Language reform

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Language reform is a type of language planning by massive change to a language. The usual tools of language reform are simplification and purification. Simplification makes the language easier to use by regularizing vocabulary, grammar, or spelling. Purification makes the language conform to a version of the language perceived as 'purer'.

Note that language reforms occur at a punctual point in time; this article does not discuss changes in languages that took place over several centuries, such as the Great Vowel Shift.


By far the most common form of language reform, simplification involves spelling simplification (cf. spelling reform); however, inflection, syntax, vocabulary and word formation can all be simplified in addition. For example, in English, there are many prefixes that mean "the opposite of", e.g. un-, in- or im-, a(n)-, de-, etc. A language reform might propose to eliminate all these miscellaneous prefixes and replace them by just one, say un-. On top of this, there are words such as "good" and "bad" that roughly mean the opposite of each other, but would be better (in terms of simplicity) portrayed as "good" and "ungood", dropping "bad" from the language altogether.

However, the most common form of simplification is the adoption of new spelling reforms. Several major world languages have undergone wholesale spelling reforms: Spanish (in the 18th century), Portuguese (in 1911 and 1945, in Portugal, in 1943 and 1971 in Brazil, and in 2009 in all countries), German (in 1901-1902 and 1996-1998), Irish in 1948 and Russian (in 1708 and 1918).


Linguistic purism is the opposition to any changes of a given language, or the desire to undo some changes the language has undergone in the past. Occasionally purism reforms can inadvertently succeed in complicating a language, e.g. during the renaissance period some dictionaries complicated spelling by adopting false Latin etymologies:

  • iland became island (from the Latin insula, although island is actually a Germanic word, compare Dutch Eiland)
  • ile became isle (also from insula)


Examples of language reforms are:

Instances in popular culture

See also


  1. Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns, Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Journal of Language Contact, Varia 2, pp. 40-67 (2009).
  2. Let my people know!, Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Jerusalem Post, May 18, 2009.
  3. Kálmán Szily presented approx. 10,000 words in his book A magyar nyelvújítás szótára ("Dictionary of Hungarian language reform", vol. 1–2: 1902 and 1908), without aiming to be comprehensive
  • Geoffrey Lewis, The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-19-925669-1.