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Lost in Translation series – Stop the linguistic virus

Lost in translation: Stop the linguistic virus

Linguistic virus 0: Introduction

Why a linguistic virus? Language is alive and therefore naturally evolves alongside humans’ development needs, from inventions to discoveries, artistic, technological, historical, psychological, medicinal or artisanal. But from time to time, a highly artificial linguistic virus inserts itself into the natural flow of language evolution: humans create words or expressions that, rather than just answering the call of an actual need, exhibits the worst reaction to the fear for the survival of a language or a linguistic group, or just an egotistical turn of tongue to preserve a linguistic throne.

Linguistic virus 1: Human Disconnection

Language is a way to connect. It is not just a human’s expression, it is a way to communicate with another, to exchange conversations, to bring us together. Such an exchange presupposes that the interlocutors can understand each other e.g. speak the same language and do want to engage in this communication. So imagine what happens when one of the speakers starts subtly dropping additional prerequisites. What happens to the connection that is trying to establish itself? Such requirements sound like “it’s like that episode of Friends”, “you wouldn’t understand, you haven’t read Nietzsche”, “it’d be hard to explain if you don’t know Reservoir Dogs” , “oh come on, everyone knows Sheldon from TBBT” , “TBBT ? The Big Bang Theory duh”. Communication is not originally about showing off knowledge or belittling interlocutors, it’s about creating connections. These droppings of knowledge are a definite stink and highly counterproductive.

Linguistic virus 2. Cross-cultural Disconnection

French is one of the most beautiful and accomplished languages on earth. Writers of countries beyond its hexagonal borders testify of the lyrical, melancholic, passionate and gut-wrenching ability that France’s national tongue has to express and communicate human emotions. With this and its less proud moments of colonialism, the language has wanted to preserve the royalties of its popularity. The Immortals are the French guardians of this linguistic treasure and a word created cannot be acknowledged but by them. Although not the most natural process and often so overprotective it can alienate the unruled linguistic creativity of its younger or alternative generations, it has proven its use many a time and earned its place whilst raising questions in some cases. For example, in 1994, the then minister of culture, Mr Jacques Toubon came up with a law “mandating the use of the French language in official government publications, in all advertisements, in all workplaces, in commercial contracts, in some other commercial communication contexts, in all government-financed schools, and some other contexts”1. Was he succombing to ill-advised fear? Was he in a bid to leave a print in the linguistic tapestry of the French language? Was he manifesting his French resistance to the sudden invasion that overwhelmingly brought the English language to its linguistic shores? Or was he just fighting against the popular linguistic laziness of borrowing foreign language? Is the expression “purity of a language” a natural oxymoron in an international world with unavoidable linguistic crossovers? The irony is that, English, which is the mainly feared invading language actually has far more French words. In effect, modern English is estimated to include around 7,000 French words (englishlanguage.eslreading.org/resources/3.-French-Words-in-English.pdf), i.e. about 28.3%2 or, if looking at words of French origin, 45%3. On the other hand, The French Academy estimates that the French language only contains 5% of English words4. Maybe, prevention is easier than cure but does it work and what is the social impact and is that less important than cultural standing?

Linguistic virus 3. Linguistic pompousness and confusion

Every few weeks, sales people introduce vocabulary that the latest studies (or more likely influential gurus) have deemed effective. Heard the overactive use of “yourself” ever hitting us like the lamb suits worn to cover the unprofessional wolves? “We wanted to talk to yourself”. I mean, what happened to we wanted to talk to you?? Rather than sounding intelligent or hinting at some kind of saving they might be bringing to me, they just highlight the uneconomical use of an additional syllable where absolutely not needed and force me to never consider their offer for lack of grammatical form. It is irritating for someone like me who fights for those who, still in the passion of their feelings, find it hard to express or communicate their otherwise reasonable peace without the hysteric form of their emotion taking over the spirit of their message. But here, it is actually the lack of spirit in the message, the dictated method of the delivery, the conviction of its entitlement to invade my time and privacy because the method is evangelised by an influencing suit, the use of language to robotically mimic what is thereby expected to become a successful conversion, that is what gets on my nerves and blocks the connection and therefore the communication. To say it the way I feel it at the time, when I am being talked at rather than talked to, I recognise I am being shut out and bid adieu to the suit in enough time that they understand it (whether they accept it or not) before I put the phone down.

To give a seemingly benign example is just to show how little and subtle the form is that it can take. But when you uncover the depth in which disciplines have embedded a jargon only meant to veil the simplicity of the trade and make their subject seem exclusive and impenetrable and themselves necessary, indispensable and important, you start to unearth why life has become so costly to live. Suddenly, every simple thing becomes complex and out of reach for the ordinary citizen, unless they have the money to afford the access to it, the subject specialist, the guru, the evangelist.  Seldom do the clothes make the men and memorising the language in too superficial a fashion definitely only buys the appearance of their understanding. My favourite in all the jargon remain acronyms. Acronyms should have their own paragraph, knowing that they will surely mean something different according to the discipline from which you hail. They are the literal loss in translation.

