Variety: Not always so amusing

Variety: Not always so amusing (I)

Linguists tend to be enthusiastic about linguistic varieties; the more varieties of a language, the more they can study. This is often true only for those languages who already have a standardized version. Those who are actually trying to use a non unified language are sometimes less enthusiastic. Some Wikipedians belong to them.

In fact, very few languages are fully standardized (monocentric). English is a very good example for a language that experts call pluricentric. There are several standardized versions of English, note: not dialects, but versions that are considered a standard variety (some at least in a certain region). In an encyclopedia you cannot hear whether someone says either or either, neither or neither, but what to do when one Wikipedian wants to write lift and the other one elevator?

English Wikipedia recommends considering four principles:
1. Continue writing in the variety the article is already written in (except when you totally rewrite the article).
2. Be consistent within one article.
3. Respect national ties: the article about the US President should be in American English, the article about the Queen in British.
4. Look out for common (neutral) forms. Take for example “Fixed-wing aircraft” (the title of the Wikipedia article), which explains that the North Americans say airplane, the others aeroplane.

Another principle has not been mentioned: 5. Offer to the reader several forms: “At birth it is common for an elephant calf to weigh 120 kilograms (260 lb)” (article “Elephant”).

The first two principles are friendly to the majority: Most articles are created by the speakers of the most used variety (1.), and the article then has to be continued in that variety (2.). The national tie, on the contrary, provides a sanctuary to the minorities (3.), and the search for common expressions (4.) and the offering of several forms (5.) welcome true compromises that make both sides to do their very best.

Other Wikipedias are often less explicit but recommend more or less the same. The four or five principles yet do not solve all problems. Imagine a Germany-German Wikipedian who reads in Wikipedia in German the article about the Swiss government. He finds the expression eine Session and changes it to eine Sitzung because he wants to avoid hard words. Then a furious Swiss editor reverts it and dispises the arrogant Germans or explains patiently that the Swiss call it eine Session anyway. The result is that the Germany-German editor will lose his readiness to edit articles on Swiss subjects.

But in general, the habits favor the Germany-German because the Germany-German variety is recognized (inofficially) as the standard variety for articles without special ties to the Alps countries. The Swiss and the Austrians are expected to know Germany-German at least passively. Together with the five principles it shows that Wikipedia in German practices a (modified and moderate) de facto monocentrism.

The more differences, the more problems. Ultimately, the variety problem can put a serious burden on the wiki principle that claims that every reader can become a writer.

Ziko van Dijk


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