Language reform

Language reform

Language reform is a type of language planning by massive change to a language. The usual tools of language reform are simplification and purification. Simplification makes the language easier to use by regularizing vocabulary and grammar. Purification makes the language conform to a version of the language perceived as 'purer'.


By far the most common form of language reform, simplification involves spelling simplification ("cf." spelling reform); however, inflection, syntax, vocabulary and word formation can all be simplified in addition. For example, in English, there are many prefixes that mean "the opposite of", e.g. "un-", "in-/im-", "a(n)-", "de-", etc. A language reform might propose to eliminate all these miscellaneous prefixes and replace them by just one, say "un-". On top of this, there are words such as "good" and "bad" that roughly mean the opposite of each other, but would be better (in terms of simplicity) portrayed as "good" and "ungood", dropping "bad" from the language altogether.

However, the most common form of simplification is the adoption of new spelling reforms. Several major world languages have undergone wholesale spelling reforms: Spanish (in the 18th century), Portuguese (in 1910, in Portugal, and in 1946 and 1972, in Brazil), German (in 1901/02 and 1996/98) and Russian (in 1728 and 1919).


Linguistic purism is the opposition to any changes of a given language, or the desire to undo some changes the language has undergone in the past. Occasionally purism reforms can inadvertently succeed in complicating a language, e.g. during the renaissance period some dictionaries complicated spelling by adopting false Latin etymologies:
* "iland" became "island" (from the Latin "insula", although "island" is actually a Germanic word, compare German "Eiland")
* "ile" became "aisle" (also from "insula")

Advantages and disadvantages

unsourced section|date=July 2008As with all reform, there are reasons for opposition and reasons for support. All literature, digital documents, road signs and maps would need to be rewritten. Moreover, everyone would need to relearn the language. Young children and language students would in the long run be far better off with the new, easier language, but in the short term would have a lot of work on their hands. It is argued that languages lose their poeticness, becoming harsh and souless, if they are changed.

However, such claims are unsupported. Most of them are based on the assumption that a reform would break the chain that ties the present to the past. In reality, moderate spelling reforms can do more to help than to hinder education and culture. The cost of the transition can be largely overcome by good planning, enough time for transition and capitalizing on popular support.


Examples of language reforms are:
* Chinese
** (1920s) — replaced Classical Chinese with Vernacular Chinese as the standard written language.
** Mandarin was chosen at a comittee from several Chinese dialects.
** (1950s PRC) — reformed the script used to write the standard language by introducing Simplified Chinese characters (later adopted by Singapore and Malaysia, but Traditional Chinese characters remain in use in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and various overseas Chinese communities).
* Czech (19th century) — The dictionary of Josef Jungmann contributed to the renewal of the vocabulary. In the 1840s the letter w became replaced by v.
* Estonian (1910s/1920s) — reform movement led by Johannes Aavik and Johannes V. Veski renewed the vocabulary, borrowing a lot of roots from Finnish and other Uralic languages and even inventing some roots that do not exist anywhere.
* German (1901/02) — unified the spelling system nationwide (first in Germany, with later adoption by other Germanophone countries). Further reforms were enacted more recently, in the German spelling reform of 1996.
* Greek (1970s/1980s) — while the written "pure" language, the katharevusa was full of Old Greek words, the spoken "popular" language, the dhimotiki was not. After the fall of the military rule, a law was promulgated, making the latter become the written language as well. For example, on Greek coins, the plural of the currency was drachmai (katharevusa form) before and became drachmes (dhimotiki form) after 1982.
* Hebrew (1920s) — Modern Hebrew was created from Ancient Hebrew by simplification of the grammar (especially of the syntax) according to Indo-European models, coinage of new words from Hebrew roots based on European models, and simplification of pronunciation rules.
* Hungarian (late 18th and early 19th centuries) — more than ten thousand words were coined, [Kálmán Szily presented approx. 10,000 words in his book "A magyar nyelvújítás szótára" ("Dictionary of Hungarian language reform", vol. 1–2: 1902 and 1908), without aiming to be comprehensive] out of which several thousand are still actively used today.
* Irish (1940s) — spelling system greatly simplified e.g. "Gaedheal" became "Gael", "Ó Séigheadh" became "Ó Sé".
* Norwegian (20th century) — as Norway became independent from Denmark (1814), Norwegian started to drift away from Danish. The reforms in 1907 and 1917 made Riksmaal the written standard Norwegian, renamed Bokmaal in 1929. Bokmaal and the more vernacular Nynorsk were made closer by a reform in 1938. Today both language forms are spoken: on Norwegian coins, the name of the country is alternately Norge (Bokmaal) and Noreg (Nynorsk).
* Portuguese (20th century) — replaced a cumbersome traditional spelling system with a simplified one ("asthma", for instance, became "asma" and "phthysica" became "tísica").
* Romanian (19th century) — replaced the Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin alphabet, deprecated hundreds of Slavic in favor of Romance ones.
* Somalian (1970s) — with the assistance of Bogumil W. Andrzejewski, who started his linguistic work in Somalia in 1949, a Latin alphabet was elaborated, made compulsory in 1972 by strongman General Mohamed Siad Barre. Also the vocabulary was renewed, a lot of new words became coined from existing Somali roots.
* Turkish (1930s) — language and writing system were reformed starting in the 1920s, to the point that the older language is called by a different name, Ottoman Turkish. The Ottoman alphabet was based on the Arabic alphabet, which was replaced in 1928 by the new, Latin-based Turkish alphabet. Loanwords of Persian and Arabic origin were dropped in favor of native Turkish words or new coinages based on Turkic roots.
* Vietnamese (20th century) — during the French colonial rule, the classical vernacular script based on Chinese characters was replaced with the new Latin alphabet.

Instances in popular culture

*(Fictional): In George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four", English has become Newspeak, a language designed to make official propaganda easy and to make politically undesirable thoughts impossible to express.

ee also

*Coptic pronunciation reform
*Spelling reform
*English reform
*Language revival
*Language planning
*Language policy
*International Phonetic Association
*Constructed language
*Gender-inclusive language


*Geoffrey Lewis, "The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success", Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-19-925669-1.

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