The Nature of Language

The status of a language is often reflected by the number of translations undertaken into and out of that language. A prime example is English which is the leader in this field with the greatest number of translations undertaken both into and out of it. This includes academic articles, scientific texts and literature. For example, a large proportion of literature published in non-English countries is translated from English – one has only to compare the Finnish and English publishing markets. In Finland, a large percentage of literature found in the homes of the average Finn is translated from English whereas the bookshelves of the average English or American citizen will contain a mere handful of books translated from other languages (and these will all tend to be European languages). This state of affairs reflects the global status of English.
In fact, it would not take long to create a ‘league table’ of the languages which are most translated. These statistics would allow us to accurately calculate the current worldstatus of each language. Of course, the respect allowed any one language has nothing to do with the syntax or semantics of the language but the political or economic strength of the country attached to this language. Can a language be ‘more’ of a language than another tongue? Global languages such as English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, German, Japanese and French are often regarded as superior to other non-global (‘lesser’) languages due to the superior economic or political (or religious) status attached to the respective states that use these languages. There are people who believe that English ‘suits music better’ and has thus been able to conquer the world of pop music. French ‘sounds beautiful’ and is still regarded as the language of diplomacy by many. Arabic is the language of the Qur’an and is thus ‘holy’.

Language reflects culture and society. It cannot be manipulated or generated, although this does not stop people having opinions about any particular tongue being more ‘natural’ than another. Linguists and translators know otherwise and recognise the unfounded and groundless nature of these beliefs. But where is the fine line? Where is the border that delimits a global language from a ‘lesser’ language? Subjective opinion or objective book sales?

A more important distinction is perhaps not between ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ but between language and dialect, language and jargon, language and variety. When a language awakens, the dialect continuum that exists within the language needs to solidify at one point. The paradox of language is that tongues change both horizontally and vertically (temporally and spatially) but the language always remains the same. The English of the 1850s is very different from today’s English yet the two are still called English. The Polish of the 1500s and today’s Polish might be regarded as utterly different but the two are still called ‘Polish’. Languages are in fact vessels that contain a whole variety of mini-languages, that is dialects, sociolects and idiolects. The language becomes a language when the society begins to identify with it and work begins on the solidification process. One dialect is chosen above all others and becomes ‘The Language’. In effect, the push towards language creation (through the choice of a variety to become the prime vessel for the other dialects) is an empowerment process. Translation reflects this process of empowerment. A language is a dialect with an army. How true is this?

Linguists can easily note which tongues (varieties and dialects) are discrete and distinct languages by the number of translations into and out of them. Do we see a large number of texts translated into and out of the Lancashire dialect of English? How about the Highland (Góralskie) variety of Polish? Can the same be said of Scots or Kashubian? Perhaps the status of these four varieties is different but they can be tangibly defined in an almost hierarchical fashion. The need to read something in a variety of a language or read something written in this variety and have it translated into or out of that variety is surely a mark of its status. The more often translation surrounds the variety, the greater the empowerment. An interesting example here is the rise (and fall) of Yiddish, which was initially seen as a corrupt form of German (at which point little translation into and out of it was undertaken). Later, it came to be seen as an eloquent amalgam of German, Hebrew and Aramaic representative of the highest achievement of Ashkenazi culture (at which point, masses of religious and political manifests and literature were translated into and out of Yiddish). However, through negative pressure from Hebraicists who soiled the reputation of Yiddish, this language became synonymous with Ashkenazi indifference (as opposed to Zionist state regeneration). Translation reflects the status of a language.


9 thoughts on “The Nature of Language

  1. “The status of a language is often reflected by the number of translations undertaken into and out of that language.” I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’ve never thought about language from this perspective. I’m glad I read this post.

  2. ‘Language reflects culture and society. It cannot be manipulated or generated, although this does not stop people having opinions about any particular tongue being more ‘natural’ than another.’

    I agree with this sentence – language cannot be manipulated or changed, however we are able to produce opinion about it

  3. Wasn’t it part of a polysystem theory?The more recognized culture, the more translations from it and into it.

  4. This article mentions the problem of global languages. English has inarguably achieved some sort of global status. It became the working language of many institutions, and it is the language in which black parents in South Africa wish their children to be educated. A perhaps less familiar paradox is that the typical English speaker’s experience of the language is becoming increasingly simplified, even as English as a whole grows more and more complex. If these 2 trends are occurring the monolingual English speakers will never be able to communicate fluently with everybody and everywhere. If the want to exchange anything beyond basic messages with their future fellow English speakers they may need help from something other than English.

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