Anglicisms in Swiss institutional communication
Switzerland is often considered a linguistic El Dorado, and for good reason. It is a small country in the heart of Europe, with roughly 8.5 million inhabitants and four languages carrying the status of “national language”: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Federal institutions are required by law to communicate in all of these languages. Not only do people have the right to address any federal authority in the national language of their choice and get a reply in the same language, but official publications are also made available—simultaneously and in their entirety—in German, French and Italian, the three “official languages.”
Switzerland is a country where four languages carry the status of “national language”: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Federal institutions are required by law to communicate in all of these languages. Preserving this multilingualism and promoting the minority languages is no trivial task. In this respect, the increasing prominence of English in many fields, such as education, is often seen as a potential hurdle.
Preserving this multilingualism and promoting the minority languages is no trivial task. In this respect, the increasing prominence of English in many fields, such as education, is often seen as a potential hurdle. This is also the case for institutional language; a number of texts, including legislative acts, have begun featuring anglicisms. It is no coincidence that this situation has raised some political concern and, in recent years, several procedural requests have been addressed to the Federal Council aiming to contain the spread of the trend. As a result, a range of concrete measures were adopted; an ad hoc interdepartmental group was created to deal explicitly with the use of anglicisms in institutional documents, guidelines were produced to assist drafters and translators, and events were organized to raise awareness. The use of anglicisms, especially in Swiss institutional Italian, has also been discussed in a number of research papers. To date, however, little empirical data is available that makes it possible to observe this phenomenon from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective. This is precisely the thematic focus of my paper, published in Revista de Llengua i Dret, Journal of Language and Law, nº 74.
An empirical study on the use of anglicisms in Swiss legislation
My study intends to contribute to the prolific debate around the use of anglicisms in Swiss institutional language. It tries to unveil the extent and the nature of this phenomenon, tracking it in the Italian version of Swiss federal legislation.
In other words, it sets out to answer the following research questions:
· How often do Swiss legislative acts in Italian resort to English words?
· What types of anglicisms are they?
· When did this phenomenon begin?
· Is the use of anglicisms increasing or decreasing in frequency?
To answer these questions, I relied on a corpus methodology. I used LEX.CH.IT, a collection of all Swiss federal acts passed between 1974 and 2018, divided into three periods (P1: 1974-1992, P2: 1993-2006, P3: 2007-2018), for a total of over 1 million tokens. Processing all of those texts manually would have demanded a great amount of time. Therefore, I used the software AntConc, which helped me automatically create a frequency list, i.e. a list of all words occurring in the corpus, ranked by frequency. This way, I could browse the whole vocabulary of the corpus quite quickly and retrieve all foreign words that occur in it.
While this first step allowed me to gain quantitative data, it was also interesting to check each anglicism in context. To this end, I used another feature of the same program, the concordance function. This helped me to better understand what types of anglicisms are used (terms or common words?), how they are presented (are they explained?) and, more broadly, what reasons could have motivated the choice of an English word over its Italian equivalent.
In my study, I focus particularly on non-adapted anglicisms, or anglicisms that keep the original English orthographic form in the receiving language. These anglicisms are deemed to constitute a bigger barrier to comprehensibility compared to other adapted lexical borrowing.
In my study, I focus particularly on non-adapted anglicisms, or anglicisms that keep the original English orthographic form in the receiving language. These anglicisms are deemed to constitute a bigger barrier to comprehensibility compared to other adapted lexical borrowing, which may no longer even be perceived as foreign language by native speakers. From the list of the retrieved anglicisms, I excluded those which belong to Basic Italian Vocabulary, a list of approximately 7000 words that every Italian speaker should at least understand; anglicisms such as sport, internet or film do not hamper comprehensibility and also fall outside the scope of my study. The word cloud at the top of this article provides an initial look into the types of anglicisms in LEX.CH.IT. It presents all the anglicisms that I found in the corpus and represents them in different sizes according to their frequency.
Results and discussion
At first sight, the raw quantitative data may project a worrisome situation. The number of anglicisms has increased considerably over the last few decades. In the seventies and eighties (i.e. in P1), only 16 anglicisms per million words were used, compared to 549 in recent legislation (i.e. P3). However, these results have to be considered in combination with other data:
· anglicisms are, all in all, scarce; they represent just 0.06% of the total words in P3, a figure which is well below the data reported in the literature on the penetration of anglicisms in general Italian;
· their level of repetition is low; on average, each anglicism is used less than 5 times in P3, which means that they are used only occasionally;
· less than 20% of legislative acts in P3 contain at least one anglicism, which further confirms their occasional nature.
