XTM Advent Calendar Day One – Word of the Year
The Oxford English Dictionary has selected its word of the year. The choice for 2021 is “vax”. It’s been difficult to avoid the word, or some variation on it, this year. It’s generated a range of derivatives – vax sites, vax cards, getting vaxed and being fully vaxed – that offer a useful snapshot of life in the time of COVID-19.
We applaud the vaccination process that has kept people safe this year, and “vax” has more to recommend it than some previous choices. The 2014 word of the year was “vape”. Defined as “to inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette”, it allows people to simulate the act of smoking without the health risks. It allows them to look and feel as if they’re doing something. It was a very modish choice, and a very empty one. And while “vax” references something of value, it’s hardly a word that will echo through the ages. We can’t blame the OED for reflecting language trends, but if we dig a little deeper there must be other words that mean a little more.
Many language service and technology leaders combine a spirit of innovations with a spirit of altruism. Since its inception in 1993, Translators without Borders (TWB) has provided admirable support to organizations including Doctors Without Borders, Medecins du Monde, UNICEF and Oxfam. TWB facilitates communication and cooperation where the stakes are highest. In 2021, in partnership with Mercy Corps, TWB has developed a multilingual chatbot dedicated to improving COVID-19 understanding in north eastern Nigeria. The chatbot enables users to submit questions in their native language and receive medically accurate answers instantly, and in an engaging, conversational style. The tool, named Shehu, may not deliver a vax, but it does deliver facts.
Data gathered anonymously from chatbot users is being used to address the questions people have about COVID-19 and the gaps in their knowledge. Going forward, humanitarian organizations will be able to use this information to plan their communication, shutting down rumours and scaremongering. In a time of uncertainty, this source of truth and comfort is invaluable.
The word shehu is in everyday use in all languages of the region. Its literal translation is “a person respected for their learning. A leader of their village.” That seems appropriate. Language technology is a leadership tool that makes the world a global village. At XTM International we’re privileged to work with leaders respected throughout the localization industry for their learning, and its practical applications. Like Translators Without Borders, they see language technology as a platform for human ingenuity and as an enabler of social and economic good.
Language can amuse us by reflecting the fad of a moment, and it can irritate us by giving a label to things we would just as soon forget. And sometimes it can elevate us by capturing the spirit of communication and cooperation that breaks down barriers. Language technology enables global communication. It delivers global healthcare. It stops wars.
The word of the year is “Shehu”.