The Language of the Internet

January 19, 2011

The ‘world’ part of www was at one time like the World Series, about as worldly as Elmer in Des Moines. But now it is almost truly of the world. But we still tend to assume that the language remains that of its founders. That is an easy assumption to make. During the course of my week, I have listened to the Filipino receptionist at an Italian hotel explain the facilities to its Russian visitors in English, passed a road sign on an Italian mountain saying ‘Life is beautiful, Drive Safe’ (it would be churlish to complain about the grammar) and noticed three judgments of the ECJ and its General Court {i}in French{/i} concerning the use of the phrases ‘BestBuy’, ‘Pine Tree’ and ‘Topcom’ (there was a judgment in English about the use of ‘Vogue’ but that harks back to a time when French was in fashion, in both senses). I read this week that there are half a billion English users in China and India alone. I have travelled widely in Africa and have been largely understood when speaking English from Cairo to the Cape (I’ll draw a veil over the time I tried French in Tunisia). The language of popular music is English, even (arguably) Abba. Rather disturbingly (especially given the prevalent obscenities), in no matter what the country, the language of the T-shirt slogan is English. So is the language of the web and IT. And so it will always be.

Or maybe not.

The question is not ‘will things change?’, because of course they will. The question is when is it sensible to devote resources, mental and financial, to cope with the change and to protect existing rights and exploit the new ones that arise from the wider use of non-English languages on the web. This is a serious question which does not seem to be high on the agenda for UK IT firms and their lawyers.

Consider though the recent roll out of internationalised country code Top Level Domains, which allows domain names entirely in non-Roman script. Jane Seager in her predictions for 2011 says that whether this ‘will make the Internet less anglo-centric … remains to be seen’ – which is fair enough for predictions {i}for 2011{/i}, but it it is only a latter of time before it makes a big difference. Chinese ‘firewalls’, and the cultural and political assumptions that go with them, are highly relevant here too. The growth of Islamic separatism cannot be discounted as an influence on the Internet and the way in which it will operate. But of course the biggest influence is the shift in the world economy and the very real rise in the sway which nations like China, India and Brazil have.

My guess is that a combination of the half a billion English users in China and India and the bilingual educated elite throughout the world will mean that I can happily survive with just English for many years to come. But beneath the top layer of the Internet there will be an awful lot of threats and opportunities in other scripts and other languages. Are you nagging your clients to look at this? Can they spot a reference to their trade names in Arabic? What about things that sound like their trade names and what about the use of phrases in foreign scripts that look like their trade names but sound different?

But this is not just a game of protection. Just as the French-speakers have latched on to ‘BestBuy’ and we invented a range of French-sounding trade names in the last century (and more recently Japanese sounding names for electrical goods), there will be a host of opportunites to adopt words and phrases that embody desirable aspects of exotic lands (and I don’t mean Jordan). Lawyers are hardly likely to be involved in choosing those phrases and terms but clearing the IP rights in them might be another matter. (I would give examples but fear that the use of suggested trade names in Cyrillic script will cause the SCL web site to explode.) For a handful of multinational law firms, this is almost child’s play. For the majority of IT lawyers, it is a challenge that needs little material action but it does require a strategy to be developed soon. Bonne chance.