Linguistic virus 4. Linguistic stoicism or linguistic silence (or death?)

Well the previous point brings me to speak of this one more in depth. The different versions of stoicism that have been given to us in time and place on earth have taught us that feeling is an enemy to be ignored, muffled if not killed. Of all the methods humans have known, the message remains that appearances should be kept in a way that emotions are silent from human perception and that any show of emotions is a sign of weakness, inferiority and a certain form of disability that makes one incapable of restraining themselves, an underlying trait of chaos. So when, still stinging with a pain that you have undergone, still fresh from a devastating message you have received, still emptied by a loss you’ve experienced, you speak with the passion of pain or anger, is your message no less important? The worse is that they would have you confused with those who use their misadventures to punish the world around them. If I asked to be left alone a little with the torn voice of someone who just want to catch their breath after such news, or I scream at my companion who I have just found has betrayed our partnership, I might not be right (and believe me, most of us given the choice would want to appear graceful and stronger than the situation) but am I to be dismissed? Are my words less important because they have not been coated in the honey of appearant calm? Is language just words without passion?

Linguistic virus 5. Linguistic arrest

Toubon is neither the first nor the last to use language as a political tool / weapon. Politics have redefined language in order to address so-called politically incorrect expressions. While the sentiment is arguably commandable, without solid roots, language thus used becomes letter without spirit. If we still disrespect “cleaners”, will “surface technicians” not just become a condescending denomination? It’s like ticking the “say sorry” box and then resuming our mischief. The worse is that the guardians of such bureaucracy do not deal with the collateral damages of the box ticking exercise, not realising that they are birthing a group of people who think that by correctly filling in legal requirement forms, they are being freed from the repercussions of their lingering moral prejudice.

Linguistic virus 6. Virus Feed – Ignoring symptoms

Language is history and it has this way of carrying both in its lexicon and its idioms the weight and royalties, good and bad, of its past. Although the world is most occupied at artificially transforming language to maintain its power, our linguistic patrons spent less times looking at those words and phrases that carry the misconceptions, twisted and unfounded opinions that ignorance has a certain pleasure embedding into our cultural lives. A simple example that has for a long time itched my otherwise calm tongue is the use of the word “straight” which continually perpetuates in our minds the unfortunate judgement of sexual orientations. Funny enough, without a sentence, a situation or a complementary word like “bent” to contextualise this affirmation, it stands as innocent and victimised as the very thing it does in the right or should I say wrong contextual use.

Linguistic virus 7. Virus feed: Denying sources

The previous example speaks of words that we adopt in our everyday language and might not end up using or thinking about because the context in which we evolve does not raise it. This section looks into words that equally carry heavy connotations but are embedded into our daily behaviours, understanding and interpretation of life. We grow up with stories that are embedded in our dna without completely understanding what they mean and how they influence our development and way of thinking. I was always fascinated by the Grim Stories. Their portrayal of worth seldom failed to equal fairness, beauty and a sense of sacrifice. There is hardly a lesson that can be learnt from these calvinist brothers that does not reflect or carry with it the bias of their religious belief or that of their times and place. Yet it is that perspective that is perpetuated generations after generations, even after the damages of the likes of Hitler and the understanding of new perspectives, without a proper linguistic review of their collateral damages.

Conclusion

I know, if it isn’t broken… But viruses don’t make it a habit to come to the surface and identify themselves or their actual damage. The symptoms you eventually see are so buried underneath collateral happenings and the time elapsed between the source that would have uniquely identified the virus and the moment any of its side effects manifests that we found ourselves in the eternal diagnostic challenge. When did we stop looking after ourselves, after our linguistic heritage, after our soon-to-be legacy? When did we confuse honouring our forefathers with celebrating both their successes and their failures? At what point do we recognise how human we all are and the mistakes we have made so we don’t repeat them and can finally evolve? How do we call ourselves civilised or emancipated when all we do is rebrand the sameness in our lives, to give ourselves the illusion of change, using language, one of our most beautiful asset, to do so and corrupting her while at it?

There is a linguistic virus that inserts itself at different levels of our cultures and prevents language from being alive, dynamic, and naturally evolving, dragging humans’ own emancipation to its downfall. That needs to be stopped.

References and further resources

  1. The Toubon Law, on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toubon_Law
  2. https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2010/01/why-is-english-a-germanic-language.html) or, if looking at words of French origin, <b>45</b>%, Last  accessed on the date this article was first published.
  3. English words of French origin, on Wikipedia  at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_French_origin , Last  accessed on the date this article was first published.
  4.  An estimate of the number of English words in the French language, The French Academy, on wikitionary at https://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/Annexe:Mots_fran%C3%A7ais_d%E2%80%99origine_anglaise, Last  accessed on the date this article was first published.

Stop the linguistic virus is an article in the Lost In Translation series.

Editor’s Notes

Becuase there are those rare times that the linguistic virus will make you smile, I wanted to leave you on a positive note. So, here is an image from the wall of smiles that brings a little one to this article on stopping the linguistic virus.

Lost in translation - Autocorrect millennial-2574751_1280