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What We Mean to Say

It is estimated that more than 2000 languages are spoken in Asia, and many Asian countries have a colonial history with the accompanying experience of learning and translating foreign languages. This legacy has wide-ranging social manifestations such as the role of English as a source of common identification among the elites in India and Malaysia and the localized adaptation of foreign tongues which has led to the emergence of Singlish. The use of English as the lingua franca of the world, in particular, has made the acquisition of a foreign language and translation part of the everyday life of people in Asia. The politics of language, its use, translation, evolution and characterization has strong resonance from the vantage point of Asia.

What We Mean to Say
What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be, John McWhorter (Gotham Books, August 2011); Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, David Bellos (Faber & Faber, October 2011; Penguin Books, September 2011)

But what in essence, is language and its translation? Seemingly obvious answers to these questions fumble when placed under the scrutiny of language experts John McWhorter and David Bellos. Delving deep into the inherent assumptions, technicalities and cultural particularities of language and translation, Bellos and McWhorter bring readers on fascinating journeys that unravel the nature of language and its myriad applications. Language, an innate form of communication and expression, is a delicate balance of both art and functionality and has been carefully dissected in numerous books, and yet the two authors manages the formidable feat of bringing new insight and wit to the subject. What Language Is and Is That A Fish in Your Ear? are two wonderful volumes to read together because while McWhorter dwells on technicalities, often breaking a language down to its constituent parts and how they relate to one another, Bellos focuses on the use of language in varied contexts (for example his astute observation that “Literary texts are about conveyed holistic impressions”). What distinguishes language and dialect? What is the impact of the Internet on the evolution of language? Is humour universal and can its essence be translated? What are the legal and administrative challenges of a multi-lingual entity like the EU that practices language parity? These are some of the questions analyzed in the two books and the answers provided are endlessly fascinating.


The perspectives of McWhorter, a linguist and Bellos, a translation expert differ in some aspects. While Bellos thinks that the common view of English as a simpler language is erroneous “The reasons why English has made a clean sweep of the sciences are not straightforward. Among them we cannot possibly include the unfortunate but widespread idea that English is simpler than other languages”, McWhorter does perceive English as a relatively easier language to master:


English is one of about a dozen Germanic languages….among them, English is the oddly ‘easy’ one as grammatical complexity goes, very much ‘Germanic, Jr.’ Anything that challenges people learning Germanic languages is likely lost in only one of them: this one.


One will hear that all languages are equally complex, but that is, frankly, absurd. There is no reason that they would be, and no one with a modicum of experience with a range of the world’s languages could seriously make such a claim.


While the central argument of McWhorter’s book is that all languages share five common characteristics (and the chapters of the book are named “Languages are Ingrown”, “Language is Disheveled”, “Language is Oral”, “Language is Intricate” and “Language is Mixed” accordingly) which he discusses in great depth, Bellos opts to ponder the ontology of language


If we accept the proposition that all languages are instances of the same kind of thing, we have to ask: what is it that makes them the same? The most influential answer to this question in the twentieth century has been: a grammar... Inevitably, it prompts a second question: what is it that all grammars have in common? It is hard to find an existing grammatical category that is common to all forms of human speech... the second major problem with the axiom of grammaticality—with the idea that what makes a language a language is its having a grammar—is that no living language has yet been given a grammar that accounts for absolutely all of the expressions (including sentences) that are uttered by speakers of that language.


McWhorter offers a useful reminder in an early chapter of the book by pointing out that “the way any language is now is one of endless possibilities that have resulted from drift over millennia, not what the heart of language must be.” Using a wealth of examples from different languages ranging from well-known ones like Chinese and French to the more obscure Talmud and Archi, Twi and Akha, McWhorter argues that the five characteristics of language that he puts forth are not widely recognized, and that language is all the richer when viewed from the lens of a linguist. The book is peppered with interesting facts (for example, “English has forty-four sounds despite its mere twenty-six letters” and “Only two hundred out of the world’s six thousand languages are recorded”) and anecdotes, including the story of how Navajo, a Native American language that was so complicated in its form that it was used by the US military during the Second World War to devise a code and played a crucial role in the Iwo Jima victory.


Often prompting the reader to rethink familiar assumptions on language, McWhorter’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious and although he has shed technical light with his erudite prose and impressive knowledge, his definite stance on what language is and his view that the perspective of a linguist is superior, leaves a nagging question: do language experts have the authority to define for us something as intuitive as language? Looking at language the way a linguist does has obvious benefits in deepening our understanding of language. But so does looking at language in the way a poet, translator or language teacher does. Beyond structural evolution and grammar, language is also about nuance and artistic expression and these different angles all yield interesting perspectives. While the linguistic view is more thorough, methodical and technical, it is arguably neither more holistic nor “accurate”.

