38. POLLANDEU OR PPOLSŬKKA? LOANWORDS AND THE ‘PURITY’ OF LANGUAGE
"Change affects the way people speak as inevitably as it does any other area of human life. Language purists do not welcome it, but they can do very little about it." So explained linguist David Crystal in his 2006 book How Language Works, yet the concept of 'purity' remains popular in just about every language. Almost inevitably, the debate centres on loanwords, the words borrowed from another language: do they make a language 'weaker' and more similar to the loaning language, which in turn replaces the loanee? The answer is a fairly resounding non.
My jean is my boyfriend
When it comes to language purism, the majority of academics believe that loanwords pose no threat simply because languages are far more than their words. Phonetics and grammar play just as strong a role in making a language unique, but these are very slow to change and force vocabulary to play to their rules rather than vice-versa. Mandarin is particularly famous for the transliteration of foreign words and names into sounds already used in the language, hence - if you'll allow me to transliterate back into English - how McDonalds became 'Maidanglao' and Hitler became the unintentionally fitting 'Shitele'.
Simple observation of the world around us shows that languages can continue to exist side by side for millennia without destroying one another; language extinction more commonly happens due to concerted efforts by conquering powers rather than simple contact. Still, the fear remains: as The Guardian recently reported, officials in France have banned English loanwords related to gaming, requesting that words such as 'pro-gamer' and 'streamer' be replaced with French alternatives like 'joueur professionnel' and the hefty 'joueur-animateur en direct'. This is hardly surprisingly as France has mandated the use of French in government publications and almost all commercial contexts (such as advertising) since 1994 - with mixed results.
Pollandeu and Ppolsŭkka
France isn't the only place to have tried out legal mechanisms for removing words of foreign origin from their language, some of which have had significantly more success. In 1932, as Turkey's first president following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created the Turkish Language Association with the primary goal of purging words of Arabic or Persian origin. Several hundred were banned from the press and subsequently fell out of use, leading to a language gulf between the old and young. As an unintended side-effect, most of Atatürk's speeches need to be translated into modern Turkish to be understood.
Attempts to 'purify' a language can even cause a long-term increase in heterogeneity within it - the process by which dialects eventually become languages of their own. The popularity of language purism in Korea has led to efforts to remove words of Chinese or Japanese origin, but how words are replaced varies between North and South Korea. Of course, it would be disingenuous to suggest that this is all down to removing words as new loanwords also have their part to play. The word 'Poland', for instance, has entered Korean as 'Pollandeu' in South Korea and 'Ppolsŭkka' in North Korea due to their tendencies to borrow from English and Russian respectively. This had real consequences when the Korean women's hockey teams decided to unite for the 2018 Winter Olympics only to find that they used almost entirely different terms for tactics and equipment.
Purist efforts in France and elsewhere are fundamentally misguided in the belief that languages are ever 'pure', that they remain static and separate throughout their evolution. For a final case in point, look no further than English, which takes some 30% of its vocabulary from French. Shall we kiss goodbye to 'déjà-vu', 'avant-garde' and 'café'? How about the less obvious examples of 'crown', 'marriage', 'nice' and 'soup'? And it's not just French - while we're at it, we could also take out 'graffiti' (Italian), 'lemon' (Arabic) and 'banana' (Wolof). If we were to dispense with 'graffiti', how on earth would we describe the art of Banksy? If these words are impure, we have to accept the farcical idea that modern German is closer to pure English than modern English is. On the subject of language purism, I agree with the novelist Thomas Hardy: "Whether in grammar or vocabulary, purism almost always means ignorance."