Banning foreign words

On July 23rd, 1929, the fascist Italian government on Benito Mussolini officially banned the use of foreign words in Italy. The aim was to “Italianize” the culture and purge it from foreign influences. Actually, most people then spoke regional languages there, and when Mussolini had come to power in 1922, only 12% spoke Italian. The aim was to get the words of foreign languages out of use, but many regional languages were lumped in as well.

New Italian words were invented to replace the foreign ones, and a huge industry sprang up to dub foreign films into Italian, an industry that still thrives. Part of the problem was that the Italian alphabet is five letters shorter than ours, but some of the foreign words brought them in.

France has tried the same for many years with its Académie française acting as a language police to seek out and replace Anglicisms that creep in over the years. I remember them telling me that le jumbo jet had to be replaced by le grossporteur, and that l’hovercraft must become l’aeroglisseur. It didn’t work, of course. They remain attached as ever to le weekend, when they might indulge in le jogging, or perhaps le camping. It is particularly hard for them to resist English and American words surrounding new technology.

The English language has had no such qualms, eagerly lapping up a plethora of foreign words every year. Some are from America, from whence came gadget, gimmick and maverick, among hundreds of others. Some come from France, a veritable dossier of etiquette, and coupons for restaurants. The UK's colonial past enriched it with words from India and Africa, which we happily use as though they came over with William the Conqueror, as hundreds of words did.

We regard English as a living language, changed day by day as usage changes. Some we resist for a time, but they settle in if people find them useful. It's obviously helpful to have a word for each number with an extra three zeros, so the English billion (meaning million million) has gone, and now means a thousand million following American usage.

The English language is rather like English common law, made more by usage then prescription. We have rules of grammar, but we don't learn them from books; we pick them up instinctively as children, by listening to how people use the language. We have rules of meaning and pronunciation, but we acknowledge that they change over time. It is part of the joy of English that it can adapt itself and meet new needs by new uses.

Yes, indeed. We do cultural appropriation very well, only we call it assimilation. It is a tribute to other countries that we take in their words, just as we take in their foods, their fashions, and even their people. Mussolini and the Académie française do it differently, but to us they can seem like latterday Cnuts trying or order back the tide of history. We prefer to absorb good words from others, just as we absorb good ideas. It makes us richer.