Accidental Death of a Language

On February 4th 2010, most of the world’s press reported the death of the Bo language. With the passing of Boa Sr, the last surviving speaker of the language, Bo became extinct. Sadly, this was of no surprise to linguists and anthropologists around the world as the death knell for Bo had been sounded around forty years ago when Boa Sr’s parents passed away. From that point on, Boa Sr was no longer able to speak to anyone else in her native tongue. She was linguistically completely and utterly alone.

With her death, another piece of the human linguistic puzzle disappeared. Unfortunately, the loss of Bo is a blow to our understanding of the Great Andamanese language family, to which Bo belonged. What is interesting about this language family and the Andaman Islands themselves is the fact that some of these languages are believed to be over 60,000 years old. In fact, Bo Sr’s death breaks an alleged link to a culture over 60,000 years old.

The loss of Bo, and the subsequent extinction of all the other Great Andamanese languages, is extremely sad but nonetheless inevitable. As Jean Aitchison said in her Language Change: Progress or Decay (2001:4):

Language, then, like everything else, gradually transforms itself over the centuries. There is nothing surprising in this. In a world where humans grow old, tadpoles change into frogs, and milk turns into cheese, it would be strange if language alone remained unaltered.

There is little we can do to escape the inevitable. Languages change, languages are born, language die. Unfortunately, we live in times where the rate of language death is staggeringly fast. Of the world’s 6,500 or so languages, 3,000 are expected to die within less than one hundred years’ time. There are few cases of successful language revitalisation, Welsh and Hebrew being two remarkable examples. David Crystal in Language Death (2000) gives six factors which may help revitalise a dying language. He suggests the speakers of a dying language:

1. increase their prestige within a dominant community
2. increase their wealth
3. increase their power in the eyes of the dominant community
4. have a strong presence in the education system
5. write down the language
6. make use of electronic technology

If it is possible for a language to be reinvigorated, revitalised and perhaps brought back from near death then the job of linguists is to always support such initiatives. If we are able to preserve language life then by all means let us preserve it. However, sometimes this is not possible and then perhaps our most important task as linguists is to analyse, describe and document; set the dying language down so that we can use knowledge about it to further research into the general understanding of the human condition.


Taking the Biscuit

Language professionals are often amazed by the similarities that can be found between languages. As we are all aware, groups of languages belong to language families and therefore invariably share the same characteristics and/or structures. It is arguably easier, for example, to translate French into Italian than French into Polish, or, to take it a step further, much easier to translate Polish into Russian than, let us say, Polish into Inuktitut or Xhosa.

However easy it is translating between languages within the same language family (for example, Slavonic to Slavonic, Germanic to Germanic or even Indo-European to Indo-European), there is one imp of a problem that is forever the bane of translators and editors. This is, of course, the infamous false friend, faux ami or fałszywy przyjaciel. Examples abound: preservative in English versus preserwatywa (condom) in Polish, or čerstvý (fresh) in Czech versus czerstwy (stale) in Polish.

A fascinating example of this is the English word biscuit which means different things to different people, depending on which side of the Atlantic one resides. The two most common definitions of biscuit are: (i) British: “small, flat sweet cake” (known as cookie in the US) and (ii) American: “small round bread leavened with soda”. We can also add to this two definitions were are less common: (iii) “pale brown colour” and (iv) “fired piece of unglazed ceramic ware” (usually bisque).

This interesting bifurcation of meaning (British versus American) can be traced to the ambiguous nature of the word’s etymology. Biscuit stems from the 16th century word bisket which in turn can be traced back to the Middle English word bysquyte. This stems from the Old French word bescuit which literally means “twice cooked”, which itself was altered under the influence of the Old Italian biscotto which meant “twice baked” (which is rooted in the Medieval Latin bis coctus. The word’s derivation is fascinating.

The Polish biskwit has a similar cognate line and stems from the French biscuit. Interestingly, the word is a synonym of biszkopt which can also be traced back to the Medieval Latin bis coctus and was originally adopted into Polish as biskokt and then later biszkokt. What is fascinating about this word is its meaning, which is slightly different from the English (British and American).

The Polish biskwit or biszkopt might well be translated into English as a sponge cake, ladyfinger or Génoise (cake) (not to be confused with pain de Gênes, which is an almond cake) and has little to do with the British biscuit and nothing in common with the American biscuit. False friends may well be confusing but are extremely interesting to the language professional.

