Genetic Linguistics & Translation

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.

13 Responses to “Genetic Linguistics & Translation”

  1. Gone Native Says:

    But this is true for all languages we work with. Specifically translators and writers must know the history of the languages they use, if it is only through the Latin roots.
    Spanish, as spoken in Spain, is vastly different from Spanish used in the Dominican Republic. If I do not know the history of the local Spanish, I would not be able to translate well, let alone write a book. The word Quisqeia does not exist in Catalan, but I do know it as the original name for the Island Hispaniola. Stadiums, sport clubs and neighborhoods are named after it. It is part of the language history. And part of the culture.

  2. Marie Says:

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2010/03/the-web-site-translategooglecom-was-done-in-2001-we-were-just–licensing-3rd-party-machine-translation-technologies-tha.html

    Just some extracts….!
    “Franz Josef Och leads the machine translation (MT) team at Google, and has been the driving force behind much of the company’s progress on the technology. The following is an edited transcript of a recent interview with Och.

    How is it possible to make the system work for a language like Yiddish, where there’s not much text out there to train the machine with?

    What made it possible is that Yiddish is very similar to German, and has a lot of similarities to loan-words from Hebrew and Polish. For those languages, we have large amounts of training data. So what we do is learn a lot of stuff from those other languages and then apply that to Yiddish.”

    Do we really need to worry about what a langage is ? No panic! This man knows. This is a good reason to gather langage, history and culture…

  3. Marie Says:

    The above is cynical of course.

    • transubstantiation Says:

      Marie, these are two different issues. Language technology, by its very nature, needs to be systematised and verifiable, amongst others. How do you feed information about culture and history into a machine? It simply is not quantifiable. Grammatical rules, structures, however, are.
      Human translators are not machines. We do not (only) sort for rules and structure but we also have a great breadth of knowledge with regards to language.

      • Marie Says:

        I agree with you but for how long will we have this breadth of knowledge ?

        Or will there be different langages one for economic purpose and another with more nuances ? I am afraid this last will fossilize because it will demand too much time to read, understand and translate.

        Perhaps I am too pessimistic…

      • transubstantiation Says:

        Marie, I do not think language is likely to go that way, that is a language for economics etc. History shows that languages wax and wane. Aramaic, Persian, Latin, French are all fine examples of former giants that have now faded…

  4. Giuseppe Manuel Brescia Says:

    Hi. New to the blogging sphere, your blog caught my attention pretty much instantly.

    Very intersting article. The cultural connections between the Lemba people and the Jews are extremely fascinating, it really sets my imagination on fire to try and go back to their possible common ancestors.

    The central point, though, is that you identify a very serious problems with the way ancient languages and language history is taught. But the same problem seems to affect how we study evolution, or even History. There is not enough focus on ideas like spectrum and continuum, if you know what I mean. We draw arbitrary lines between Latin and its local Vulgar varieties, and then between them and later national languages, as if one day people woke up speaking a different language, and people often don’t realise that the change was gradual, continuous, and above all that, in a very different context, it’s still happening and always will be. Just like I said, it’s as simple as evolution. Once people get it, it’s not just exciting, but mind-boggling. Let’s try and help, I guess…

    Keep the great posts coming.

  5. Giuseppe Manuel Brescia Says:

    Hi. New to the blogging sphere, your blog caught my attention pretty much instantly.

    Very intersting article. The cultural connections between the Lemba people and the Jews are extremely fascinating, it really sets my imagination on fire to try and go back to their possible common ancestors.

    The central point, though, is that you identify a very serious problems with the way ancient languages and language history is taught. But the same problem seems to affect how we study evolution, or even History. There is not enough focus on ideas like spectrum and continuum, if you know what I mean. We draw arbitrary lines between Latin and its local Vulgar varieties, and then between them and later national languages, as if one day people woke up speaking a different language, and people often don’t realise that the change was gradual, continuous, and above all that, in a very different context, it’s still happening and always will be. Just like I said, it’s as simple as evolution. Once people get it, it’s not just exciting, but mind-boggling. Let’s try and help, I guess…

    Keep the great posts coming.

  6. Riccardo Says:

    I’ve just found that this article (and probably many others) from your blog has been illegally copied on MERLIN-TRANSLATIONS.COM. In addition to your articles, they have stolen many of mine and I’m surte from many other bloggers as well.

    I suggest we join forces to get them to take down the infringing material.


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