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Language reform

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Title: Language reform  
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Subject: Graphic pejoratives in written Chinese, History of the Hungarian language, Sociolinguistics, Hu Shih, Language policy
Collection: Constructed Languages, Engineered Languages, Sociolinguistics
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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, grammar, or spelling. Purification makes the language conform to a version of the language perceived as 'purer'.

Note that language reforms occur at a punctual point in time; this article does not discuss changes in languages that took place over several centuries, such as the Great Vowel Shift.


  • Simplification 1
  • Purification 2
  • Examples 3
  • Instances in popular culture 4
  • See also 5
  • Bibliography 6


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 1911 and 1945, in Portugal, in 1943 and 1971 in Brazil, and in 2009 in all countries), German (in 1901/02 and 1996/98), Irish in 1948 and Russian (in 1708 and 1918).


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 Dutch Eiland)
  • ile became isle (also from insula)


Examples of language reforms are:

  • Belgian (Flemish/Dutch) — In 1844 (Jan Frans Willems), 1864 (Matthias de Vries and L.A. te Winkel), 1946 (Marchant), 1996 (Actie) and 2006.
  • Catalan — In 1917 Pompeu Fabra published Diccionari ortogràfic, the first Catalan dictionary. The complete Diccionari General de la Llengua Catalana was published in 1931.
  • Chinese
  • Czech (19th century) — The dictionary of Josef Jungmann contributed to the renewal of the vocabulary. In the 1840s the letter w was replaced by v.
  • Dutch (19th and 20th century) — In 1883 (De Vries and Te Winkel), 1934 (Marchant), 1947 (The Green Booklet), 1996 (Actie) and 2006.
  • French (18th, 19th, and 20th century) — In 1740, 1762, 1835, 1992 by l'Académie Française.
  • 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.
  • 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 katharevousa 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 the written language as well. For example, on Greek coins, the plural of the currency was drachmai (katharevousa 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. Linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann argues that Modern Hebrew, which he terms "Israeli", is a Semito-European hybrid, based not only on Hebrew but also on Yiddish and other languages spoken by revivalists.[1] Zuckermann therefore endorses the translation of the Hebrew Bible into what he calls "Israeli".[2]
  • Hungarian (late 18th and early 19th centuries) — more than ten thousand words were coined,[3] out of which several thousand are still actively used today (see also Ferenc Kazinczy).
  • Irish (1940s) — spelling system greatly simplified: Gaedheal became Gael, and Ó Séigheadh became Ó Sé.
  • Japanese (1946) — historical kana usage was replaced by modern kana usage, while the kanji system also transformed from Traditional Chinese characters to New Characters.
  • Norwegian (20th century) — as Norway became independent from Denmark (1814), Norwegian started to drift away from Danish. The reforms in 1907 and 1917 made Riksmål the written standard Norwegian, renamed Bokmål in 1929. Bokmål 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 (Bokmål) 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 Cyrillic script with the Latin alphabet, deprecated thousands of Slavic words in favour of Romance ones. Romanian has undergone spelling reforms in 1904, 1953, and, most recently, in 1993, with two minor ones in 1964 and 2005.
  • Somali (1970s) — modified Latin script developed by Somali linguist Shire Jama Ahmed for writing the Somali language; made compulsory in 1972 by the President of Somalia, 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) — Classical Chinese lost official status in 1918, and the colonial schools instituted a "Franco-Vietnamese Curriculum" at this time. Vietnamese was taught using the Latin alphabet, and this form soon became dominant.

Instances in popular culture

  • (Nineteen Eighty-Four, English has become Newspeak, a language designed to make official propaganda easy and to make politically undesirable thoughts impossible to express.

See also


  1. ^ Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns, Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Journal of Language Contact, Varia 2, pp. 40-67 (2009).
  2. ^ Let my people know!, Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Jerusalem Post, May 18, 2009.
  3. ^ 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
  • Geoffrey Lewis, The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-19-925669-1.
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