Changing Language – Inclusive Terminology in the Enterprise
Language constantly evolves. We all know words from our childhood that today’s kids don’t understand (or laugh at), and teens constantly introduce us to new slang and acronyms. Marketers develop new concepts; community and culture drive changes in what is current, acceptable, or outdated. People working in localization know that this translates to human effort in finding the right way to convey the same concept in a multitude of languages.
Every year, major dictionaries and publishers share their words of the year: the Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2021 is “vax”, noun and verb, present and past tense. On the same theme, Merriam-Webster’s choice is “vaccine,” while Collins Dictionary goes high-tech with “NFT,” the acronym for non-fungible token, though they also give a mention to “double-vaxxed” and “metaverse.” Cambridge Dictionary announced “perseverance” as their choice, while Dictionary.com lists “allyship” as their top choice for 2021. Some are terms new to the English language. Others, like “perseverance,” have seen large increases in how many times they are looked up in the dictionary – indicating people seeking a definition for a word that is new to them.
Language is Alive
If language were static, we would have no need for a word of the year. Dictionaries would not have new editions; the heavy book from 1960 would still contain text identical to today’s lexicon websites. Companies would have fewer incentives to update their business terminology – there would be no new nuance to account for, nor any change in how their choice of words can influence, persuade, or otherwise affect the people who read them.
However, we all know that language changes and evolves. Whether it’s newly-coined terms, the increase or decrease in the usage of specific terms, or the way any words are employed: take a look at any newspaper archive to see how reporters wrote about crimes, poverty, other countries, and events just fifty or a hundred years ago, before a code of journalistic ethics, and you may be shocked by descriptions that would be way too graphic – or even illegal – today.
Anyone working in the localization industry deals with evolving language almost daily: whether a change in branding, a new way of describing a product, the terms and acronyms customers search for or write in user-generated content – or because of a positive company directive to ensure all content is written to be globally diverse and inclusive. Language is alive, but some changes raise more challenges than others – especially within the enterprise and global brand.
Outdated Terminology: Masters and Slaves
Let’s examine one set of terms under discussion for ensuring corporate language is inclusive. Hierarchical terms which derive from enslavement of human beings – and which may therefore cause, or imply, exclusion – are now discouraged by any company with an inclusive language policy. Nobody would today – I hope – choose to use “master” and “slave” to describe a human relationship – yet the concept and terms are inherent to computing or even real estate (“master bedroom”) vocabulary.
This is more than a change in brand terminology. Such terms are used throughout entire industries, whether on websites or product documentation. They have been translated from English to a multitude of languages around the world – either as a direct translation with the same human connotations, an alternative local term for the identical leader-follower relationship or kept in English as imported words. Real estate agents now more commonly call a “master bedroom” the “main bedroom.” In the context of computing vocabulary, no English standard replacement prevails for “master/slave,” but the list of possible alternatives is long:
While all of these alternatives (and there are more potential replacements than we include in this list) may be appropriate in specific situations, some are much more precise than the terms they replace and will only be correct in certain contexts. For example, a “primary” versus a “replica server” only works if the secondary device is an exact copy of the first; a “source” versus a “sink” only works for a flow that goes from the first to the second, and not vice-versa.
Describing Computer Hierarchies Today
So how do enterprises striving to be as inclusive as possible handle the outdated “master-slave” terms when describing a hardware, software, or process relationship? They strive to do the right thing for their customers, partners, and employees, but struggle with terms that are pervasive in all their company’s content. The challenge multiplies when you consider all the languages in their portfolio. Where do you start? An internet search today will not provide the answer – everyone is still working on this.
- Check with your peers within the same vertical market or industry. Is there a set of terms that your competitors, or component or software suppliers, are standardizing on?
- Think about search engine optimization (SEO). If you choose primary/replica, your main competitor goes with leader/follower, but your potential customer still searches for master/slave, how do they find your product information? What is your SEO strategy – in all languages? Does SEO trump inclusive language?
- Align with developers. Software products that engineers rely on may have already changed their vocabulary: developers may already be driving your company’s terminology.
- Use it as an opportunity for more precise content. Instead of a blanket pair of terms for all hierarchical concepts, there may be alternative, inclusive terms that more exactly describe the relationship in various situations.
- Check with your target markets. Find out what customers and prospects expect – and how language is changing in each of your company’s locales. Any replacement English term must translate to words that global customers recognize.
- Work with your LSPs. Language service providers may have valuable insights into how to deal with these outdated terms – and can give you input from markets where your organization does not have a physical presence.
- Define terminology and apply it. If you choose to replace master/slave, make sure that all linguists know how to translate replacement terms, that master/slave must no longer be used – it’s a deprecated term, and any specific rules about context.
Hierarchical Terms Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg
Master and slave are just one pair of terms within a mass of words and concepts currently under scrutiny for inclusivity. Harking back to Dictionary.com’s choice of “allyship” as word of the year for 2021, major enterprises – especially in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries – are striving to develop their inclusive language policy, and this will no doubt become a major effort for localization teams, in-country marketing, and language service providers.
Inclusive language may prove to be the biggest change in language since the 1947 Hutchins Commission drove the code of ethics in media, journalism, and reporting. At the same time, global enterprises must avoid “woke-washing” their brands – yes, another term added to dictionaries recently; Collins noted it as a suggested addition in 2019. Woke-washing is still under consideration by the dictionary but is growing in usage to describe companies paying lip-service to inclusivity that take little real action.
For more information, refer to Inclusive Language (report) and Inclusive Language - What You Need to Know (Webinar). And If you would like to share your experience implementing global inclusive language – whether for hierarchical terms or any other element of your content – please contact us.
About the Author