Friday, April 09, 2010

reflecting on language

92.5:365 reflecting on grey skies

i find myself thinking a lot about language this week. language gets a lot of abuse from a lot of different angles. but it is especially abused by non-native speakers, who tend to assign new meanings to words that already had a perfectly good meaning assigned to them already. and if you happened to know that original meaning, you can be left feeling mightily confused. especially if the new meaning has no apparent connection to the original, ostensibly real, one.

but i say ostensibly real, because that's the thing about language - it's pretty arbitrary. why chair means chair and not table is because we've all more or less agreed upon that. but the chair i see in my head when you say chair and the chair you see in your head may be quite different. my generic chair is a lot like this one:

"I was walking along and this chair came flying past me, and another, and another, and I thought, man, is this gonna be a good night. " - liam gallagher

but, because of the way language functions, we more or less agree that a chair is something you can sit on and then there are variations from there and so we all understand the gist of it when we say "chair."

and i don't just mean neologisms, where someone makes up an entirely new word - like sustainovation (a combination of sustainability and innovation), but what if the meaning given to a word, like say, "quota," is very different from any you've experienced. to me a quota is a quantative amount that one tries to meet. it is not another name for your vacation days. so if you encounter quota in the sense of vacation days, you are left feeling a bit bewildered. because it is bewildering to be reading along in what is ostensibly your language and suddenly you don't understand the meaning, even tho' you understand the words.

it seems that it's worse in written language than in spoken. if someone said "quota" to you to mean vacation days, you would, through expression and body language, communicate that you didn't quite get that word, or you could directly ask. there would be more understanding possible in spoken language than there is in the written word, where you are left to suss out the meaning for yourself from the context.

i suspect that entering a workplace populated by 50-some different nationalities, where the shared language is english, i'm going to be encountering lots of these little gems. of course, i've been working with non-native speakers of english for more than a decade now, so i'm rather used to it, but it seems it will be even more marked this time, with the addition of german into the mix as the predominant other language.

adding to that the fact that companies, especially very large ones, have a tendency to create their own internal language, i think this is going to be an exciting linguistic ride.

14 comments:

Kaye Turner said...

What an interesting post. Your first photo illustrates your thoughts perfectly - slight distortion of the tree reflected in the water. On a totally banal level, I really like your chair. Good luck with the linguistic challenges that surely lie ahead!

Karen said...

Oh goody - this sounds fun!! I completely understand where you're coming from on this one. I have worked for German companies and in Foreign Language departments for much of my professional life. Best of luck!

p.s. I must say that I have always ended up loving the work, once I made it through the initial hurdles of the company's specific languge.

Protege said...

Language issues are always current issues in my life. I speak about four languages and understand a few more, none perfectly, so at times I feel like I speak none.
As for strange words that re made up, there is multitude of these in science.
Have a great weekend,
xo
Zuzan

rayfamily said...

Great post! Sidney was just asking me the other day how certain words became associated with different things (chair was one of them). I've always been facinated by language and dialects. Sounds like you'll have the fodder for many a post! :)

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! Fantastic post my dear! You ALWAYS make me think. I love that about all of your blogs.

Miss Footloose said...

I love language, words, translations, connections, usage, idioms. I'm fluent in two languages (Dutch and English) and can mess around in German and figure out things in a couple of others with some effort. I've traveled around and encountered English being spoken in all kinds of accents and usages, some that can really surprise and amaze you.

I do get annoyed with corruptions or wrong usage by news people and journalists on TV and radio. they should know better.

I find it interesting how some words or concepts simply do not translate, not even in languages in related cultures.

Recently I was trying to translate the English (American?) expression, "Oh, get a life!" into Dutch. I could only explain what it meant, but I couldn't find an exact way to say it in an expression.

Kristina said...

Very interesting post. I love language and although english feels very natural to me it is not my native language...german is...so all of that combined and I am really looking forward to reading about your lingustic adventure! Good luck with your new job as well, I hope you'll like it!

Polly said...

Very interesting, and if you find yourself thinking more and more about this I recommend Peter Barry's Beginning Theory book, he explains all those views on language and how it defines the world we live in very well...

mrs mediocrity said...

Yes, it probably will get worse. And given that even Americans struggle with English, not surprising. But a sense of humor, which you have, might be your best weapon.
When I visited Germany once, a friend of ours who speaks English very well, got incredibly frustrated while trying to tell us about his study of "oooh-foes."
We had no clue what he was trying to say. Much explanation and an hour later, I figured out that he meant U.F.O.s
Some things will always slip through the cracks...

Anne said...

Oh, this sounds like such fun! I mean, I realize that sometimes when one's crunched for time, one just wants to get things done and have things understood, so I get how this could be frustrating at times. For me, though, this would be a delight. I am such a language nerd, and I actually quite enjoy unconventional turns of phrase, especially if I can puzzle out how the person's native language shaped what she/he said. I'm looking forward to hearing more about your polyglot adventures!

NuminosityBeads said...

I love your reflections and always have a fascination for languages.
Kim

Magpie said...

Neither of these links are quite germane, but that said, I think you'll like them:

http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/06/ny-times-mines-its-data-to-identify-words-that-readers-find-abstruse

http://www.wordnik.com/

Writer Lady said...

I do know what you mean. I once had to publish the proceedings of an international conference. I found myself wondering if I needed a list of words somewhere in the back.

When I was a technical writer/editor it used to amuse me to correct their English, but leave a bit of their accent in. You know people can write with an accent as well as talk with one.

Erin Wallace said...

I like your discussion about why a chair is called a chair and not a table, etc. This is some thing that I have pondered upon my whole life. Language is a tricky thing!

BTW, I have something on my blog for you - please stop by!