Acronyms vs. initialisms, across languages

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2007/09/02 18:39 -04:00, original URI:

Developer Clarissa asked me by email after reading There is no 'I' in MUI... errr, never mind! about how common the phenomenon was with letters that would have different "affixes" (a vs. an, she didn't think they were affixes, but whatever they were) depending on how an acronym/initialism was pronounced.

Well, it seems fairly easy to go through the alphabet and identify the culprits:

Of course that is just for English, mind you.

Regular readers might recall from the comments to Why do we call w 'double u' -- doesn't it look more like a 'double v' ? how in different languages the letters might use different names.

It is very likely that a person's preference for whether the word is an acronym (a pronounced word like calling a URL an "EARL") or an initialism (like calling SQL "EHS QUE EHL"), even if they are reading documentation in English. And to be honest people will probably use their own pronunciation for letter names in any case rather than necessarily using the examples I used.

These acronyms and initialisms used in technology that so easily span across different languages given the need to communicate the ideas behind them so globally really do wreak havoc with the long-standing ways in which languages influence and enrich and sometimes even impoverish each other.

And while it is easier to focus on the impact across languages that share the same script, there are certainly times when it crosses scripts. Like the one Joel Spolsky mentioned in the comments of It's LIFO (last-in, first-out) in Hebrew for IBM, which in Hebrew is done as יבמ (YOD-BET-MEM), a clear initialism in Hebrew to go along with the initialism in English (despite the fact that almost nobody thinks about what it stands for in English even if they do know it and in Hebrew it likely does not stand for anything!).

Now getting closer to the actual topic of that post on Hebrew, the final form MEM would not be expected to be used in even a pseudo-initialism, but in an acronym I'd probably expect the final form -- thus if over time people started making it into an actual word one could imagine them using יבם (YOD-BET-FINAL MEM) rather than  יבמ (YOD-BET-MEM), meaning Hebrew has a different kind of clue than the whole a/an thing we have in English.

I also wonder whether pronunciational or typographical ambiguities (e.g. this one in Hebrew) ever steer the decision in a particular direction?

And I would imagine other languages have their own unique clues, as well.

Seems like there might be some very broad hypotheses one could muster out of all this, and a quick and perfunctory search on Language Log doesn't show any posts trying to look at the broader issues (searches of the wider web did not find me much, either).

I don't think the effect is much different than would be the case for other loan words, although acronyms and initialisms both bring a whole new set of issues of their own (particularly when people are not sure which one the term in fact is). I am curious if there is any impact in languages that are severely enriched/impoverished like Hindi or Bengali as technology is embraced so firmly....

1 - The letter 'H' in English has a separate set of rules for some people, who will say "AN Historical" rather than "A Historical".


This post brought to you by ם (U+05dd, a.k.a. HEBREW LETTER FINAL MEM, a.k.a. MEM SOFIT)

# Michael Dunn_ on 2 Sep 2007 8:28 PM:

As a footnote to the footnote: In an informal survey of online acquaintances, I found that people say either "a historical" or "an istorical". No one pronounced both the 'n' and the 'h', which makes sense and follows the normal rule about picking a vs. an.  

# Gersh on 2 Sep 2007 10:49 PM:

Initials or acronyms in Hebrew don't use the final form of letters ever, as far as I've seen.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 3 Sep 2007 12:23 AM:

Even when it is basically a word?

# Michael S. Kaplan on 3 Sep 2007 12:46 AM:

How about when it is a word?

# Maurits [MSFT] on 5 Sep 2007 4:23 PM:

SQL (Structured Query Language) is perhaps not the most canonical of initialisms, since there is a school that pronounces it "sequel".

Which is perhaps appropriate, since it evolved from a language named SEQUEL (Structured English QUEry Language)

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referenced by

2008/06/15 On the [pragmatic?] pronunciation of "XXX"

2008/02/13 Canada isn't Kannada, ay (ಎ)?

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