Saturday, July 19, 2003

Eugene Volokh has posted several times now, blasting the French for attempting to ban the anglicism "e-mail" from their language (at least as used by the government). What he doesn't touch on is the long history of bitter verbal injustice reflected in this callous action.

The American tradition (and to a lesser extent, the British one) is to welcome immigrant words into the language with open arms, assimilating them into the culture and embracing their innovative creativity and their willingness to do work disdained by native terminology. On the Continent, however, full citizenship in the language is zealously guarded, with the result that tired, insular, antiquated European tongues are by now completely ill-equipped for a dynamic, competitive world.

The stopgap solution adopted in those countries is to allow "guest words" from other languages (most often English) into their own, graciously permitting them to do the jobs that native words shun, but denying them equal status with their native-born peers. These foreign words, some of which have been in the language for generations, are often treated as outcasts, and subject to occasional expulsions or other repressive measures whenever the locals' seething xenophobic resentments reach a boiling point. "E-mail" is only the most recent victim of these ugly purges.

The real result of this mistreatment, of course, is to drive foreign words underground, turning them into an unofficial popular argot that is increasingly alienated from its surrounding society, and often quite hostile to it. In some countries, the very fabric of the language is being rent asunder, as the communities where foreign words are numerous form a local patois practically incomprehensible to "pure native" speakers. If Europe's linguistic authorities don't begin to deal with this terrible problem, they may soon see their beloved languages fracture completely into chaotic, warring dialects.

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