Back in college, I majored in physics and astrophysics. Often times, that background actually serves me well as a writer and editor. I learned to read things carefully and developed a keen eye for precision in language. Even so, it sometimes gets me in trouble in the writing world. You see, physicists are trained to ask why things work. We take a lot of math courses where we are presented with rules, but told not to accept them at face value. Mathematical theorems must be proven to work. Language also has its share of grammar and spelling rules that have evolved over time. However, sometimes I find myself asking why those rules need to be. More than once, I’ve frustrated writers and editors with my desire to understand why a rule must be applied, rather than just accepting what’s stated in a style guide.
A case in point is the rule that says you must italicize words from foreign languages. Part of the problem is that this is a “soft” rule because it contains the caveat that foreign words in common use don’t need to be italicized. Given the evolving nature of language and the shrinking of the world because of travel and the internet, this can be a fuzzy line.
At one point, I had been told this was a rule that stems from Victorian England and was started as a way to indicate the inferiority of non-English words. However, in doing some research, I find the practice of italicizing at least some foreign words is much older than the Victorian age and goes back at least to the beginning of typography. I have also found the rule expressed in Italian, Spanish, and French grammar guides as well as English ones. However, I have not seen the practice widely used by Germans. The photo at the left shows a page of the Gutenberg Bible which shows words (though not foreign words) highlighted in a different color for emphasis.
The most convincing argument I’ve seen for italicizing foreign words was attributed to Sandra Cisneros, who suggests that it can be helpful for distinguishing words that look alike but sound different and mean different things. A good example would be the English word mole (a small animal) and the Spanish word mole (pronounced molay and means a sauce). However, even within English, we have confusing words such as lead (pronounced leed and meaning to take charge and variations thereon) and lead (pronounced led and meaning the base metal). As an editor, I often see led (the past tense of the verb “to lead”) misspelled as “lead”.
The most convincing argument I’ve heard for not italicizing foreign words is that it doesn’t really reflect the way we use language. For example, living in New Mexico, less than an hour from the Mexican border, many of my neighbors of all ethnicities are fluent in both English and Spanish. They intermix words and phrases from both languages without really thinking about it. As a writer in this region, that usage is something I want to reflect. However, do I really represent the way they are using language accurately if I italicize a large percentage of their dialog?
Because of this last reason, my tendency is to avoid the practice of italicizing foreign words in my writing even though it’s recommended in most style guides. It’s a practice that seems more divisive than inclusive. That said, I’m always willing to consider alternative points of view as long as they address the reason why the rule exists as opposed to a rote quoting of style guides. I’d be especially interested if anyone can give me a good reference to a history of how this practice of italicizing foreign words came about—or really any good history of English grammar.