world upside down, our “new normal” has been met with many new words, from “face coverings” to “social distancing”.

Our worthy word trends

Choose your words in Scrabble

Our vocabulary reflects our evolving interests and concerns. If, like me, you’re old enough, you’ll remember that well before climate change became a hot topic (pun intended…), we used to talk only of the environment and ecology. And while I’m still getting my head around how to diminish my carbon footprint and promote sustainability, I’m told a new endeavour in that worthy effort to protect our planet is to be “climate-neutral”. Social issues see the same language developments: “Mental health” was never talked about at a time when the expression was yet to be coined, and the Black Live Matters movement has encouraged us all again to “stay woke”.

With phrase trends come power and influence. A fact that is clearly visible from hashtags going viral on social media, though the phenomenon is hardly new. Many taglines and slogans have had a similar influence in the past, including famous quotes from films and TV shows. Think of Paris Hilton and her “That’s hot”: The hotel heiress may have been mocked or sneered at for coining the phrase, yet, it could be argued that she made it, well, hot. At least for a while anyway: Such faves have a tendency to become as quickly outdated as they were fashionable.

Syntax into action

Though perhaps to a lesser extent, grammar and syntax are not exempt from moving with the linguistic flow. Let’s take again the example of “we google”: The brand name has morphed into an action verb to depict a common habit we are all accustomed to. It’s not so much that the meaning of the word has changed as its grammatical nature. We also play with grammar prefixes and suffixes to adapt and invent new words: This is how a photo can these days be “instagramm-able”.

This practise can even work across languages: I remember well the 2007 French presidential campaign when, rather than simply focusing on their political programmes, the two younger candidates promoted their personalities and private lives more than ever before. Breaking with tradition, the intense media coverage was said to be inspired by Anglo-Saxon practices, in particular from the United States. So, it should come as no surprise that the phenomenon took on a half-English, half-French name: Whether spelled “peopolisation”, “pipolisation” or “peoplelisation”, the term is a mix of “people” (in reference to people magazines) and the common suffix -isation that can be added to words ending with “l”.

The not-so-neutral case of grammar

Such new words also require grammatical configuration, especially when they are coming from another language. More recently, the French Academy debated the grammatical genders of “coronavirus” and “COVID-19”. Given that “virus” is a masculine word in French, the matter was easily resolved for “coronavirus”. However, “COVID-19” was a little trickier, as it is an English acronym: “corona virus disease”. Since “disease” is the central word of the phrase and the corresponding French word “maladie” is feminine, the Académie Française made the decision that “COVID-19” was also a feminine word. This is why, between “le coronavirus” and “la COVID-19”, the pandemic is a true transgender.

The linguistic case for gender fluidity

Male and Female Symbols

All joking aside, the question of grammatical genders can also have a social aspect to it. Long before the #MeToo movement, French words for jobs traditionally held by men did not always have a feminine form. In fact, giving a feminine form to some of those professions could at times be tricky, in particular when the masculine form of the word already ended in -e, the traditional mark of a feminine word. Or when adding an -e would change the meaning of the word: “médecin” is a male medical doctor, but “médecine” is a science, not a female medical doctor. The problem was easily solved through definite and indefinite articles: These days, depending on your sex, you can be either “le ministre” or “la ministre”, “le juge” or “la juge”, and “le médecin” or “la médecin”.

And if you think those considerations apply only for languages with gender cases, think again. Even English can be affected: More and more “actresses”, for example, now expect to be called “actors”. Of course, it could be argued that the word “actress” carried with it connotations of “women of easy virtue” from centuries past, but I also believe that women today expect to receive the same linguistic treatment as men, whatever that treatment may be. In French, where the vast majority of jobs have a separate word for each gender, a glass ceiling was broken by giving a feminine form to more high-end, traditional male positions. On the other end of the spectrum, in English, where the norm is to have the same word for both male and female, the push was to remove words that made a distinction between men and women. In other words, social progress is signified through the bespoke adaptation of established grammar rules. It is only telling that in the current movement for greater inclusion, a platform should exist to flag gender bias in recruitment documentation in English.

In the end, any language is a battlefield between the old guard and the young trailblazers. Or to quote the more refined words of Chomsky: “Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”

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