Migration of words and original spellings

  • fact: an Italian word spelled “ciao” is used in many latin-based languages in Europe with a similar meaning. It is used as an interjection when people part, or as a sign of surprise.
  • fact: in several European languages other than Italian, this word is actually used in writing by speakers, and spelled differently than in Italian — often localized to make the spelling match the pronunciation rules of the language.
  • Linguistically, the fact that people decide to change the spelling of a foreign word, despite widely distributed knowledge of its original spelling, can be interpreted as a takeover: the word is transformed so that it “belongs” more to the local language, so that it “looks” less foreign than it actually is. This effectively hides its origin: for instance, while “ciao” can morphologically be recognized as Italian, the French version “tchô” cannot.
  • Incidentally, one effect of this takeover by several languages in Europe is the multiplication of the number of different words used to express the same cognate (basic meaning).
  • fact: this word is not part of the dictionaries for the languages where it is used (other than Italian), or its official spelling is the Italian spelling.

Hence some interesting questions:

  • do you recognize the word “ciao” when you see it written using this Italian spelling?
  • how many different spellings do you know for it?
  • which spelling would you teach to (say) a child who learns the word for the first time? Why?

Do you think these questions are important? Why?