As our multilingual world goes through one of the worst plagues in history, does language assist or exacerbate the situation? How, if at all, does it evolve in the process?
It has been a year since the novel coronavirus first made global news headlines in January 2020. The infectious disease that it caused was not then named yet. It was only a month after that “COVID-19” quickly entered the linguistic repertoire. Yet, this naming of the disease barely unravels the complicated relationship between COVID-19 and linguistics.
The widely-held view that the pandemic demonstrated the importance of scientists is broadly correct but incomplete in the sense that it only focuses on biomedical scientists working on the identification of the virus and the development of a vaccine. As scientists who study the nature and function of language, linguists are often ironically ignored amid a global health crisis that brought along a serious mass communication challenge as well as an ample amount of new linguistic items. This article will therefore explore the questions of how language affected the course of events during the COVID-19 pandemic and how the pandemic has affected language in return.
Language Challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic came with various linguistic challenges in addition to economic, social, and political problems. Exposing the need to take linguistic diversity and the use of language by politicians and the media seriously, what lessons does COVID-19 teach us?
Linguistic diversity and public communication
A joint action problem lies at the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic as mass participation in public health recommendations is required for effective containment of coronavirus by states. However, considering the coexistence of 195 nation-states and over 6000 languages, is it possible that everyone can have access to correct information in their languages on time? Reality gives a negative answer. Most states operate only in one or two national languages while the World Health Organization (WHO) provides information in the six official United Nations languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish). This situation demonstrates that there exists a language hierarchy that limits global knowledge dissemination to a small number of languages. Therefore, linguistic minorities such as Spanish speakers in the US and Arabic speakers in France face language barriers and consequently become less educated, less employed, and less healthy, but more vulnerable to misinformation and fake news compared to language majorities.
In this context, the translation of public health information becomes a vital tool to ensure the availability of timely, high-quality information to language minorities. China can be considered as the first country to realize this fact and act on it. Even though Putonghua is the standard variety of Chinese Mandarin, the majority of Mandarin speakers speak non-standard varieties in daily life. As the pandemic made it clear that Putonghua is insufficient in reaching everyone, a team of linguists from Beijing Language and Culture University were instructed to create a “Guidebook of Wuhan Dialect for Medical Assistance Teams” with additional audio materials and “The Handbook of Doctor-Patient Communication” under 48 hours. Such action is needed to be taken by each state to provide equitable access to information so that everyone can learn about protection methods against coronavirus and state directives.
The need to change the language around COVID-19
Coined by President Donald Trump, the term “Chinese virus” (or “Wuhan virus”, “Chinese flu”, “Chinese coronavirus”) gained popularity among various racist circles in many countries. By early spring, racist acts and harassment against Asians surged and continued to rise throughout the rest of 2020. These terms are not only incorrect but also dangerous as they are used in an inflammatory and prejudicial manner to personify the threat.
Similar to politicians, the media also employs a language that is insensitive and discriminatory. The media tend to “reassure” people that only the elderly or those with chronic diseases are at serious risk of dying by describing casualties as “people with underlying health conditions”, “the elderly”, and “the unwell.” Such ill-advised language creates a “us and them” mentality that aggravates the anxiety of high-risk groups. It further conveys the message that there are “acceptable losses”, members of society who are more “disposable” than others. Therefore, the media needs to be more sensitive and careful not to imply that the young and healthy are non-susceptible to coronavirus, which could encourage behavior against public health recommendations among these groups.
Language Transformation Led By the COVID-19 Pandemic
As much as it was a dreadful period characterized by a blend of health, mass communication, and economic crises; 2020 was a year of unprecedented social and linguistic change. This situation is most clearly exhibited by the quarterly updates, which were later followed by a series of special updates in June, that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary unusually issued.
The language of the pandemic & new words
Dictionaries include scientific jargon only if they are widely used in spheres other than their own disciplines. For example, Oxycontin is found in many dictionaries as a popular painkiller, whereas Aripiprazole, a specific drug used by bipolar disorder patients, is not. COVID-19 pandemic brought along many scientific and medical terms into everyday use. Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria treatment currently used on coronavirus patients, and dexamethasone, a corticosteroid used in severe cases of coronavirus disease, started to appear on the Oxford Dictionary even though they were developed as early as the 1950s. Other newly-entered terms include R number (reproductive number), CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), and cytokine storm (an overactive immune response).
Even though many lexicographers insist that the pandemic only produced one new word that is COVID-19, many new blend words are on the watchlist of dictionary editors. The table below summarizes some of the interesting words of the pandemic:
COVID-19, Covid-19, or covid-19
Such coronavirus-led language transformation also came with certain regional differences, most remarkably regarding the name of the disease itself. COVID-19 was first coined by the WHO in February–with CO referring to corona, VI to virus, D to disease, and 19 to 2019, when the first case was identified towards the end of the year in Wuhan, China. The capitalization of the word, though, sparked a debate in the sphere of linguistics. While the US, Canada, and Australia predominantly prefer to spell the word with full capitals (as in this article), COVID-19, there is a clear preference for the form Covid-19 in UK English (as in Oxford Dictionary). British style guides, such as The Guardian’s, tend to use uppercase for acronyms that are pronounced as separate letters when spoken (e.g. FBI, IMF, NHS) but lowercase for acronyms that are pronounced as words when spoken (e.g. Covid, Nasa, Unicef). Another form is to use all lower case, covid-19, as appeared in The Economist and New Scientist. The logic behind this form relies on the fact that other diseases, including whooping cough and influenza, are not capitalized.
COVID-19 pandemic exposed the importance of emergency mass communication and the speed at which language can evolve in the course of a global crisis. Linguists remain vital in coordinating the global health response, though more indirectly compared to medical scientists and staff, through the bidirectional relationship between COVID-19 and linguistics. If we ignore the power of the very tool for human connection, language, during these times, our fight as “Covidians” against the invisible coronavirus is doomed