Have you noticed how English changes as it moves around the world? Half a century ago, Yves Saint Laurent introduced le smoking in France. Whatever its effects on the fashion world, it raised some linguistic hackles among French who deemed it an unwelcome intrusion from English.
Meanwhile, English speakers must have wondered what gave the French the right to assign a new meaning to a perfectly ordinary English word.
Once a word leaves our shores, it’s out of our jurisdiction.
In Germany, a cell phone is called a Handy, a digital projector is called a Beamer, and a personal organizer is called a Timer. English words are entering German, and Germans are taking possession of them, assigning new meanings without consulting us.
Only sporadically are original meanings respected, as when Chancellor Angela Merkel used “s**tstorm” at a June, 2012, public meeting. (The word has been added to at least one respected German dictionary, possibly as a direct result of Chancellor Merkel’s tacit endorsement.)
Nissan introduced a model, the Sunny, to China in the 1960’s. Later the highly successful brand also appeared in India and in Europe. The name may not strike Westerners as exciting, but that’s not its purpose.
In some societies, recognition as a word of English by itself will endow a brand name with panache (if you’ll pardon the term). In that vein linguist Victor Mair observed a truck in Japan with a sign reading “Matsumoto Hausu Kurīningu Sābisu,” using (in katakana script) the English words “house.” “cleaning,” and “service.” Mair comments that the business could have used Japanese words instead but they would have made the business sound less modern. (Read his entire post here.)
In Milan, the newest upscale housing complex goes by CityLife. Like China’s Sunny, it’s probably not a name we’d see on a comparable development here. But even the Italian-language Web site for the complex refers to it this way, with no Italian translation.
Meanwhile, the U.S has gained an embarras de richesses from abroad. Among Korean exports are brand names Daewoo, Hyundai, and more recently Hankook, Kyochon, and Sulwhasoo and common nouns like taekwando, kimchi, and bibimbap. Our news from China comes with place names like Xinjiang (a province); Toksun (a county), and Quxian (a city).
Such names start with a deficit because they challenge our spelling conventions and pronunciation habits. But spelling adapts fairly easily--Italian doesn’t have a y in native words but has no problem with the ones from English, as with Milan’s CityLife.
And let’s not overlook the eye-catching advantages of an unusual spelling. ooVoo, the video calling company whose name Lexicon helped to develop, is getting lots of press and doing very well. Despite its unusual appearance – and in contrast to the Chinese names in the previous paragraph – ooVoo wears its pronunciation on its sleeve, which is a tremendous benefit for a brand that has designs on international acceptance.
Pronunciation habits take longer to change, but languages easily reshape the pronunciations of new words to conform to native patterns.
From a branding perspective, all this transplanting of words comes as welcome news as rights to existing words are being gobbled up. Last year over 300,000 trademarks registrations were filed in the U.S. Internationally, there’s even more registration activity, naturally. Some day, for every Sunny introduced in Asia, we may see a bibimbap in the U.S.
—Will Leben, Chair of Linguistics