Lexical diffusion, software style.

The Microsoft Community Glossary - Linguistic Partnership Project allows members of a speech community to work together to create and standardize technical vocabulary for their language. Community Glossaries can be an important step on the road to software localization for customers in regions that are newer to technology. Thus far there are online Community Glossary projects for languages all around the world, including Greenlandic, Kannada, Māori, ThaiVietnamese, and several others. Interested participants work with a local moderator to decide on the appropriate terminology to be used in the software space. 

So does it work? That's an interesting question.

New vocabulary is introduced into a language in several ways. Sometimes, rarely, someone well-known or otherwise influential coins a word or phrase that happens to stick. This can happen on many scales, ranging from the popular kid in a group of friends all the way up to celebrities who get media attention. Sometimes a new technology is introduced and some brand name associated with it becomes the generic term, as with kleenex, xerox, and more recently and much to their apparent chagrin, google.

More often, though, new vocabulary gets introduced when speakers of one language come into contact with speakers of another. English has borrowed vocabulary from virtually every language with which it has come into contact. No matter how government language authorities try to impose standards around vocabulary in advertising, media, and school curricula, such efforts have not generally been successful in achieving results in the real speech of real people. Mexican kids still speak Spanish during Little League games and the French still end the work week with le weekend. It's just how language works.

That's not to say that all standards efforts are ineffective. When a particular term catches on and its usage is popularized, it becomes a de facto standard for the speech community that uses it, and its very popularity both propels it forward and also catalyzes its eventual decline. Vocabulary choice is one way that speakers define themselves either as part of or against the speech communities they inhabit.

What is true for colloquial vocabulary is also true for terminology in the technology space. Terminology persists when people use it. Which brings us back to the Community Glossary efforts.

If efforts to identify and standardize technical vocabulary are driven solely by official language authorities, I don't think they will be successful in the long run. A word is only as present as the community that uses it. It is only by involving the target user community that standardization efforts can hope to identify relevant and enduring terminology, and the most successful products will be the ones that create a user experience with that terminology in appropriate ways. I'm very excited about the Community Glossary project because it lets real speakers identify real vocabulary that actually works for them, and it creates a lexical resource that can be valuable in language preservation efforts for endangered languages.

Anyone who believes that a Community Glossary effort would be beneficial for their language can work with their local Microsoft subsidiary office to request one and get the process started.

Comments (2)
  1. Francis says:

    Very apropos indeed. One of the frustrating things about working with technology in a foreign language is the confusion than reigns over computer terms.

    Hopefully this endeavor won’t fall prey to language purists (intent upon obliterating  loan words with local neologisms.) Given the complexity–and cost–of computer systems, it really helps when the IT world speaks one with one tongue.

  2. KieranS says:

    The prescriptivist language purist issue you mention is exactly why I think such efforts are only successful when real native speakers who are likely developers and/or users of products help drive the process. Of course, in areas of the world that are newer to technology, finding the right participants — not to mention making sure that they have regular enough access to technology to participate — can be a real challenge. But it is exactly in such areas of the world that these efforts are most important! In my opinion one group that can have a big role to play here are recent expatriates who are working in the IT space.

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