Languages of Privacy

Spread across different European contexts, when we dig just a little bit, we can find many historical linguistic traces showing how diverse the language to speak about privacy can be. By attending to these historical traces, we can notice that exercises in theorizing, defining, or formally conceptualizing  privacy—especially those attempts anchored in a modern-day view of privacy and of the private—are bound to find more than a few similarities and affinities with the past. The ideas behind the concept of privacy were already manifested, historically, in the languages that people used and adapted to speak about their attempts and strategies at controlling access to themselves and to information about themselves. And there have always been a lot of cross-fertilization among the languages. Let me share with you some examples I’ve been thinking about.

In contexts where English is used as a language of international communication, we can use the noun privacy to refer to the ability to regulate or adjust access to ourselves, our families, ideas, and resources. We can also use the adjective private to modify a resource or piece of information over which access is regulated. For example, a private school is a school over which access is regulated via the payment of tuition fees. Private property refers to real estate where the owner can choose who can enter. In a private conversation, only selected interlocutors are allowed to access the exchange.

Translations for the English terms privacy and private exist in other languages. For example, as I write in the year 2021, the Portuguese noun privacidade is an apt enough translation for the noun privacy, with meanings and connotations mapping quite well between the two languages. This equivalence between privacy and privacidade is likely due to the fact that the historical origins of the noun privacidade in Portuguese are recent, possibly from the 1970s, and can be traced to the noun privacy in English.1 The adjective privado/privada (here inflected as masculine and feminine, respectively) came into Portuguese much earlier, as a participle form of the Latin verb privare. This adjective has the sense of ‘conditioned or reserved access’ as well as ‘that which does not belong to the state’ but it can also connote ‘deprived’ of something.2 As a noun, the feminine participle form privada means toilet, a meaning that is reminiscent of the English privy used in the sense of bathroom. Like the noun form, the adjectives privado/privada can be translated as the English adjective private.3

But it was thanks to French, after the Norman Conquest, that the words private and privacy entered into the English lexicon. The earliest extant written example of the use of the adjectival form in English comes from a 13th century work called Ancrene Wisse (see my blog post about that text here). There, the term privite was borrowed from French and used alongside the Old English word dearnliche, both words meaning in a hidden or concealed manner:4

Hercnith nu, leove sustren, hu hit is uvel to uppin, ant hu god thing hit is to heolen god-dede, ant fleo bi niht as niht-fuhel, ant gederin bi theostre – thet is, i privite, ant dearnliche – sawle fode.

[Hear now, dear sisters, how it is evil to mention, and how good a thing it is to cover up a good deed, and fly by night as a night bird does and gather by darkness – that is, in privacy and secretly – the soul’s food.]5

French has the adjective form privé/privée (masculine and feminine, respectively) to describe that which concerns a person in their own life, as opposed to what concerns them in public or in official roles. French also has the verb priver meaning to deprive or to abstain from something. Just like in Portuguese, the history of these French terms is directly linked to the Latin verb privare and the participle form privatus.6

The French noun form privauté has been in use since Middle French with the sense of intimacy, familiarity, or secret, but can also appear in the plural privautés when the intended sense is excessive or unwelcome intimacy, especially of a sexual nature. It was derived from the adjective privé by adding a suffix, similarly to the word royauté.7 The earliest extant use of the noun appears in the 12th century Li quatre livre des Reis:

E Joab vint erranment devant le rei, si li dist: ‘Que as fait? Abner le fiz Ner vint devant tei, e purquei le laissas de tei en pais partir? Dun ne sez que pur çó i vint qu’il te deceüst é seüst tes privitez e quanque tu faiz?’8

[Then Joab went to the king and said, ‘What have you done? Abner came to you; why did you dismiss him, so that he got away? You know that Abner son of Ner came to deceive you, and to learn your comings and goings and to learn all that you are doing.’]9

In Miserere by the monk known as Reclus de Molliens, we find an example from the early part of the 13th century:

Veve, je te fais une enqueste :
Quieus vie vaut mieus, chele ou cheste?
Essaie l’as : di vérité !
Sont li marié sans moleste ?
N’acatent il moût kier le feste
De lor caitive privauté?10