Another (Systemic) Perspective

As the Ox Turns

As the Ox Turns

If translation is an attempt to ‘remove the veil’ from a text then the knowledge translators possess must be the tool needed to reveal what is behind this veil. Our task is to see through the linguistic and cultural veil and interpret what lies beyond. Our ability to visit a text with ‘new eyes’ is as important as our knowledge of the languages concerned. In the ‘West’ we are often so preoccupied with our own languages that we sometimes forget the thousands of other languages that exist ‘out there’. What is more, we are often ignorant of the rich wealth of systems used to represent the written forms of these languages. Even non-Latin alphabets appear alien to us; alphabets like Cyrillic (Кириллица), Greek (Ελληνικό αλφάβητο), Georgian (ქართული დამწერლობა) or Armenian (Հայկական գիր). Abjads (writing systems where each symbol therein generally represents a consonant) appear to Western eyes even more outlandish, for example, Hebrew (עִבְרִית) or Arabic (العربية). Abugidas, segmental writing systems, are even further away from western scriptural sensitivities and include alphasyllabaries such as Ge’ez (ግዕዝ) and Devanagari (देवनागरी). It is also worth mentioning logographic writing systems which include Chinese (漢字).

Why is this significant to the translator? Often the mark of an expert translator is his/her ability to find ingenious approaches to solving linguistic problems. The capacity to see a translational quandary from a different perspective is key to our profession. Sometimes, the power to see a text with ‘another pair of eyes’ is invaluable. This ‘defamiliarisation’ is often nurtured through multilingualism and especially multiculturalism. We can go one step further by suggesting that being sensitive to not only linguistic cues but also ‘visual-linguistic’ cues may help develop this sensitivity and ability to ‘de-focus’ and see a text afresh. Knowledge of different writing systems and typographical methods are but two methods of expanding our minds.

Aside from becoming familiar with the scripts mentioned above (in order to become de-familiar with our own script), another useful method of defamiliarisation is to take our own script and read it differently, or rather write it differently. For this we can make use of Boustrophedon (Gr. as the ox turns) which was an Ancient Greek method of writing where alternate lines of the text were read in opposite directions (see picture above). For example, the first line would be read from left-to-right, the second right-to-left, the third left-to-right and so on and so forth. Interestingly, this method, with practice, is actually a faster way to write and read.

More importantly, this is another weapon in the translator’s arsenal. There is much to be said for expanding one’s mind in as many diverse ways as it is possible. A previous blog entry on Linguistic Intelligence is testament to this. The traditional, tried and tested ways of improving competence are invaulable. However, even in the mundane translation of a legal document, medical journal or technical manual an extra iota of creativity and ‘freshness’ can sometimes be the difference between a good piece of work and a great translation.

In Praise of Grammar-Translation

The teaching of foreign languages has come on leaps and bounds in the period following World War II. Advances in applied linguistics, psychology, education and technology have all combined to make the late twentieth century one of the most exciting times for foreign language teaching (FLT). English teaching and the field of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) benefited most from these new approaches to teaching. The Grammar-Translation Method was the predominant method for a long period of time. It focused on the use of translation as a route into the foreign language as well as the memorisation of grammatical rules.

The Direct Method was developed in opposition to Grammar-Translation. No translation was used here and neither was the mother tongue. Other methods included the Silent Method, the Audio-Lingual Method and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) which has gained ground in recent years and is perhaps one of the most popular approaches nowadays. It was itself a response to the Audio-Lingual Method. In the communicative approach the focus is interaction and the use of authentic texts. This approach led to Task-based Language Learning which has also become extremely popular. In this approach grammar and linguistic elements are not the focus, but rather the task that needs to be realised in the language interaction situation.

With the foundation and strengthening of applied linguistics as a genuine academic discipline and the growth of TEFL as a truly marketable business (including the publication of foreign language learning textbooks), Grammar-Translation became marginalised and forgotten by many. Some of the key terms in FLT now include communication, task realisation and learner autonomy. No place for grammar or translation. Many of the criticisms directed at Grammar-Translation were genuine; there was too great a focus on authenticity (rather than fluency) and the mother tongue (rather than the target language).

However, as with all trends, CLT has perhaps swung too far. Many believe that regimented language learning which is often not highlighted in CLT (but is present in Grammar-Translation) is particularly useful for beginners. Learner autonomy is valuable in language learning but guidance and periodicity is equally important, also present in Grammar-Translation. The early twenty-first century has seen some call for a more hybrid (mix-and-match) approach to foreign language learning where the best ‘bits’ of various approaches are utilised.

