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David

The Language Thread

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OK, so they want to give us flak just because the etsatz anglophone culture is blitzing their own. Frankly, it's just the zeitgeist - nothing anyone can do about it. Sure, you can try to hang on to kitsch national identities but in the modern Europe, the concept of individual languages is, frankly, kaput. Still, if it upsets the Germans then I have to confess to a touch of schadenfreude.

:notworthy:D

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The language spoken by the empire builders seems to hang around for centuries, long after the empires themselves have collapsed. Once it was Latin; now it's English. The prognosis could be that English itself will eventually split into as many 'dialects' as Latin did, mostly not interchangeable, but I suppose with modern communications this is less likely.

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Just thought I'd share this fascinating article about how language can shape the way we think.

 

I particularly enjoyed the section about how people (e.g. aborigines) think about space and time in comparison to people who speak languages originating in Europe.

 

Also how the way gender is used in the grammar of some languages influences artwork. This reminded me of something else I read (must try to remember what it was), regarding how often sexist concepts are hidden within language making it more difficult to challenge. For example a man who looses out on promotion to a woman might be described by some as feeling emasculated by that and yet there is no equivalent for a woman in the same situation. This article doesn't speak about that, but still raises some intriguing issues.

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Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought is very good on the way we often use language to deliberately mis-communicate. He goes pretty deeply into those cultural issues you mention too.

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This is indeed fascinating. Thank you for posting.
You're welcome!

 

Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought is very good on the way we often use language to deliberately mis-communicate. He goes pretty deeply into those cultural issues you mention too.
I love Steven Pinker's work, this short video narrated by him is one of my favourite of the RSAnimate series

 

<iframe src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/3-son3EJTrU" allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" width="560"></iframe>

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Pinker is pretty tough going at the start, but becomes intriguing if you can stay with him and becomes very funny indeed - like the duck who becomes part of the dialogue in the cartoon where a man ponders the notice Do Not Feed the Duck, when there are two ducks on the pond. 'Quack!' says the duck (or rather one of them).

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Just thought I'd share this fascinating article about how language can shape the way we think.

 

Indeed. One of the (to me) strangest aspects about it is the relationship between language and the psychology of colour perception. For example, ancient Greek had no word for the colour blue: Homer describes the sky as light and the sea as brazen. Some people think that they actually could not see blue, despite the blue receptors in our eyes. OTOH I have met Italians who swear that they perceive two distinct colours, blu and azzurro in their language, where I can see only two different hues of the same colour, i.e. blue. It has also been claimed that Newton's contemporaries may have perceived indigo as a distinct colour, which today is only considered a hue due to the much reduced economic potency of the material. I wonder ever since why neither English nor German have a native word for the colour orange, and whether it happened some day that our Germanic ancestors met a colour they could not label by a name or whether the name taught them to see the colour.

 

(On a side note, I saw one rather recent English study claiming that the more colours a language is able to distinguish, the more developed is the culture behind it. On top of the list was, obviously, English, with the full set of 11 examined colour words. They did not mention Italian which according to their system would apply 12 words, nor Russian which makes the same distinction.)

 

-----

 

Now reading the linked article, some comments strike me as right on the mark. For example the following passage:

 

"He also made another observation. This was an informal observation about art. He looked at the way artists portray abstract things like justice or death or time or love or charity in paintings and in sculptures, and he asked, how do they decide whether to make death a man or a woman? How do they decide to make truth or time a man or a woman? He noticed, for example, that Russians portrayed death as an old woman, whereas Germans are much more likely to portray death as a man. He again hypothesized that this has to do with grammatical gender."

 

Well, what did Terry Pratchett do about DEATH? But I can confirm that for my part. I am a German and, hence, used to perceive death as male. My wife is Slovenian and, as are all Slavs, used to a female word for death, which sounds to me rather odd. But their artists have a lot of fun with the options that their grammar offers. Once we attended to a Slovenian ballet performance which described dying as an erotic affair between a young man and Death incarnated as a sexy girl. Impossible to do in front of a German audience! It might be mentioned that the Germans of Silesia adopted the female death from the Poles, calling her "Tödin" rather than "Tod", which sounds really whacky to the rest of us.

