Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Use of foreign words


Whether foreign words should be allowed when using ones native language is an issue that can lead to heated disagreement. This article touches on both the character of the disagreement and how to handle foreign words.

Explanation based on perception of different problems

I suspect that the disagreements are rooted in the noticing of different sets of disadvantages and complications, combined with a tendency to over-generalize and/or attack the wrong enemy. To exemplify this with my own experiences:

  1. Ever since my youth, I have been annoyed at attempts to “purify” languages by replacing imported words (typically English) with native counter-parts; in particular, as the latter were often artificial constructs or very stilted. A good example of this would be “(web-)browser”, which in the mid-nineties was the dominant Swedish word for web-browser—corresponding exactly to the English use, with both the short and long form. Instead of accepting this as a positive addition to the Swedish language, someone somewhere (likely the Swedish Academyw) decided that this was an impurity and that “webbläsare” should be used instead. I note that “web” has been distorted to “webb” to match Swedish pronunciation rules, but that, oddly, the word it self was allowed; that a handy, shorter correspondent to “browser” is not available, because “läsare” would be too ambiguous; and that the original meaning of “läsare” (“reader”) does not match that of “browser”, which has connotations other than just reading—and that match the act of surfing better than a mere “reader” would. (Consider expressions like “browsing a store”, or the original meaning of animals eating buds.)

    This problem is particularly bad in computer related areas: It is e.g. very common that text-books in Swedish and German use made-up words in each of the (many) instances where a Swedish or German software developer would have used the original English word. Looking at my own situation: In theory, I would have to unnecessarily learn three different words for each concept just to be able to communicate with other professionals—except that, luckily, the other professionals also use the English words. (Note that the situation is different in other areas where the words of the individual languages have arisen naturally long ago—yet, even here, it is common that an “international” terminology is introduced to facilitate communication—and is used even between countrymen. Consider e.g. medicine and zoology.)

  2. In more recent years, I have been increasingly annoyed over the way, conversely, existing German words are replaced with English ones for no justifiable reason. Many good examples can be found by just dropping by a German railway station, e.g. that passengers today are no longer offered the opportunity to buy “Karten” at the “Schalter”, but have to buy “Tickets” at the “Counter”—the situation is getting so out of hand that I suspect that many of the elderly have trouble understanding what various signs actually mean...

At a casual glance, my views on the above issues may seem contradictory; however, they are entirely consistent on a higher level: They are both critical towards the unnecessary replacement of an existing word. I suspect that many proponents of the two opposing views of whether to allow foreign words simply see and become obsessed with one of the two issues.

General applicability

The above principle (of someone being in disagreement with one aspect of an issue and mistakenly attacking the issue as a whole) is common in a variety of contexts, both in that incorrect generalizations of opinions are made and that an ungeneralized opinion is expressed in a too generalized manner.

Example of the former: Someone sees that globalized markets have some negative effects for developing countries—and concludes that globalization is evil, without having considered other aspects of the issue, including that globalized markets also bring positive effects for developing countries.

Example of the latter: Someone is robbed by a teenage gang and subsequently makes sweeping statements about teens and criminality—while still being aware that only a small minority of teenagers are criminals. (These statements could be a consequence of anger, carelessness, deliberate rhetoric, ...)

Other reasons for the conflict

Of course, other reasons exist too, including snobbery (in either direction) and laziness (in the case of users of foreign words). In the case of various organizations, e.g. railway companies, it is in all likelihood a wish to sound “cool”, “trendy”, “international”, or some similar customer despising notion.

How to handle foreign words

What then is the correct solution? IMO, a “first come, first served” approached should be used: The first word in use, unless very unsuitable, should remain the official word—irrespective of whether native or foreign. (To specify what “very unsuitable” implies is a much too great task for this page; however, it should be clear that “browser”, as discussed above, does not fall into this category. In contrast, using “window” instead of “fönster”, in the context of a computer, could possibly be a case.)

To ban change entirely, however, is not a plausible alternative: Even without the whole-sale import of foreign words, there will always be some natural flow in the meanings of words and what words are used for what concept. This flow should be kept under control, and the change of language should be slow; but stopping it entirely would likely be both impossible and detrimental. Notably, many of the words considered native today, were once borrowed from other languages. For example, the above “Karten” (singular “Karte”) has its root in the Latin “charta” (and is a cognate of the English “card”).