Another point is the teaching of translation proper. Is is possible to use a purely communicative approach in translation training? Task-based Language Learning certainly can be used to teach translation but can we use it exclusively? Many teachers are lauding these new hybrid approaches which combine Task-based Language Learning with short ‘doses’ of Grammar-Translation which not only present authentic foreign language texts to students and trainees but also highlight the differences between languages and cultures. Thankfully, the old Grammar-Translation Method has left us. Perhaps it is time for a new one.

Out with the old, in with the new…?

Bilingualism – Blessing or Curse?

There are a thousand and one ‘myths’ about what needs to be undertaken to become a good translator. One of these is the opinion that the ideal translator needs to be bilingual. But is this really the case? Is the mark of a great translator the fact that he or she is bilingual (or even multilingual)? In order to answer this question it is first necessary to try and understand what is meant by the term bilingual (or multilingual).

Generally speaking, a bilingual can refer to someone who fluently speaks two languages. This definition itself poses certain problems. Firstly, how do we define fluency, and secondly, does speaking also include writing? We can assume that fluency is the ability to speak (and write) effectively, skilfully, articulately with smoothness and ease. Obviously, knowing two languages fluently is most certainly a key element in becoming a translator. But is it enough?

Translation is by some seen as a gift, by others it is seen as a craft which can be understood, learnt and perfected. What relation does bilingualism have to these approaches to translation? Should the ideal translator be a ‘native’ bilingual who has learnt both languages since childhood? Or does it matter if one language is learnt later in life, as a second language? Some believe that only childhood bilingualism is the only real way forward, although experience tells us this is not always the case.

This seems to be the main sticking point in discussions of bilingualism vis-à-vis translation. Those who believe translation to be a gift often see bilingualism as a ticket to translational competence and, as such, bilingualism is equated with a ‘gift for translation’. However, it is naive to think there is a one-to-one relationship between bilingualism and translational competence. Although being bilingual is certainly vitally important for the translator, being bilingual does not mean that one will become a translator.

The other side to the story is the common belief that someone who is bilingual is automatically a translator. Bilingual (non-translators) are perplexed by questions from monolinguals who ask them to translate a word, phrase or text. “But I’m not a translator,” is the most common reply, often followed by the retort, “But you speak two languages fluently…” In these situations, blingualism can often be seen as more of a curse than a blessing…

Translating in the Silly Season

For many freelance translators there is a time for sowing and a time for reaping. There is also a time for waiting; the doldrums; a lull in work where little happens and offers of work are few and far between. What should translators do in this time of stagnation? If we treat this period as a ‘time for sowing’ rather than a lull in work then we can turn a potentially deadening and depressing time into a productive and industrious period. We can use this ‘window of opportunity’ to search for new clients, new contacts and, of course, new contracts. We can also use this time to brush up on cultural and linguistic areas that have heretofore been neglected by us. The silly season need not necessarily be ‘silly’.

From a translational point of view, silly season is a fascinating phrase. In British English the silly season refers to that time of year characterised by exaggerated (silly) media news stories because of the lack of serious news due to the fact that politicians and celebrities are usually on holiday. In the United Kingdom this is usually late summer. Other European languages have their own equivalent phrases. French uses the term la morte-saison (the dead season), German has two terms: das Sommerloch (the summer hole) and Sauregurkenzeit (pickled gherkin time), the second being a common motif across Europe.

Gherkins and cucumbers seem to be a recurrent theme in many languages. Dutch uses komkommertijd, Norwegian agurktid, Danish agurketid (cucumber time). Norwegian refers to agurknytt (cucumber news). The non Indo-European Hungarian uses uborkaszezon (cucumber season) which is mirrored also in Czech and Polish. These Slavonic languages respectively use: okurková sezóna and sezon ogórkowy (cucumber season). Another term referring to the summer period which occurs in Polish is kanikuła, fascinating from an etymological point of view.

Kanikuła comes from the Latin canicula referring to the time of year between 22 June and 23 August when the sun (used to) rise at the same time as Sirius (the Dog Star, Latin Canicula). It also refers to the hottest days of the year. What makes this Polish phrase fascinating is the fact that etymologically it is equivalent to the English phrase dog days referring to that time of year which is hot or stagnant or when there is a period of inactivity. Therefore, when we refer to this seasonal lull in English we can use silly season or dog days and in Polish sezon ogórkowy or kanikuła.

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