The evolution of language

Have you ever wondered how a new word comes about?

A language reflects its speakers, and like them, it is continuously changing and evolving. A language needs new words to continue developing and to therefore stay alive. A new word arises from nothing other than need: with progress, we need to give names to new concepts.

The creation of a word arises spontaneously, often based on the need for a word, which is subsequently adopted by the speakers of a language. And how often a new word is used will be a major factor in whether or not it becomes established and recognized in a language. This will depend a lot on each country and on its regulations. How does a new word become recognized in Spain? By becoming a part of the Dictionary of Spanish Language (DLE), which is the responsibility of the Spanish Royal Academy (RAE).

How does a word get into the dictionary?

First, the words that are likely to be included in the dictionary have to be detected. This is done in two ways: through proposals from speakers themselves and, in the case of Spanish, through analyses by the RAE’s (Spanish Royal Academy) academicians and lexicographers, who are in charge of observing how the language is used in the area where they reside.

Once there is a proposal, a word must make it through several checkpoints:

1. Specialized Commissions of the Royal Academy analyse the suggestion: What does the new word mean? What novelty does it contribute to the language? Is it used frequently? In what areas? Is the word documented? They also consider the possible controversies that a word could stir up (if it is a calque or a foreign word, for example), in addition to its spelling, its gender, the level of specialization and the thematic area.

2. If the proposal passes the first test, it is sent on to the Executive Committee of the Plenary Assembly, where the definition and the lexicography of the word are proposed.

3. The Institute of Lexicography prepares the documentation and the proposal and records and processes the conclusions about the new word. This Institute is also in charge of integrating the approved content in the dictionary.

4. The proposal is sent to the American commissions of the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language (ASALE), which make their final observations.

5. Finally, the new word goes back to the Executive Committee of the Plenary Assembly of academicians for approval.

Once this long journey has ended, the new word has made its way and can appear in the next update of the Dictionary of the Spanish Language, which is now usually in an electronic version. The new word will also appear in the next printed version of the dictionary.

And what does a translator do with all this?

As translators, we must be at the cutting edge: we must have perfect knowledge of the language and know which words are being used and form a part of the dictionary, and which ones don’t. Having this knowledge is important when choosing one word or another for a translation, because depending on the purpose, the public and the scope of the text, we’ll make one choice or another.

It’s a good idea to review the updates of new words published by the RAE on its web page. And of course, we always have to have a good repertoire of language resources and know where linguistic queries can be made.

We’ve learned how a new word gets into the dictionary. Do you have any word proposals? Submit your suggestion to the Spanish Royal Academy using its form!