Who owns English, exactly?

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/11/06 00:06 -08:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/michkap/archive/2006/11/06/993944.aspx

Mark Liberman's recent Language Log post English in China had me thinking about my own Uighur or Uyghur? from this last July, and also the more recent LOCALE_SABBREVLANGNAME is more than just an ISO-639 code.

Specifically, there was a comment from teklimakan to the second of my posts (which probably belonged in the first but came in after the 90 day deadline!):

Recommendation for the English transcription of the word

“ ئۇيغۇر ” /《维吾尔》

The constant advances of the reform and opening policy and the growing trade and telecommunications exchanges between people in all sectors and the outside world, as well as increased activities in publication, news reporting and international affairs have for some time renewed the need for a uniform and normalized ethnonym for the major nationality of Xinjiang, known in its own language as [ujγur].

At present, there is utter confusion on how to render and use in English the name of that nationality, with no fewer than seven different spellings attested: Uyghur, Uygur, Uighur, Uighuir, Uiguir, Uigur and Weiwuer. This situation causes a number of problems in our work and daily lives. Therefore, the Terminology Normalization Committee for Ethnic Languages of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region based on research and consultations with relevant experts on this issue recommends that the spelling Uyghur, corresponding to the pronunciation [ujγur], be used as the English transcription of the word.

Government organizations and individuals are invited to conform to the present notice.

The Terminology Normalization Committee for Ethnic Languages of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

October 11, 2006


I am also thinking about the upcoming 30th Internationalization and Unicode Conference and the fact that two different people who will be there have read that first blog post and are eager to talk to me about the Uighur/Uyghur issue. I will admit here that I look at this as a terrific and creepy opportunity, in both the positive and negative senses of both words....

Which brings me back to Mark's post, and makes me think about the extent to which, as English becomes more and more important in different regions of China, the desire for a bit more control over the way that the issue of transliteration and words whose etymology are based upon transliterations are, in fact, transliterated and ultimately spelled.

This is hardly a new issue in China, as even today one can much more easily order Peking Duck even though this is an older transliteration form that has largely been replaced by one that would prefer Beijing (I am unable to find "Beijing Duck" on most menus!)....

When one considers that some of these differences are looked at as the difference between transliteration schemes produced inside of China rather than outside of it, and the fact that a Pinyin pronunciation system will usually be based on such a transliteration scheme, an issue that has very little to do with English suddenly has a lot to do with English. Especially when one considers that English usage seems to becoming more widespread and there is an obviously well-intentioned desire to have terms that come full circle in the minds of people within any of the regions of China do so as sensibly as the English language can allow.

Obviously the Uighur/Uyghur issue adds to it the baggage that any autonomous region of China (or e.g. any nation within India) does when China (or India) has a vested interest in at least appearing if not actively working to support language concerns beyond those of Mandarin (or Hindi). Which means it becomes not only a minority language issue but an issue for large countries to become involved with as well.

And suddenly the question of "who owns English?" becomes a very real one.

And the question of who owns the English locale fields becomes even more real.

A company like Microsoft will often make use of the LOCALE_SENGLANGUAGE, LOCALE_SLANGUAGE, and LOCALE_SNATIVELANGNAME parameters to GetLocaleInfo in ways that are fairly wimpy and non-confrontational in order to avoid taking sides -- thus we have Macedonian (FYROM) as the SENGLANGUAGE, македонски јазик as the SNATIVELANGNAME, and whatever individual localizers come up with as the best choice for SLANGUAGE on a per-language basis.

But there it is. Would someone in Germany really prefer that we picked an English word that was a bit closer to Deutsch than the word that was chosen (German)? Maybe. But that one kind of pre-dates computers by more than a few years and there do not seem to be people in DIN arguing for changes along those lines....

It sounds trite, but there is a real question about who "owns" the SENGLANGUAGE/SENGCOUNTRY of a locale -- are they intended primarily for English usage internationally? Or is it mainly for English usage inside a country/region? The answer is even harder when thinks about the wide variety within English worldwide, but let's first get this one question answered before dealing with the rest of it....

In other words, are the in-region opinions about SENGLANGUAGE/SENGCOUNTRY as relevant as are the ones about SNATIVELANGNAME/SNATIVECTRYNAME?

On the other hand, note that I am just asking the question rather than boldly stating the answer. So in my own way I am being just as wimpy here -- it is hard to know how these things will go eventually, though at least for Vista it is Uighur, and nothing will change it at this point.

If I were in those other people's shoes, I'd try to argue that the SENGCOUNTRY should be a bit different anyway, for reasons that have nothing to do with I and nothing to do with Y. But that's a whole different thing....


This post brought to you by y (U+0079, a.k.a. LATIN SMALL LETTER Y)

# Charles Bocock on Monday, November 06, 2006 11:48 AM:

My feeling is that whoever owns the native word should be allowed to specify what the transcription looks like.

They might not always pick the most popular, or even remotely accurate transcription, but in these scenarios it badly needs someone to put their foot down and just make one decision.

The rest of the world will usually follow along. Beijing and Mumbai are two examples I can think of where it really hasn't taken the world all that long to get used to the new versions.

# Mihai on Monday, November 06, 2006 1:27 PM:

Now, many languages have something to say about their own names, even translated.

You can see it with Sami/Lapp:


Or Romanian/Rumanian:


Or Mapudungun/Araucanian :-)


Now, the native English speaking world "owns" the English language. But that world has problems deciding between Uyghur, Uygur, Uighur, Uighuir, Uiguir, Uigur and Weiwuer.

So, when deciding what form will be used in the end, why not consider the desire of those referred by this term?

# Michael S. Kaplan on Monday, November 06, 2006 2:55 PM:

It is not that desires are being ignored, per se. It is that it cannot be the only consideration....

# Mihai on Monday, November 06, 2006 3:08 PM:

In the end, there is no central decision organism for the English language. It is like a live, organic thing.

There are many factors, some of them outside anyone's control. A certain use by Oprah in a show (for instance), might turn all "official" efforts upside down :-)

This might be different for French, where the French Academy has a very strong "grip" on the language.

# Michael S. Kaplan on Monday, November 06, 2006 3:16 PM:

Very true!

Plus, in the Uighur case the fact is that no one finds a particular use offensive for etymological reasons like the Lapp situation -- were that different, it would probably sway a lot more people than a desire for consensus in spelling....

Though it can actually cause confusion (think Macao vs. Macau!).

# Charles Bocock on Tuesday, November 07, 2006 9:00 AM:

I [heart] Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It's always a great test case for widths :)

Please consider a donation to keep this archive running, maintained and free of advertising.
Donate €20 or more to receive an offline copy of the whole archive including all images.

referenced by

2011/06/14 Since nobody @#%&*! owns en-US…

2010/08/28 And here comes Macedonian!

2008/11/12 "We" don't tell you how to spell *our* language in *yours*, so...

go to newer or older post, or back to index or month or day