Weblogs: Web Accessibility

The barrier of foreign words

Sunday, May 06, 2007

English is a bastardised language. We've borrowed, stolen, corrupted and invented new words throughout history. Every conquest of the British Empire resulted in adding new words to our language - particularly to describe the new riches of conquered lands. William Shakespeare is recognised as adding over 1600 new words to the English language, and estimates suggest that somewhere one to two thirds of English words derive from French.

One universalist in particular, Jack Pickard, would like you to believe that foreign words are easy to spot and do not need a change in language to be marked up for a given piece of text to be accessible. The real world usage of language provides sufficient evidence to demolish that argument. In short, he says WCAG Checkpoint 4.1 (clearly identifying the change of natural language in a document) isn't necessary to remove an impossible barrier to accessibility.

Derivation of words and meaning

The field of etymology keeps track of the history of words, how meaning and usage changes over time, where words came from, and how its spelling changed. For instance, the fruit orange derives from the Sanskrit word naranj (as opposed to the Latin derived word citrus), and passed to Arabic as naranjah. Spanish borrowed the Arabic word and changed it to naranja. The English language subsumed the word as naranj, but corrupted the spelling because of the distaste of words ending in the letter j, and it became a narange, which through metanalysis became an arange and later the initial letter became an o giving us an orange.

Over time words change meaning. In the early fifteenth century the word imp was understood as meaning "a young shoot of a plant", later to mean "a little boy". Today its a word to describe an evil creature. Awful used to mean "deserving of awe", but now means "thoroughly unpleasant".

Modern usage of foreign words

The modern English language is comfortable borrowing phrases from other languages without feeling the need to having its own word. Its become common parlance to use words like, inter alia, "per annum" instead of "through a year", "post mortem" instead of "after death" (and also used to describe a roundup discussion after a game), "pro rate" instead of proportionately. Many of these are known to be foreign words, and thus perhaps because of common usage, there may be little conflict and little ambiguity in meanings.

Pop culture pressure

Its probably on this particular ground that Jack Pickard, as a universalist, claims that not identifying a change of language is not a priority one accessibility barrier. (And is proud as punch of his proof). To bolster his argument, he frequently quotes a known pop-culture reference from Terminator 2, starring body-builder now California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and one of many quotable lines from the movie:

Arnie said Hasta la vista, Baby

Pop culture references are an overwhelming expression. How can one forget a 10 year old boy teaching a learning computer how to be human? It taps into the fear everyone has of computers running the world because they are smarter and faster than humans, and the scene shows how computers lack the human appreciation, particularly in social contexts.

In the case of adopting foreign words, pop-culture feeds into an echo-chamber; of children watching movies, and re-enacting their favourite sequences and characters.

Borrowing words from other languages

Jack Pickard misses the obvious point that there's only one definition currently seen to be attached to the words "Hasta la vista". With its Spanish heritage its been adopted into English in the sixteen years since the movie first aired. But English isn't such a simple language, it has a baggage of history that is a source of confusion if taken in isolation - and there is always the chance that, just as with the word gay, the usage can change over time.

What's more is that the quote itself is endemic of the English language; to incorporate words from other languages, either as phrases or individual words themselves. We already see common Latin words being used in every day language, and since many English words are derived from older generations of languages this creates a grey area where conflicts between older derived words and their modern interpretations are different, and again those may conflict with pop-culture references. At Nefarious Tim likes to say: Word.

Conflict of definition

The Guinness Book of Records records the word "set" as comprising over 50 different definitions. So in English alone, the mere text appearance of a word is insufficient to determine its meaning. Comparing English to other natural languages, and there is a great deal of room for unintentionally offending people, and of course, not being clear on meaning. The main accessibility problem of foreign words isn't that they are foreign, but that they may offer different meaning to what is expected - and that is the impossible barrier, ascertaining the real meaning and intention behind the use of a word.

There's a small but vibrant offshoot (or imp, in middle English) of etymology that's called interlinguistic homograph (or word-warp) which identifies a word in two different languages that mean different things. Why would a word change meaning across languages? There are two reasons, the lesser one is that the word was misunderstood when it entered the English language, the second is that two words ended up independently with the same spelling. In text, without social contextual clues, its the spelling and use of the word within a sentence that suggests which definition should be used.

Would you like some room?

Consider the word room. In English, it means a necessary or available space. In Dutch it means an oily substance that rises to the top of milk (or the English equivalent - cream). So in the question: Would you like some room?, without further context we assume that all the words in that sentence are English.

But if we point out in some way that the last word is in Dutch (perhaps in pronunciation, or the persona asking the question has a known habit of inserting Dutch words when he doesn't know the English equivalent), then the meaning is equally clear that cream is being offered. The meaning is equally disambiguated when the change in language is marked up.

Without contextual clues, the meaning of the above is ambiguous. And so we must rely on the context in which its said. Jack Pickard uses a pop-culture reference to provide the necessary cue - jogging the memory to a particular point in a famous movie to provide the missing information. If only movies were complete representations of real life!

Votre chair est très belle

Its surprising how many common English words have very different meanings in other languages. If you walked into a French furniture dealer and casually mentioned to the saleslady in your best Franglais, Votre chair est très belle, you're likely to be on the receiving end of some colourful French language, sharply slapped and kicked out of the shop. Starting a conversation with a complete stranger with a direct sexual approach is downright rude in modern times. Now if we denoted that the word chair was indeed an English usage of the word, things might not have gone out of hand.

Words do not define themselves

Normally, contextual clues hint as to the real meaning of words. Mannerisms and habit prove vital indications as to the meaning implied. But in text, these social cues disappear, leaving the reader without the necessary information to understand the meaning of the text.

The presence of the word, and used as a defined part of grammar may not be enough to disambiguate its meaning. Jack Pickard makes this mistake in attempting to refute the need for Checkpoint 4.1, by assuming the use of foreign words is obvious so as not to need any clarification.

The identification of a change in language is not just used to vary the pronunciation of the word, its there to refine the actual word being used. Text alone cannot always convey this meaning, especially in this modern world where languages borrow words from others every day.

I'm reminded of the movement in France that seeks to clamp down on the word email. In government offices they enforce the use of the word courriel instead, and sometimes tender contracts are not awarded to companies because they don't use the correct French word in their tenders. That's one way of protecting Jack Pickard's argument, but I prefer to let languages grow to reflect the usage of real people living in the real world.

Perhaps if I give Jack Pickard some pain, he would concede that his pop-culture argument is floundering?

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