Google takes on Portuguese, and wins

The Times - 23 May 2008

Google takes on Portuguese, and wins

Portugal's decision to adopt Brazilian Portuguese has been hastened by the rise of the internet

Bernhard Warner, in Rome




Google, it could be said, conquered its first Romance language last week.  The Portuguese parliament voted last week to change its national language to reflect the more popular Brazilian Portuguese, the language used by about 80 percent of the world's 230 million Portuguese speakers. In the next six years, European Portuguese will be phasing in three new consonants – k, w and y – and dropping confusing hyphens and silent consonants. So from now on, when you are IM-ing a Portuguese beauty, the correct style is otimo, not optimo, when she suggests meeting for a drink.  Why such a radical change for a language that had been doing fine for the past 2,000 years? The impact of globalisation, an ascendant former colony and the influence of the internet made the decision to go Brazilian unavoidable.

Linguistic experts say that we are in an unprecedented period of language extinction, a side-effect of rapid globalisation, but the impact is usually felt by tribal languages spoken by small groups with little economic clout and comparably low cultural prestige, not the Romance languages. Of course, this is hardly the death of Portuguese. It's a spelling change. But even that has language scholars buzzing.   "It is really remarkable that a European colonial power changes its spelling to match that of a colony," Eric Hewett, a Rome-based linguistics expert whose field of study focuses on the Basque language, says. "Normally, a European power insists that their version is correct, that the colonial speaker has an inferior grasp of their language."  In this case, he says, the standardisation of the Portuguese language was inevitable. Brazil is the world's fifth most populous country and is a much more powerful cultural and economic force than its European cousin. There are nearly 190 million Brazilians, compared with about 10.5 million Portuguese, and on the web Brazilians outnumber Portuguese by six to one, a disparity that will only increase in the coming years.

This is important because the internet is now the medium of global intelligentsia and business. If you want to establish a worldwide influence, the net is your medium. And to be influential you must be able to communicate in the language that is most accessible and most comprehensible to your audience. The nature of the net and the importance of search engines like Google means that spelling is crucial: the law of averages tells us that fewer people would find the Optimo Global Shipping Co in Lisbon than the Otimo Global Shipping Co in Sao Paolo.  With this in mind, politicians said that a standardised language, one that is to be taught in schools across Portugal, Brazil and other former Portuguese colonies such as Angola and Mozambique, is a necessary way of strengthening the language's influence in the internet age. The decision has its detractors, but the logic of the move seems to be indisputable. Only 33,000 Portuguese signed a petition protesting against it.

Does this mean that the twin forces of globalisation and Google will affect more languages in our lifetime?  Linguists are divided. The first camp tells us that whenever the means of contact and interaction increase between two cultures, languages tend to coalesce. This can be benign (as in the case of Italians adopting "weekend" into their everyday vernacular) or destructive (the extinction of a tribal language spoken in Papua New Guinea). The latter phenomenon is killing off languages at an unprecedented clip.  But the increased human interaction unleashed by the net can also have a very different effect, creating new forms of communication introducing such rich net creations as "LOL" (laugh out loud) or new verbs such as "to Google" and "to friend".

There really is no reason to fear (or hope) that in our lifetimes the net will turn the planet into a mono-linguistic sphere. No, British English will not be subsumed by American English, and Mandarin will not become the lingua franca of the net or global trade. The basic rule appears to be that if the language is spoken by a large enough population, and if those speakers have enough economic clout, education and cultural prominence, it will survive. People will use these languages for contracts, web searches, books, laws, and so on. In other words, Google searches alone cannot eradicate them.  Smaller, regional languages such as Irish, Welsh and Basque are a different story. Linguists consider them to be much more precarious, and suggest that they could fall out of use in a matter of generations. With these, the net may well be vital to their survival or extinction, as technology will either spread their adoption in the wider world or elevate a competing language instead.

What will forever be altered by the net – and this affects the big guys: English, Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin – is spelling and grammar. Already, the shorthand for chat and texting, which rely on abbreviations and the removal of pesky vowels, is second nature to the younger generations. They have learnt to communicate successfully even by ignoring basic rules of spelling and grammar. Indeed, this medium has the ability to create a new language of text-ese arising from our informal chat, e-mail and SMS messages, one that would render the rigid rules of spelling and grammar unnecessary.  "We will see dramatically different spellings in our lifetime," Mr Hewett predicts, "and it's because of technology."  Not exactly the otimo scenario.

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