The bane of so many students of language and translation is often the subjects of “History of Language”, “Etymology” and the suchlike. Many language/translation students would rather eat their hats then have to study the history of English/Polish/Japanese/Spanish (delete where appropriate) in much the same way that students hated having to learn Latin and Ancient Greek.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the way in which the subject is taught leaves much to be desired. So-called ‘text-book’ teaching often turns a fascinating story of the growth, development and metamorphosis of a language into a dry history lesson stuffed to the brim with meaningless dates, odd facts and strange figures.
Secondly, it is often difficult to teach a language which, to all intents and purposes, is dead. Part of the reason for the grand failure of teaching Latin and Ancient Greek in years gone by was the fact that students had no real point of reference and were unable to put their theoretical know-how to use in a practical, real-life setting.
However, genetic linguistics, comparative linguistics, comparative philology, etymology are subjects that (unlike the languages under study) are very much alive. We are all aware of the practical uses of Latin and Ancient Greek. Even a little knowledge of these languages can be of great use to translators working with Indo-European languages.
Aside from the vast amount of linguistic knowledge that can be gleaned from the study of a language’s history, how it grew, developed and changed, it can also open a window into that language’s culture. As we are all aware, culture and language are of course two sides of the same coin.
A case in point is the curious example of the Lemba people in southern Africa (who can be found in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe). The Lemba speak various languages (depending on location) but are generally known as speakers of Bantu languages. However, for someone wanting to translate a Lemba, knowledge of Venda and Shona (Bantu languages) may not be enough.
A study of the history of the Lemba, their now extinct language, Venda, Shona as well as a genetic analysis of the Lemba people would tell us that they have a great deal in common with not only their closest neighbours, but with the Jews of Israel. Their customs include many elements of Judaism, and DNA analysis reveals that many Lemba share a Y-chromosome carried by many Jews.
Interestingly, the priestly Buba clan of the Lemba share common genetic elements also carried by the priestly Jewish Kohen clan. As obvious as it seems, any linguist or translator working with the Lemba needs, of course, to be aware of facts such as these and also the Lemba’s use of the Star of David, refraining from eating pork and use of ritual slaughter.
Study of a language does not only concern the analysis of the current functioning of a language (in temporal terms) but also concerns the historical context of a language which helps reveal important cultural elements. A language is a repository of words, words with old meanings, history and, of course, culture.