“How far is language really able to communicate something new, something that runs contrary to my expectations,” asks Tim Parks at the New York Reviww of Books: “Or rather, how far will I allow it to do so? One of the intriguing aspects when teaching translation is watching students struggle with sentences that say things they didn’t expect them to say. They are used, of course, to the process of passing from not understanding a foreign text to understanding it, that moment when a seemingly meaningless drift of words suddenly falls into place. But they also know that they often make mistakes. They must be careful. If the text says something ordinary and commonplace, there will be little doubt in their minds: “This is the kind of thing people say. It must be ok.” But if a writer should come up with some perplexing idea, or, worse still, some declaration running contrary to received wisdom or political correctness, then anxiety sets in; the words will be examined and re-examined even if their individual meaning and the overall syntax is fairly clear. In many cases, especially if the novelty is expressed subtly, students, but also practiced translators, will end up reducing the text to something more conventional.”
Read on at the New York Reviww of Books
- At the same time at Daily Writing Tips – “Who Is in Charge of Language?” by Mark Nichol: “Who invented the English language, and to which mental institution was that person thereafter committed (or from which did the culprit escape)? More to the point, who regulates language, and why, as demonstrated in any one of countless exhibits of spoken and written discourse, are they doing such as poor job of it?
How do we, as a culture with a common predominant language, decide what is correct English, whether spoken or written? The corpus, or body, of our language is determined by a precarious consensus based on the contributions of prescriptivist linguists and descriptivist lexicographers, the traditions and innovations of professional writers, and the speaking and writing habits of the general populace. And it is the tension between all those participants in the process that makes pinning the language down such a challenge.”
- Read on at Dailywritingtips.com
“IF FORCED to pick my favourite part of the history of English, I’d be torn. There are so many to choose from. Would I pick the Great Vowel Shift, the mid-millennium change in pronunciation that largely explains English’s inconsistent spelling? Perhaps I’d turn to colonial times, when English vocabulary ballooned. I do like Noah Webster’s attempts to change American English spelling in the name of efficiency, too,” writes dictionary-maker’s Samuel Johnson’s blog at The Economist.
“But my favourite must be the Norman invasion of 1066. When the Normans, who spoke a dialect of Old French, ruled over England, they changed the face of English. Over the ensuing two centuries, thousands of Old French words entered English. Because the ruling class spoke Old French, that set of vocabulary became synonymous with the elite. Everyone else used Old English. During this period, England’s society was diglossic: one community, two language sets with distinct social spheres. Today, English-speakers pick and choose from the different word sets—Latinate (largely Old French borrowings) and Germanic (mostly Old English-derived words)—depending on the occasion. Although English is no longer in a diglossic relationship with another language, the Norman-era diglossia remains reflected in the way we choose and mix vocabulary. In informal chat, for example, we might go on to ask something, but in formal speech we’d proceed to inquire.”
A brief list of misused English terminology in EU publications [PDF Download] is a fascinating look at the emerging dialect of English that is emerging out of the EU bureaucracy, in which odd bureaucratic language has to be translated from and to many languages. It’s a good window into concepts that are common in one nation’s bureaucratic tradition, but not others’:
Explanation: the most common meaning of ‘dispose of’ is ‘to get rid of’ or ‘to throw away’; it never means ‘to have’, ‘to possess’ or ‘to have in one’s possession’. Thus, the sentence ‘The managing authority disposes of the data regarding participants.’ does not mean that it has them available; on the contrary, it means that it throws them away or deletes them. Similarly, the sentence below does not mean: ‘the Commission might not have independent sources of information’, it means that the Commission is not permitted to discard the sources that it has.
Example: ‘The Commission may not be able to assess the reliability of the data provided by Member States and may not dispose of independent information sources (see paragraph 39)46.’
As Bruce Sterling says, “I would not expect ‘Brussels English’ to get any closer to grammatically correct British English; on the contrary I would expect it in future to drift into areas of machine translation jargon, since that’s a lot cheaper than hiring human translators who are as skilled as the author of this document.”
No matter what E.L. James tells you, the professional world still values the ability to write well–and that invaluable skill includes the nearly forgotten art of copy editing. We mention this fact because sometimes tiny little errors can be both costly and embarrassing.
In case you don’t live in New York City (congratulations), the Metropolitan Transportation Authority just earned the ill will of all eight million of us city folk by raising the price of a single subway fare from $2.25 to $2.50. The MTA’s communications team, however, does not appear to have received the message: the organization printed out thousands of updated maps that still listed the minimum price of a pay-per-ride subway card at $4.50 (it’s now $5).
Of course, all those thousands of maps are now useless. The price to correct this incredibly simple mistake? A quarter of a million dollars. That may not be a lot for an organization that serves so many people every day, but it does give us a great opportunity to make a point: your voice matters. Whether writing materials for yourself, your firm or your client, make sure you edit everything twice. Misspellings on your own Facebook page are fine–but awful as grammar and punctuation on the social network may be, those errors never cost anybody so much for so little.
That’s George W Bush, we suppose.
The Register reports that “Reg reader Robert spotted the amusing cockup when he tried to translate an article from daily French newspaper Le Monde.
As we all know, old W was cut loose from the White House in January 2009 after two terms, and was soon replaced by one Barack Obama – a man currently seeking another four years in the Oval Office – after Republican candidate John McCain lost the November 2008 race.
But Google Translate DOESN’T KNOW.
How do you translate the untranslateable? “Age-tori” in Japanese (“To look worse after a haircut”) has no equivalent word in English, but it should, because it’s useful (I’m sure you’ve all had this happened to you at one point in time or another).
