Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Impact of Cross-Culturalism on the English Language

Language is a record of culture. One can deduce things about a culture based on how its members speak to each other. In Korea, for example, speakers base their culture on respect in relationships. The result is three phrases that are the equivalent to “thank you” each with a differing degree of formality to be used based on the relationship between the speaker and the listener.

It is not only the words of appreciation that people use to indicate culture. One can make a case that as culture develops, languages expand and words take on new meanings to capture this evolution. We can quantify cultural trends by examining the creation of words.

The best way to survey the record of language change is to observe words added to the Modern English Language. Through the analysis of the way the dictionary has changed in the past 10 years — some words added, other taken out – we can gain a better understanding of shifts in American Culture.

In approaching this research the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was identified as the best candidate for a dictionary source. The dictionary is considered to be the most conservative within the English language. The editors of the OED have strict rules about adding words based on usage. It makes for a great resource to track changes over time.

On March 14 2000, the Oxford English Dictionary began a subscriber-based model that allowed digital access to the dictionary. The digital database also highlighted quarterly modifications made to the dictionary. Over the 10-year period from June 14, 2001 to June 10, 2010, thirty-five revisions were posted and 3,907 words were added to the dictionary.

By examining these words it becomes clear that the majority of the words can be classified into five different categories:

In the past ten years it is clear that these 5 classifications have been pervasive throughout American culture.

Over the past 10 years, new technologies have arrived in popular culture. The web, smartphone, digital camera well as countless new gaming systems have all been added to the technological landscape. All of these items, as well as other technological progress, require words to describe them. Despite all of this evolution only 18% of the more than 3,900 words that were added to the OED can be classified as technological.

In addition to technology, the world’s inhabitants have come to realize that they need to take care of their environment in order to give future generations the ability to thrive. The environmental movement has come to the forefront of popular culture. Discussions on a carbon tax, the discovery of new species and new words for differentiating organic and non-organic foods all occurred in the past 10 years. Yet only 11% of all words added to the OED in the past year can be classified as environmental.

One of the subjects that received the most press in American culture over the past ten years was politics. Two wars were begun in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first black President of the United States was elected. The Tea Party movement gained traction in the American landscape and the two major political parties diverged using rhetoric to differentiate themselves from each other. Still only 9% of the words added to the dictionary over the past ten years were political in nature.

As Baby Boomers age, they will continue to need more medical treatment. Advances in the medical and pharmaceutical industries and the production of new drugs have helped make the healthcare a key driver of language. But in spite of such shifts within culture only 13% of the words added to the OED can be classified as medical in orientation.

The largest category of new additions to the OED was, in fact, the result of the influence of other cultures. New English speakers brought with them customs, traditions and food from their cultures and introduced them into mainstream society. The resulting shift in the English language was the needed linguistic reaction to the cultural vestiges spread amongst the general public. Over the ten-year analysis period, 31% of the words added to the dictionary had a cross-cultural theme. This group was the largest segment of added words within the analysis by a wide margin.

One can expect the cross-cultural trend in American culture to continue. As the world becomes an easier place to explore and borders are overcome by instant communication tools, our language will continue to evolve. The reflection of these changes will illustrate the sharing of culture and the seepage of cultural nuances into the mainstream arena.

How does your brand communicate with its customers? Do you speak to them at their level using words they will understand? Language is a lagging indicator of culture. As marketers, communications must be part of the forefront of culture. Which of the five major themes does your brand most closely align with? Are you using vocabulary that aligns with your target segment and demographic?

Examine the language of your brand. Audit the words you are using and measure it over time. Make sure that the language evolves with your brand and your audience.