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English assaults on language bastions

English assaults on language bastions
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First Published: Mon, Mar 21 2011. 08 32 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Mar 21 2011. 08 32 PM IST
B for Bombay! How often we have used this jingle, to help someone spell a word. That had to stop after the people of the city decided that its name should be restored to the pristine “Mumbai”, in place of its anglicized form. We should switch to M for Mumbai perhaps.
There is a close parallel to this from Russia. The government of Georgia wrote to Japan protesting against the latter’s use of the word Gurujiya as the name of the republic. This is the Russian name for the region, adapted in Japanese. Georgia’s foreign minister demanded that the name should be written Joujia, free from any Russian taint.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia was thrown open to Western culture, and this led to the adoption of many foreign words. On the streets you could see “djeeps” and “djeans”; entrepreneurs called themselves “biznesmen” and discussed “menedgment”. In 2003, a new Bill was passed to protect the language. In this order, English words were put together with slang and swear words. Anyone caught using these was to face punishment at a correction centre.
Three months ago, China launched a campaign to contain the spread of English. On 22 December, the General Administration of Press and Publication imposed a ban on the use of English words by the media and publishing houses. Even website content was brought under its purview. Such usage can “sully the purity of the Chinese language” and disrupt the “harmonious and healthy language and cultural environment”. When a foreign word has to be used, the writer must provide a translation or an explanation. One of the critics of the measure said that the next logical step would be to ban the use of Arabic numerals.
In May last year, Iran banned the use of foreign words in commerce, cinema and advertising. In 2007, the government had already banned the use of the Latin script in hoardings. The Internet and mobile phones were seen to be the instruments of “cultural oppression”. The Persian Academy has compiled a list of 2000 Persian alternatives for foreign words. One example will suffice: pizzas will be known as “elastic loaves”.
It is not always English that is in the dock. There can be conflicts between languages in the same nation. Tamil is the first officially recognized classical language of India, and there is a strong movement for the preservation of its purity. Words from the Sanskrit-derived languages of the north are resisted. Likewise, there is a movement to oppose the use of English mixed with Tamil. But half an hour spent watching a regional channel will dispel any idea that the movement is making any headway. There is a propensity for naming Tamil movies in English: Jeans, Citizen, Climax, Run and Boys are examples.
Any discussion of the way English spreads its tentacles over the world inevitably leads to the work of the Academie Francaise. Under it, there are several committees and offices that keep track of foreign words infiltrating into French. These bodies have to find equivalent French expressions that will be introduced before the foreign word takes root. This is not an easy task, as many of these terms, such as “cloud computing”, are related to new technology. A column in the Wall Street Journal reveals how challenging the task is: it says “The French get lost in the clouds over a new term in the Internet age.” The official bodies have successfully replaced some of the words. Their prize example is courriel, courrier electronique, for email. World Wide Web is to be “toile d’arragnee mondiale”, “arragnee” being French for spider. The columnist says that finding a suitable equivalent for some words can be a “linguistic odyssey” taking years. After prolonged deliberations, the committees and volunteers sent “cloud computing” back to the drawing board.
I am curious to know whether India’s tea giant has changed its name to Mumbai Myanmar Trading Corporation!
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column
Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Mar 21 2011. 08 32 PM IST