Irish illustrator Fuchsia Macaree did it with aplomb with artful alphabets. Here’s how she translated the untranslateable using illustrations.
The Guardian reports: “The Queen may be celebrating her jubilee, but the Queen’s English Society, which has railed against the misuse and deterioration of the English language, is to fold.
For 40 years the society has championed good English – and hasn’t been above the occasional criticism of the Queen’s own pronouncements – but it has finally conceded that it cannot survive in the era of textspeak and Twitter.
Having attempted to identify a role for the society and its magazine, Quest, “for the next 40 years”, the society chairman, Rhea Williams, decided it was time to close. She announced the group’s demise in a terse message to members following the annual meeting, which just 22 people attended. “Despite the sending out of a request for nominations for chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, webmaster and membership secretary, no one came forward to fill any role,” she said. “So I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist. There will be one more Quest, then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up. The effective date will be 30 June 2012.”
She said it was sad that the society was to close but added that the difficulty in getting people to take on roles in the society was a problem being experienced by other groups across the UK.
“Things change, people change,” she said. “People care about different things. If you look at lots of societies, lots of them are having problems. Lives have changed dramatically over the last 40 years. People don’t want to join societies like they used to.”
Former Tory MP Gyles Brandreth, the society’s patron, was nevertheless optimistic: “The Queen’s English isn’t under threat. Her Majesty can sleep easy. The language is still in the good hands of all the people who speak good English.”
He described the members and organisers of the society as “a group of enthusiasts celebrating the richness and diversity of the English language”, and is convinced that whether or not enough volunteers can be found to keep the society going, their enthusiasm and love for good English will live on.
He added: “I spoke to the society about six months ago. They were in good heart.”
The closure followed a major setback earlier this year when the society’s plans for an Academy of Contemporary English collapsed.”
Read on at The Guardian.
If you didn’t already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” theories of language. This pseudo-controversy, a staple of literary magazines for decades, was ginned up again this month by The New Yorker, which has something of a history with the bogus battle.
Slate: “Fifty years ago, the literary critic Dwight Macdonald lambasted the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary for aiming to be “a recording instrument rather than … an authority” and insufficiently censuring such usages as “deprecate” for depreciate, “bored” for disinterested, and “imply” for infer. And in a recent issue, Joan Acocella, the magazine’s dance critic, fired a volley of grapeshot at the Fifth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary and at a new history of the controversy by the journalist Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars. Acocella’s points were then reiterated this week in a post by Ryan Bloom on the magazine’s Page-Turner blog. The linguistic blogosphere, for its part, has been incredulous that The New Yorker published these “deeply confused” pieces. As Language Log put it, “Either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved.”
Read on at Slate.
English is so limited sometimes. There are so many kickass words in other languages, that describe concepts that we just don’t have one word for in English. And that’s a shame, because sometimes we find ourselves in situations that English just can’t describe.
IO9: “Science fiction and fantasy are full of those sorts of quirky situations and concepts, in fact. Here are 10 words that have no English equivalent, and the science fiction and fantasy classics that you’d want to use them to describe.“
We really liked No.6: Verschlimmbesserung (German)
The Meaning: A verschlimmbesserung is a supposed improvement that makes things worse. There are actually a lot of words for this in a lot of languages, and that makes me think that English needs to get on the ball and coin a native word for this concept. Everyone needs it.
The Work: Did people want the ‘first’ episodes in the Star Wars series? You bet they did. Did they need them? Debatable. Did that new-old trilogy add anything to what was already there? No. Quite the opposite. And you could say the same for the many re-released CGI upgrades that the original movies received over the years. Some things shouldn’t be improved. Or at least, certainly not in the way they were.
By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish. What is lost when a language goes silent?
An interesting story by Russ Rymer for National Geographic: “One morning in early fall Andrei Mongush and his parents began preparations for supper, selecting a black-faced, fat-tailed sheep from their flock and rolling it onto its back on a tarp outside their livestock paddock. The Mongush family’s home is on the Siberian taiga, at the edge of the endless steppes, just over the horizon from Kyzyl, the capital of the Republic of Tuva, in the Russian Federation. They live near the geographic center of Asia, but linguistically and personally, the family inhabits a borderland, the frontier between progress and tradition. Tuvans are historically nomadic herders, moving their aal—an encampment of yurts—and their sheep and cows and reindeer from pasture to pasture as the seasons progress. The elder Mongushes, who have returned to their rural aal after working in the city, speak both Tuvan and Russian. Andrei and his wife also speak English, which they are teaching themselves with pieces of paper labeled in English pasted onto seemingly every object in their modern kitchen in Kyzyl. They work as musicians in the Tuvan National Orchestra, an ensemble that uses traditional Tuvan instruments and melodies in symphonic arrangements. Andrei is a master of the most characteristic Tuvan music form: throat singing, or khöömei.
When I ask university students in Kyzyl what Tuvan words are untranslatable into English or Russian, they suggest khöömei, because the singing is so connected with the Tuvan environment that only a native can understand it, and also khoj özeeri, the Tuvan method of killing a sheep. “
Read on at National Geographic.
Introducing the Endangered Languages Project
The Endangered Languages Project, a site for interested groups and individuals to share research and collaborate on projects to help preserve languages that are under threat in the modern age, with the aim to document some 3,000 languages — half of all the world’s languages — “on the verge of extinction,” Google’s Clara Rivera Rodriguez and Jason Rissman write in a blog post for Google.