This brief journey through history suggests to us that European languages are teeming with traces of words derived from the Latin privare or privatus. Dutch is another example: privacy as an English loanword is now incorporated into its lexicon, and the Dutch translation of article seven of the European charter of fundamental rights in Dutch uses the expression privé-leven where the English translation has private life.11

But as we saw from the use of the Old English term dearnliche in the Ancrene Wisse, other terms that are not derived from the Latin root priv* can of course be used to designate that idea of regulating or modulating access to ourselves, to our belongings, and to information about us. For example, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where the English translation uses the word privacy, the Frisian translation uses the expression persoanlike oangelegenheden, the Picard version uses lès-afe°res d’ine saquî ou di s’ famile, and the Dutch version uses persoonlijke aangelegenheden.12

We humans are capable of wonderful agility and flexibility in the terminology that we use to talk about our experiences. I look forward to investigating how other people around the world talk about their practices to regulate access to themselves, their families, their information. Languages are so nimble!

NOTE: this text used to be part of the article “Privacy and Social Spaces” that will appear in a forthcoming issue of TSEG – The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History.  I was advised to remove this section because it didn’t quite fit with the rest of my article. So instead of totally “killing my darling,” as the saying goes, I decided to adapt it and share it with you here on the blog. Hope you enjoy!

1    Houaiss 2001, p. 1553, quoted in Marcos Barbai and Maria Moreira, ‘A escrita de verbetes para a ENDICI: privado e privacidade’, Entremeios, Revista de Estudos do Discurso 13 (31 August 2016): 290, https://doi.org/10.20337/ISSN2179-3514revistaENTREMEIOSvol13pagina283a299.

2    ‘privado’, in Dicionário Priberam da Língua Portuguesa (Lisbon: Priberam, 2011).

3    Barbai and Moreira, ‘A escrita de verbetes para a endici’, 290.

4    For further discussion of the history of these words in English, see Natália da Silva Perez, ‘Ancrene Wisse: The Earliest Extant Use of the Word “Private” in Written English’, Centre for Privacy Studies (blog), 18 January 2021, https://privacy.hypotheses.org/1402.

5    Robert Hasenfratz, Ancrene Wisse (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), pt. 3, l. 308, https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/hasenfratz-ancrene-wisse.

6    ‘privé, privée, priver, se priver’, in Dictionnaire de français Larousse, n.d., https://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/priv%c3%a9/64013.

7    ‘Privauté’, in Trésor de La Langue Française Informatisé, accessed 10 January 2021, https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/privaut%C3%A9.

8    Ernst Robert Curtius, ed., Li quatre livre des Reis; die bücher Samuelis und der Könige in einer französischen bearbeitung des 12. jahrhunderts, nach der ältesten handschrift unter benutzung der neu aufgefundenen handschriften kritisch (Dresden: Gedruckt für die Gesellschaft für romanische literatur, 1911), 66, http://archive.org/details/liquatrelivredes00curt.

9    New Revised Standard Version, 2 Samuel 3:24-25, n.d.

10    Stanza 200, verse 12. According to the footnote to verse 12, several manuscripts spell it ‘priuete.’ Le Renclus de Moiliens, Li romans de Carité et Miserere du renclus de Moiliens: poèmes de la fin du XIIe siècle, ed. A.G. van Hamel (Paris: F. Vieweg, 1885), 243, http://archive.org/details/liromansdecarit01bartgoog.

11    ‘Handvest van de Grondrechten van de Europese Unie, Titel II, Artikel 7’, 26 October 2012, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/NL/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:12012P/TXT&from=EN.

12    ‘Dèclaråcion Dès Dreûts d’ l’ome Po Tos Lès Payîs Dè Monde’, n.d., https://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Pages/Language.aspx?LangID=frn2; ‘Universele Ferklearring Fan de Rjochten Fan de Minske’, n.d., https://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Pages/Language.aspx?LangID=fri; ‘Universele Verklaring van de Rechten van de Mens’, n.d., https://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Pages/Language.aspx?LangID=dut.