Thursday, November 09, 2006

Language by committee

Romania, in common with many European countries, has some form of national academy which decides on how the Romanian language should develop. Spellings get changed, new words get certified as being acceptable for use, and I don't know what else. I am told for example that the word "sunt" which is the first person singular and third person plural conjugation of the verb "to be" (As in "Eu sunt un blogger") used to be spelled sînt. Now that sounds like a seriously big change. Just imagine if one day the word "am" changed to "om" or something. It'd throw everyone into confusion.

And in fact that confusion happens here, as I learned a couple of days ago. Now she is going to school, Bogi is learning Romanian, and comes home each day with lots of phrases to practice (which to her credit she does, walking round the house commenting on what she is doing at all moments in Romanian. It's cool. She'll be trilingual in about a year at this rate). So, anyway, a couple of days ago she comes home with the words she has to practice, one of which is the word for "scissors". Her mother instantly corrects her pronunciation. Bogi, indignantly, tells her that this is the way she learned it today. A glance at her note book tells Erika that not only does she have the incorrect pronunciation but also the incorrect spelling. Patiently she sits down to help her with the correct pronunciation (the teachers, too, speak Romanian as a second language, and so are not necessarily to be trusted as to being entirely correct). However, before she does that, she just looks it up in a dictionary to be on the safe side. And, lo and behold, scissors is one of those words that has had its spelling (and hence pronunciation) changed by the Romanian Academy. I've just looked it up, myself, and can tell you that "foarfece" is the currently known spelling. The old one is something like foarfaca (though I'm doing that from roughly transcribing a version I've only heard, so it could be way off).

We learned the next day while waiting at the school gates for her to come out, that this scene repeated across the town as angry second language Romanian speaking parents worried about their childrens' educations, reacted to their little ones coming home with patently wrong information, with tirades of extracurricular support, loudly voiced concern about the quality of the education their offspring were receiving, and then shamefaced climbdowns. It also spread beyond the parents, with Erika's entire office agog at the news that the word for scissors had changed without them knowing.

I'm guessing that this kind of thing must go on all the time - native speakers presumably keep track of these changes and, while the transition must be difficult, at least are aware that things have moved on, but non-native speakers learn the language one way and unless they hear otherwise will assume it to have remained roughly as it was. Which brings me to the question - why is it necessary to have these bodies of people in dusty rooms pronouncing on what the language is, and what changes are necessary? Romanian has one, Hungarian (I think) has one, French definitely has one, German (I also think) has one. English doesn't. Yet despite that dreadfully anarchic fact the language seems to survive and thrive. Why does there need to be this rigorous control of language in certain places rather than the laissez faire approach favoured by English? (Indeed, if there were such a thing as an English Academy they would probably not have allowed me to use the phrase "laissez faire" in that last sentence.) I really don't get this need for a committee to ascertain what words or spellings or grammatical constructions people should be using. Could anyone help me understand?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wasn't aware that "foarfece" is the correct version.

Usually, this kind of things happens when there are two versions of the word in Romanian and the correct version is chosen etymologically. Foarfece is from Latin forfecis (genitive of forfex) and the regular sound changes would give "foarfece".

Doing a few searches, it seems that newspapers and literature (both older and newer) use both versions.

--bogdan

Anonymous said...

"Forafecă/foarfece" it isn't the best example. It has been always ambiguous and both forms are tolerated. Strictly speaking the form "foarfece" should be the correct one since, as in other languages (including English) represents the plural. However, in Romanian usually the instrument is referred as singular since the form "foarfecă". I very rarely heard people asking for the "foarfece" (I am from Bucharest).


What happened at the school I think may be due to the teachers lack of confidence. They just apply strictly the guidance from the Education Minister, that is based on some Romanian Academy dictionary. The Romanian schools are not spared this kind of ambiguities. There are many other circumstances when the change in orthography and grammar generated greater confusion. Situations like that happened also with the French and the German too.


M.S.

Anonymous said...

Just a minor correction: it's "Foarfecă" not "Forafecă".

Ada said...

I wasn't aware of the new spelling either - I kinda remember them changing "intr-o" and "intr-un" to "intro" and "intrun" which used to be the way dyslexic brown bears and idiots were expected to write. Them academishuns had to justify their salary in some way, methinks.

eemanee said...

the Spanish have one too! just how do you regulate language?

Anonymous said...

For MS: "foarfece" is both the plural and the singular form: "un foarfece", "două foarfece".

For ada: "într-un" and "într-o" are always written that way.

You are probably thinking about "niciun" and "nicio". This spelling ("niciun") was formerly common in early 20th century and "nici un", "nici o" are inconsistent with the spelling of "vreun", "vreo".

--bogdan

Anonymous said...

The Dutch have one too. They share it with the Flemish, in fact. Unlike your Romanians, however, they don't touch pronunciation, just the spelling and that's bad enough: earlier this year a spelling reform was enacted that was so bad the nation's biggest newspapers revolted and jointly put out an alternative spelling guide.