 

Another study has shown that Frenchmen associate a bridge preferably with male adjectives like "strong" and "sturdy" (le pont) while Germans prefer female epithets like "slender" (die Brücke). I wonder how Frenchmen are dealing with the fact that in their language, all planets are female (la Jupiter!).

 

For that reason, German readers often feel uncomfortable when reading English novels. Meeting a phrase like "Alex turned to his neighbour on the next chair", we perceive information lacking which is - to us - vital for imagining the scene: Is Alex' neighbour a man or a woman*? Inevitably, our brains insert a "generic male" here, and when after three pages, the neighbour is suddenly referenced as "she", we stumble, are pissed off because the author hasn't told us that before, and feel forced to reread the whole chapter. OTOH, I was most surprised to learn from "The History of the Hobbit" that Tolkien's Mirkwood spiders are male, since a spider is of female gender in German, and in this case I went with the wrong mental image for decades!

 

Now imagine how ridiculous English attempts to erase even the last traces of "genderism" from their language, or avalanches of "he or she", "his or her" in a text passage, appear to us who simply cannot escape mentioning gender with every single noun that we utter.

 

* Incidentally, it may happen that different translators come up with different sexes when they translate the same text from English and the author has been too ambiguous. I have seen such examples.

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Some very interesting stuff you've said there Romanike. Being fluent in several languages certainly gives you a unique perspective on things.

 

Speaking of genders, I wasn't sure when reading some of your other posts whether you were male or female until you mentioned your Slovenian wife. That's often true of people online, which is what I love about the internet - things like gender, age, status etc don't matter - so democratising!!

 

On a side note, I saw one rather recent English study claiming that the more colours a language is able to distinguish, the more developed is the culture behind it.

I think I might have agreed with this statement once over (perhaps even only a few days ago), but having read another article about how cultures develop I think it's perhaps unfair to describe some cultures as more developed than others. We simply all adapt and develop to fit in with our environment. So we have developed differently to others, not more than. I suspect there may be so many colour words in the English language because we're such mongrels :D (this spellchecker doesn't like the way I spell "colour" btw - grrr).

 

If you enjoyed that article you might also like this. It's all about how culture may shape all our cognitive processes including visual perception, spatial awareness and reasoning on concepts such as fairness. (I know I'm a bit of topic here but language and culture are very closely linked). It's a bit of a long read, but I found it absolutely fascinating and it's a study which appears to have turned a lot of previous social science thinking on its head.

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If you enjoyed that article you might also like this. It's all about how culture may shape all our cognitive processes including visual perception, spatial awareness and reasoning on concepts such as fairness.

 

Thank you for the link! That article is indeed interesting. And it ties in, of course, with the shaping of culture by language and, hence, the shaping of the cognitive processes by culture. One simple example may help to illustrate the topic: My wife's native language, Slovenian, does not only distinguish singular and plural (let's say jaz = I and mi = we), but also a full-fledged dual (midwa = "me two", both of us), an odd relic from Indoeuropean grammar that is, to my knowledge, extinct in any other European languages. For us foreigners, this is just another awkward troublemaker in the grammar lessons, but my wife is steadfast that applying a dual number to two persons, say, yourself and a friend or lover, creates in a native Slovenian speaker a feeling of intimacy that she finds lacking in other languages. Here it is obviously language again that helps shaping culture - and literature, as the dual provides the Slovenian author with endless subtleties that we cannot imitate in our own coarse grammar.

 

Or take the notorious problem of the translating business with the absence of a familiar second-person pronoun in English. Any translator of literature faces the problem that in the German culture (and cognitive processes), you start with addressing someone politely Sie, then, at some point, you shift to the familiar pronoun du (though this rule is much less strict now if you are younger than 35), creating again a cognitive perception of intimacy that the universal "you" is obviously lacking. It is, hence, almost impossible, though obligatory, to establish this process in a novel translated from English.

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My daughter is working on her Honors Thesis as we speak (2 weeks until the final draft is due) and all of her original sources are in Spanish. I've been working with her on translation and even involved a friend from Peru who then involved her father. Here's the sentence that gave us the most trouble:

 

"No se pueda senalar que el krausismo fuera un movimiento emancipador, ni mucho menos."

 

An exact translation is as follows:

 

"It is not possible to indicate that Krausism was an emancipatory movement, or much less."

