Covid-19 also changed the Spanish language

“Confinement”, “antigens”, “PCR”, “covidiota”, “Covid-19” or “SARS-Cov-2”, words that we have added to our daily language and that reflect how the pandemic also changed the Spanish language.

“The coronavirus pandemic that has shaken the world has caused radical changes in our lives that, of course, have left an indelible mark on the language.” With these words, the team of the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) took stock of how in recent months, all of us, Spanish speakers, have incorporated into our vocabulary words that did not exist or were barely used a few years ago, such as “Covid-19”, “coronavirus”, “antigens” or “lockdown”.

Coinciding with the end of 2020, the RAE published a list with the twelve most significant terms of the year, in collaboration with the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language. Each corporation selected those from their respective countries and “quarantine” Y “pandemic” were the most repeated.

Covid-19 changed languages ​​around the world: Pandemic, confinement, covidiot and other words that marked 2020

For its part, the FundéuRAE –the Foundation for Urgent Spanish– chose “confinement” as the word for 2020. In fact, although the term was part of the Dictionary of the Spanish Language since 1843, the RAE included in its latest update a new meaning to refer specifically to “isolation temporary and generally imposed on a population, a person or a group for reasons of Health or security ”.

Miguel Sánchez Ibáñez, professor of the Department of Applied Linguistics at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, highlights three phenomena of lexical creation that have prevailed in recent months to SINC: the import into Spanish of words from other languages ​​- from English mainly—, the transfer of terms from specialized languages ​​to common language, such as “PCR” or “antigens’”, and the creation of new words with ironic motivation, like “Cuarenpena” or “Covidiot”.

Regarding the technicalities, the linguist explains that a good part of the new users will not know what they mean with the same precision as the specialists who have been using them for years, but it is not necessary to include them in our discourse.

“It has already happened at other times in history with other medical terms, such as radiography, ultrasound, CT, resonance … It is a very interesting phenomenon because it implies a certain ‘resetting’ of already existing units that, suddenly, are transplanted from their original contexts of use to new ones in which they generate new conceptual relationships and semantics ”, maintains the researcher.

The initial confusion between the virus and the disease

At the beginning of the pandemic, when the World Health Organization (WHO) called as SARS-CoV-2 to this coronavirus and how Covid-19 Due to the disease it caused, there was some confusion among citizens, political leaders and the media when using both terms.

In a study published in the Journal of Science Communication, researchers from the LexiCon group of the University of Granada Amal haddad haddad Y Silvia Montero Martinez showed that the general term “coronavirus” was the most used in the English and Arabic media that they had analyzed.

“Through the analysis of a corpus of texts written in Spanish with the Sketch Engine program, we can see that the term ‘coronavirus’ is still used in many cases instead of Covid-19,” says Haddad to SINC. However, according to the linguist, some sources also try to add the term Covid-19 in parentheses to avoid making a mistake.

With this same program, the researchers have verified how before the health crisis the concept “corona virus”, with space between the two words, was used only to refer to some type of corona virus. Now, it is part of the general language.

“We are witnessing a creative explosion in relation to the lexicon of this pandemic,” says Montero. “It is a specific, global phenomenon that affects the entire population,” he adds.

Some philologists have put a figure for this creativity. Specific, Rafael Rodríguez-Ponga, doctor in philology and rector of the Abat Oliba CEU University, has identified 127 words or expressions that make up a “new covid language”.

This is collected in a chapter of the book Pandemic and resilience: academic contributions in times of crisis (2020). “It was and is necessary to give linguistic responses to the emergency. It is necessary to have words and meanings for the phenomena of the changing reality ”, he points out to SINC.

The linguists and philologists consulted agree that Spanish has adapted well to this new reality. “The Spanish, as a whole, is showing a great capacity for change, of adaptation, of renewal ”, highlights Rodríguez-Ponga.

For Haddad, the role of the RAE is also being important in this changing landscape and he considers that the adaptation process is being quite controlled, when examining each new term under a magnifying glass before including or excluding it.

Differences between children and the elderly

Are we all getting used to this new vocabulary equally? Linguists like Ines Olza they differentiate between different age groups in the way in which this adaptation is taking place. Although children and young people have not had complications when it comes to adopting new terms, with older people there can be some difficulties, especially with technicalities.

“Older speakers have much more established linguistic uses and, in general, are less permeable to changes although, as in everything, it also goes by characters and by individuals,” Olza, who is a researcher at the Institute for Culture and Society of the University of Navarra.

In the elderly and also in middle-aged people with a lower educational level, situations such as writing “covi 19” or “el covi” can occur. “Hearing a lot about these new phenomena, for example, on television or radio, but not reading about them or not documenting it in writing brings things like” covi 19 “, maintains the linguist.

In the case of the little ones, the fact that they have been published has helped them Children’s Stories related to the pandemic such as Alice and the coronavirus (2020), Coronavirus is not a prince (nor a princess) (2020) or I want to leave! (2020). “The vocabulary of the pandemic has been inserted into the educational system, both in the classroom and at home,” compares Haddad.

We are not at war

Something very common, especially during the first months of the health crisis, was listening to different national and international political representatives refer to the disease in war terms. SARS-CoV-2 was public enemy number one and we were all on the front lines fighting it. The linguists consulted agree that these types of metaphors, in the medium or long term, do not work and are even counterproductive.

“Some studies show that the war metaphor is associated with the emotions of fear that, on the one hand, can enhance the need to act against a threat but, on the other hand, it can end up demotivating citizens, especially when it lasts over time ”, warns SINC Laura Filardo, professor in the department of English Philology at the University of Valladolid.

In the case of cancer, research showed that this type of language could be harmful for patients, especially when the disease was incurable, since they ended up feeling responsible for losing that fight.

According to Filardo, the use of war metaphors continued over time and the relationship in speeches with other warlike conflicts, such as civil war, can favor the transmission of polarized speeches.

Aware of the risks that the use of these metaphors could have for the covid-19 health crisis, on March 22, 2020, Olza published a tweet in which he proposed to use other alternative metaphors, following the example of what he had done. linguist Elena Semino with cancer patients in Lancaster (UK).

This is how the #ReframeCovid initiative was born, offering alternative ways to view the current global emergency with other metaphors that bring people together in difficult times. Anyone can contribute by writing down their ideas in an open source document or emailing their metaphors to

“Sports metaphors, those that use natural elements to conceptualize the development of the disease or virus, or work with the visual anchor of the curve, tend to help better in the long run to describe this very long coexistence that we are having with the virus and with their comings and goings, ”says Olza.

The words that will last

Using a new metaphor, although we have not yet glimpsed the end of the tunnel, when all this is over, will we keep this new lexicon or will we forget it as if it had been a bad dream? Sánchez gives as an example other words that were very popular a few years ago and now have a much more minority use, such as “Fracking” or “sorpasso”.

“However, it is likely that the lexicon of the pandemic will remain in our collective memory for quite some time, even after it is over, which will make it easier for us to rekindle some of its meanings for other different contexts,” he shuffles.

For example, words that could be completely settled in our language, in the judgment of the linguist, could be “confinement” in a medical context and not war or legal, or the use of the concept of “bubbles” as small contact groups.

“There are new words, like ‘covid’, or new meanings, like “confine”, which I think will remain forever. In other cases, there have been creations that are merely passing phenomena, such as “Coronabonos”, which respond to the needs of the moment ”, says Rodríguez-Ponga. We do not know which words will survive a pandemic to which we are anxious to put an end to it.

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