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Pondering on language…

Hi guys!

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in such a long time! Schoolwork has crept up on me and completely enveloped me in tons of homework, revision and all that sort of thing. But now it’s the Christmas holidays, and I have something to write about; namely, language. It’s been on my mind for quite a while, and now I have the time and motivation to put my ponderings into words. (Yes, I do think about things as lame as this.)

Some of this stuff is probably very obvious to you guys, but I only recently thought of it, and it sort of blew my mind. Just think for a minute: back in the Roman times, people did not just speak Latin, they thought in Latin. If they had to jot something down, it would be in Latin. Pretty cool, right? OK, reading that, it doesn’t seem to amazing, but if you just think on it for a moment… They thought in Latin. That is crazy! And in Russian (as in Russian lessons), I suddenly realised that Russian people think in Russian too. They think and write in those weird letters. That’s their default. I was like mind=blown. It’s probably not THAT mind-blowing, but to me it is, so bear with me here.

Oh yeah, and people that speak other languages text in that language. They have their own text-speak. That is pretty cool, is it not? Fun fact: the Russian assistant teacher person told me and my friend Abby that instead of ending their texts with kisses, like we do, they write “целую” (pronounced tseluyu) which literally means “I kiss you”. And that is literally the cutest thing ever. I hope that fact is actually right, because otherwise our Russian assistant LIED TO US. *cries*

Here’s an obvious statement: I’m using language right now. You’re using language right now. Who or what decided that these odd scribbles on this page mean, or sound like, all these different things? I don’t even have to think about writing this; the words just sort of come out. I don’t need to go ‘oh, how does that verb conjugate? What tense is that? Does the adjective agree with the noun?’ and all that sort of thing, like if I have to write in a different language. I just know how to do it. It’s good to be fluent in a language, isn’t it? Literally, no matter how rubbish you are at ANYTHING else, most people can safely say they are good at their own language. You can be terrible at drawing, singing, dancing, acting, sports, whatever, but you have some form of language that you can use without having to really think about it. So next time you say you have no talents, stop yourself right there, because being fluent in a language is a pretty amazing talent, isn’t it?

Now here’s a question to think about: how much does language influence the way we see the world? I know that in Russian, at least, they have two different words for light blue and dark blue. Not so spectacular so far. BUT, it is pretty spectacular when you consider that to Russian people, those are completely different colours. They aren’t shades of the same colour, they are just totally separate colours. But does that apply to other colours, like light green/dark green? And also, since we have so many words to describe shades of other colours, like maroon, scarlet, crimson, whatever, does that mean as English speakers, we see more colours? My brain hurts now.

(I know I keep mentioning Russian, but that’s because it’s the language I’m studying in school right now, aside from Latin. Yeah, I dropped French, hehehe.)

So now I’m going to think about the original language. Was there one? I mean, obviously, language had to start somewhere, but does that necessarily mean that every language in the world comes from ONE original language? I highly doubt that. But then, what even defines a language? When we were all cave-people, I don’t think we all used the same ‘words’ (basically just variations of the sound ‘ugg’) to describe our surroundings. But anyway, what cave-person saw something like a berry and went ‘oh, that looks like it should be called “blargh”‘? Who put sounds to objects? And how could all cave-people have used the same ‘uggs’ for everything? So I don’t think there was one original language, or even an original thing-that-could-be-considered-a-language. Humans were spread out all across the world, so they must have developed different languages depending on where they lived. I mean, why else do we have literally hundreds, even thousands, of languages around today?

That brings me quite nicely onto the topic of translation. Since there are so many languages, there is a need to translate things from one language into another. I had a revelation: languages weren’t created to be translated. It’s not like for every one word in English, there is an exact counterpart in every other language. So when you’re writing something in another language, you can’t think of how it is compared to English. You can’t really get your sentence and translate every individual word, in that order, into the other language. That’s not how it works. That’s probably why you learn phrases, rather than words, when you start to learn a language. I don’t even know how to explain this; it’s really difficult! 

So that brings up an interesting point about translating things like literature. In English, at least, we have very odd phrases and figures of speech that are just everyday things to say for us. Other languages have the same as well. So when you’re translating something that has one of those strange phrases in it, do you translate it literally? Do you change it? That can be used as a question about translating stuff in general. Should you translate the thing literally, or make it sound more natural in English, but have it less accurate to the original language? How far can you translate something before it becomes a work of the translator based on the original work? It must be very difficult making it sound natural, but also having it as close to the original as possible. If you do too much embellishing and natural-ifying, people reading the translated work will just be reading the translator’s style, even if the original author is different. So unless we learn the language the original work is in, how do we know we’re reading the original author’s style, as opposed to the translator’s? And if you consider poetry, we’re going to get into a whole other discussion. If it’s a rhyming poem, should you keep the rhymes in the translation, even if it means sacrificing accuracy? Or should you just scrap the poetry and translate it into prose (like the translation of The Odyssey I’m reading in ClassCiv)? 

I hope your mind hasn’t melted too much, like mine has. All this pondering hurts my brain. So to finish, I’m just going to talk about something light and un-philosophical, something that doesn’t require too much thinking: what languages sound good to you? I hope I’m right in saying that generally, people will not say their native language. I mean, you hear it so often, and you use it so often, that it isn’t like you listen to people talking and go ‘oh, this sounds so beautiful’ (unless that person has a lovely voice, of course). For example French– to most non-French-speaking people, it sounds beautiful. (Well, at least, it does to me.) To us, ANYONE speaking French sounds nice. But to a French person, they will probably go ‘meh, it sounds alright’, or maybe even ‘ew, how gross’ if the person has an accent that we’d call ‘common’ or ‘chavvy’ (although I really hate to use that word). English people don’t hear someone with a strong Cockney accent and go ‘oh my goodness, this is the most beautiful-sounding thing I have ever heard’ (unless you do, in which case, more power to you). I don’t really know what I’m trying to get at here, so I will just leave you with a question: what languages sound nice to you? 

Thanks for reading, and putting up with my weird ramblings. This is just some stuff I’ve been thinking about, and I feel so much better after writing it down, for some reason :D. As you can see, I’ve left a LOT of questions (rhetorical or not? You decide) up there, so if you’d like to answer them, feel free. I would love to know what you people think about all this.

Your linguistic blogger, Jaz

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3 comments on “Pondering on language…

  1. Okay! One caught my attention – ‘accuracy of languages’. Let me propose an idea to you. To me, language is a man made concept. It limits us to so little things. Language is merely a representation of how one views the world and is interpreted differently to everyone. How, then, can one know if the message was received accurately?

  2. I must record at least a slight disagreement with your comment that “most people can safely say they are good at their own language”. Many people are barely comprehensible; not only in English, but in whatever their mother tongue may be.

    As for beautiful sounding language, switch on BBC Radio Cymru or the television channel S4C. Sheer beauty, even when you don’t understand a word !

  3. Yes, revision. The more, the merrier. Or something like that. No need to apologize. Instead, take a bow.
    One writer to another.

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