 

But that really doesn't make a lot of sense, especially the last clause. The author appears to have been saying that the movement wasn't quite as emancipatory as everyone says it is, but in a very circular way. So then I came up with:

 

"It would be too much to say that Krausism was an emancipatory movement."

 

But that wasn't really literal and I might have been messing with the meaning a bit.

 

My next try was:

 

"Krausism was almost, but not quite, an emancipatory movement."

 

But that had the same problem.

 

Finally, with multiple emails, my daughter, my friend, my friend's father, and I all came up with the following:

 

"It is not possible to state with certainty whether Krausism was an emancipatory movement or something much less."

 

I think that's better, but still a bit circular. My daughter is now working with a professor who is much less tied to literal translation and so my hope is that she comes up with a sentence that is a little easier to follow.

 

This exercise has increased my already-very-great admiration for good translators.

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Ni mucho menos is an idiom for emphasis with a slight sarcastic tone. Hence, perhaps, "it is certainly not possible to say that Krausism was an emancipatory movement" or "you certainly couldn't describe Krausism as an emancipatory movement". You can't translate idiom directly, and attempts to replace a foreign idiom with an English one can sound odd if it is inconsistent with the voice being used.

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We had theoized that was an idiom, but when the native speakers we consulted didn't identify it that way, we assumed either that it wasn't an idiom at all or it was one that hadn't made it to Peru. Thank you. I will tell her.

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This exercise has increased my already-very-great admiration for good translators.

 

Oh, yes, problems like these we are frequently running into in that business. And sometimes you simply cannot avoid a cultural bias from slipping in. Grammatic gender has already been mentioned: I have actually read articles by native speakers of English who admit their profound incapacity to perceive gender as anything else than a most superfluous luxury, since English can (almost) do without: "Its only obvious use is to make endless references to someone's sex." But in fact, a whole range of cognitive processes is again involved here. Let me just add one example to those already stated:

 

I am amusing myself with comparing the German and the Slovenian translation of Ursula LeGuin's "Earthsea" series. Now, if you know the books, you may remember that in Vol. 1, a young magician is hunted by a thing he has released himself, referred to as "the Shadow" throughout. Its proper pronoun is "it" in English, but that won't do in other languages. In German, the Shadow is male (der Schatten), which is innocent enough. In Slovenian, however, it is female (Senca), and this gives the whole story a distinct, though unintentional, erotic connotation which is absent from the original story. That ties in again with the article Squirls linked to earlier in this thread: It is language that shapes our thinking, and vice versa.

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You can have "it" in German, it's "es". However, they translator might have thought "er" sounds more dangerous.

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Sorry, you cannot. The "es" may only apply if it substitutes a neuter noun. Since "Schatten" is male, the only choice is "er". (Which may lead to some confusion, because "das Mädchen" = the girl is neuter and requires to continue with "es", but some writers think that sounds awkward and give preference to sex rather than gender, applying "she" and inevitably creating loud howls among readers with education in grammar.)

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Yes, if you see it that way. Of course, you can only use "it=es" when you use it for a neutral noun.

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Did anyone try the BBC Grammar Quiz?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22512744

 

I have a degree in English Language and have taught English for *ahem* years and I still only got 6/10!

(Worse - or maybe better - my more pedantic and erudite friend and colleague only got 5. Hee hee.)

But, really. It was less a test of ability to use grammar than a test of arcane rules and terms. Who needs to know what a gerund is?

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I got 9 out of 10. I missed the family introduction one. And I found that annoying.

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Who needs to know what a gerund is?
Anyone who teaches English to speakers of another language. On the other hand it's not very helpful to introduce non-existent terminology - fallen subjunctive... - in a quiz like this.

 

The family one was very, very tricky.

 

And the one about that/which is a load of bollocks: there is nothing wrong with "The car which ran me over was speeding."

 

I got 10 but then I'm a grammar fiend :teeth:, as some of you may know.

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Anyone who teaches English to speakers of another language.

Fair enough, but it was aimed at native speakers, not at a subgroup of ESOL teachers.

I thought the that/which one was spurious. Whereas I can get on my high horse when it comes to defining -v - non defining relative clauses, because it can affect meaning.

And those clauses that dangle without a subject. It really annoys me when I get a letter which starts:

"As a valued customer, we thought you would like to know about ..."

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