An accompanying qualitative analysis provided me with finer-grained findings, which helped me put this data into perspective. It turned out that the vast majority of the anglicisms occurring in Swiss legislation are used as terms, most of which belong to the fields of economics and finance (such as audit, trust/trustee, leasing, controlling, long run average incremental costs, securities lending and borrowing) and, to a lesser extent, technology and IT (such as OpenControl, server, hardware).
The use of these kinds of anglicisms should not be interpreted as an intent of anglicizing legal language. Rather, their presence is connected with a recent trend in legislation, which goes by the name of “technicalization” or “administrativization”; more and more these days, legislative acts tend to regulate highly specialized subject matters, and to include norms about technical details that were previously delegated to ordinances by the executive bodies. This may be why very technical economic and financial terms have entered Swiss federal acts. Moreover, some disciplines, such as economics and finance, are extremely international and experts often opt for English words instead of creating neologisms in Italian to define new concepts.
From a clarity perspective, however, these technical anglicisms almost systematically come with an equivalent or an explanation in Italian. Hence, the mere presence of an English word does not necessarily make a text more difficult. Resorting to these anglicisms actually helps create clarity; domain experts are likely to use them to name specific referents in their field and may be disoriented if confronted with an unusual translation in Italian. Technical anglicisms with no form of explanation are extremely sporadic and confined to few highly specialized acts whose target readership is hardly the average citizen. Finally, most of these technical words are small in size in the word cloud above, meaning that they appear in the corpus with very low frequency.
The remaining anglicisms occurring in LEX.CH.IT (e.g. doping, antidoping, know-how, bachelor, sponsor) are much more accessible to the lay reader. These words are commonly used in Italian and it could be even difficult or impossible to find a more natural equivalent to name the same referent. This is the case of some sports that have become quite popular lately and have therefore been recently regulated by the law, such as rafting or canyoning. No Italian equivalent stood out to define these new sports, so people began calling them by their English name instead. It is therefore inevitable that these anglicisms are carried over into legislation, which is, ultimately, a mirror of society.
Foreign words have always been one of the major sources of neologisms and lexical enrichment in a language. Yet, purists often warn against the use of anglicisms in Italian. In some contexts, this struggle is fully justified. Especially in Italy, Italian political discourse, business language, and news reporting have begun resorting more and more to unnecessary anglicisms. Election day, cashback, stepchild adoption, task force, fake news, feedback, meeting, conference call or even pseudo-anglicisms, such as smart working, arguably do not contribute to any lexical enrichment. In fact, they can be defined as anglicismi di lusso—as opposed to anglicismi di necessità—because they do not fill any lexical gap in the receiving language. Rather, they are used instead of Italian words to create a serious tone, elevate the register, but ultimately they often result in confusion.
As I argue in my paper, in the specific case of Swiss legal Italian, avoiding the use of English words a priori may be detrimental. In fact, if used properly, they can even contribute to clarity and quality of the legal acts in which they occur. In this light, the results of my study are encouraging. In Switzerland, anglicisms do not constitute a major barrier to accessible legislation.
However, we must be careful about transposing a rejection of anglicisms to every context. As I argue in my paper, in the specific case of Swiss legal Italian, avoiding the use of English words a priori may be detrimental. In fact, if used properly, they can even contribute to clarity and quality of the legal acts in which they occur. In this light, the results of my study are encouraging. In Switzerland, anglicisms do not constitute a major barrier to accessible legislation.
Even though this phenomenon seems to be completely under control at the moment, we should continue monitoring it. In the future, it could be useful to extend the scope of this study and also check the use of anglicisms in other institutional genres, especially in texts that are explicitly addressed to citizens. Adopting a broader perspective and including other interference phenomena, such as semantic and syntactic calques, would provide a broader view of the influence of English on Swiss institutional language. In any case, in response to the title of this article, the short answer is “no”; mastering Italian is enough to understand Swiss legislation.
University of Geneva
Faculty of Translation and Interpreting (FTI) & Centre for Legal and Institutional Translation Studies (TRANSIUS)