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How Language Matters During a Global Pandemic

November 30, 2020


In 2020, people worldwide have been forced to shelter in place to better manage the spread of coronavirus. That has left many of us with fewer people to talk to and most often less diversity in our daily conversations. So, it would be easy to think that communication during these extraordinary times of a global pandemic would slow the evolution of language development and likely reduce the burden for linguists. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary, who normally publishes quarterly updates of its collection of word additions, recently told CNN that the only new word added to its official records during the pandemic has been the acronym COVID-19. Although this might indicate that this has been a slow year for lexicologists, it is important to dig deeper into how combinations of existing words and expressions have spread through a global audience almost as quickly as the coronavirus.

Word Combinations and Neologisms

No doubt COVID-19 has had a major impact on people around world; but from the linguistic side, how have the unexpected social changes impacted language use in the short-term? If we look back on this year of what seems like a thousand months, one of the earliest word combinations to catch the public’s attention was novel coronavirus and wuhan china. Using Google Trends free online tool for analyzing search queries across various regions, both neologisms peaked between January 26 and February 1, which was prior to detailed scientific observations being released to the media. The acronym covid-19, on the other hand, did not peak in Google search until March 22 - 28. About a week after covid-19 hit its peak, search queries like self-quarantine and stay-at-home-orders topped organic search results. Hydroxychloroquine peaked in search volume on July 26, shortly after being introduced through the news media. Google Trends further indicates, as communicators around the globe became more intimate with the deadly disease, the truncated word covid peaked on November 15 – 21. Interestingly, the phrase stress eating remained relatively low on Google search until early fall, and doomscrolling (the act of scrolling through massive amounts of bad news) was literally non-existent in search engine results until November of 2020.

Global Solidarity During Social Isolation

During World War II, the sudden exposure to unique idiolects among previously isolated groups of soldiers headed to war, as well as for the women who joined together to run the factories, was credited in part for America’s sudden rise in solidarity. Nonetheless, while lexicographers are deciding on which terms may have the staying power to be enshrined in dictionaries, many sociolinguists and scholars are focusing on applying the new language of quarantining in the global village. Unfortunately, both lower literacy rates and language availability affect hundreds of millions of people impacted by COVID-19. Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO), which is the international body tasked with coordinating a global response, makes information available in the six languages of the United Nations (English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish) as well as German, Hindi, and Portuguese. Although language technology is advancing rapidly, there are still problems related to multilingual standards for translations and linguistic limitations due to governmental restrictions in many countries.

Creative Formats for Pandemic Communications

English-centric multilingualism is the undisputed global lingua franca and world's leading intercultural communication tool associated with secondary speakers of the English language. But, with vaccines expected within months, a rapid response to slow the spread of coronavirus, will likely have to rely on innovative communication strategies that do not depend solely on verbal or written formats. The WHO recently released new guidelines for communicators and editors tasked with translating and delivering technical healthcare information via spoken, written, visual (i.e., fact sheets), and online sources. Language experts understand that complicated communications of potentially life-saving information must be concise, to the point, and easily understood to breakdown the communication barriers that stand in way of reducing the global health threat of the novel coronavirus. This certainly includes the regional and local neologisms that have developed in all corners of the world over the past nine months. Forever known as COVID-19, learning the name of the new disease is only a minuscule part of the global communications needed to combat the viral pandemic. Almost everyone in today’s global village will have to learn about public health concepts such as droplet transmission and flattening the curve to avoid spreading the deadly disease in their communities.

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