How are the World’s Languages Regulated?

Language is a massive, intangible, ever-changing palimpsest that arguably exerts one of the strongest influences over our daily lives. Due to its ability to easily adapt to changing cultural norms and incorporate new ideas and words, we could say that, basically, it does what it wants. So, then, how do we ensure that speakers of the same languages remain mutually understandable, especially languages like English, French and Spanish, which are spoken in many different countries and regions? And how do we decide what words and grammatical structures are correct?

Well, in many ways, this is something that happens naturally, as speakers, who are the wielders of this communicative medium, grow and adapt with the language as a whole, taking into account regional differences. However, many languages are regulated by official bodies of academics. Some of the most well known of these are the Académie Française, which regulates the French language in France (compared to the regulator in Quebec) and The Association of Spanish Language Academies (a group of national bodies from 21 Spanish-speaking countries), whose most notable contributor is the Real Academia Española (RAE). These organizations’ aim is to uphold official and neutral structures and vocabulary, ensuring continued communication across regions, but to also allow the official entry of new, widely-used words into the language, such as discussed in this previous blog post about the RAE, “The RAE Has Entered the Homestretch of a New Edition.”

However, the regulators mentioned above are just a couple of the more well-known examples. There is actually quite a wide array of different official language regulators which regulate many languages across the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and even some which regulate national minority languages like Cornish, Gaelic and Asturian.

Maybe somewhat surprisingly, the English language doesn’t actually have a regulating body, despite its influence as a contemporary lingua franca and its enormous speaker base. To look up official and updated grammar rules and vocabulary in English, one may refer to either of the two most important English-language dictionaries: the Merriam-Webster dictionary, featuring U.S. English and the Oxford dictionary, featuring British English.

Nevertheless, depending on the language, country and aim of the individual regulating body, the language regulator may assume various levels of either a prescriptive or descriptive approach to regulating the language. A prescriptive approach is one that is in line with linguistic purism and tends to reject the entry of many new words, such as slang or anglicisms (words with an English origin adopted in a foreign language). A descriptive approach to language regulation is one that is more open to the changing norms of language and tends to accept more regionalisms and anglicisms. However, the trend among many regulators in recent years has been much more descriptive than it once was.

Conforming to linguistic standards and adapting to new ones is what translators, as linguists, do best. No matter your translation needs, do not hesitate to contact us!