McWhorter puts forth the observation that Chinese dialects are not dialects, but languages, likening the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese to those between Spanish and French


Note that I write ‘languages’ instead of ‘dialects’ as it is often put regarding Mandarin versus Cantonese, or Taiwanese or Shanghainese. That’s because these ‘dialects’ are actually as different as French and Spanish and Italian. Different but based on the same plan.


Despite sharing a similar script, languages such as Shanghainese, Mandarin, Cantonese etc. differ on the level of grammatical constructions and how words are pronounced and most notably, are orally unintelligible between speakers of these different languages. It is certainly worth reflecting whether the choice to categorize them as “dialects” stems more from political considerations than linguistic truths.


In the chapter “Language is intricate”, McWhorter makes a strong case for the unfair treatment of Black English, pointing out that the dialect is no less intricate as what is currently perceived as “standard” English, which itself evolved from other forms like Old English, went through a process of “non-standardization” and continues to change in many ways.


What’s new in a language is neither a mistake nor subject, in a logical sense, to condemnation as unlikeable. It is inherent to languages to be always gradually becoming other ones—and that, ladies and gentlemen, is never an orderly process.


The perception of Black English as less formal is thus socially-embedded and not because of the inherent characteristics of the dialect.


The proper idea is that many people will be bidialectal, using Black English in casual settings and the standard in formal ones—as a great many already do and always have. This is, in itself, rather unfair and illogical. It’s often said that we need a standard variety of English in order to understand one another, but really, how many Americans find the language of the Shirley story difficult to understand? We can imagine a hypothetical America in which everyone was allowed to speak and even write their home variety of English and the country would keep running.


The reason we find the idea of all Americans using their home dialects in public and print so bizarre, then, is not about comprehensibility, even I few convince ourselves otherwise. It’s about social evaluation: Black English is read as inappropriate for the formal. And that will not change.


Interesting parallels can be drawn between Black English and Singlish, which is also often characterized as a “non-standard” language and carries the stigma of a lower socioeconomic status. Black English or Singlish is not “bad English” (even if that could be defined): it is something else. Perhaps that is enough reason for policy, but the point needs to be made that it is necessary to remove the inherent moral judgment.

McWhorter’s argument on the deep-rooted social prejudice against Black English is indeed apparent, but perhaps the more practical question is: if we don’t set something as “standard”, and language is in a constant state of flux (i.e. we don’t know which slang will endure, and which are merely passing through), how then do we teach language? How do we celebrate this diversity and the “branching out” process (for want of a better phrase) without making judgments (an inherent part of decision-making), which is what McWhorter is asking to be done? Coming from a country that speaks English with a strong accent and takes certain linguistic liberty with the language, I have found myself on several occasions, struggling to be understood by others when speaking the language. The idea that people are all able to use their home dialects without sacrificing a certain degree of comprehensibility (or at least, efficiency) is rather difficult to imagine.


The 32 chapters of Bellos’ book covers an extensive list of topics on translation, including oral and written translation, simultaneous translation, the challenge of translating humour and style etc. and despite the breadth of subject matters, each is tackled with intellectual depth and wit. The book is a poignant reminder that language permeates all facets of our lives, and the process of translation often surfaces the complexity, ambiguity, beauty and subtlety of language. For instance, the “hybridization of law and language” and “law as language and language as law” in the legal system of societies presents real problems for multi-lingual entities like the European Union, which currently has 27 member states but does not share a common working language


Suppositions and assumptions about the meaning of words, grammatical structures and rhetorical turns are necessarily rooted in one language, not suspended on a hook from a supralinguistic legal sky.


Many of the cases brought before the ECJ [European Court of Justice] arise from conflicting interpretations in different member states of regulations made by the European authorities—in effect, clashes between different interpretations of different language versions of what is held to be the same text. Given that all language versions have force of law, how does the court deliver the judgment of Solomon that this version is to be preferred over that?


* * *

One of the most pertinent topics discussed in the book is computer-aided translation and human-aided translation, a subject of much controversy in the era of translation software, including easily accessible ones like Google Translate. Bellos points out that the first generation of translation software engineers used the assumption of “language as code” i.e. every language is merely meaning conveyed in a series of codes that has to be broken, and by uncovering the structure of each language, we would be able to “access the real thing that it encodes, namely, the actual, irreducible, plain and basic meaning of the expression”. However, such an assumption is inherently flawed, as languages goes beyond structural rules and grammar (and often there are exception to each rule), meaning is often context-dependent and the subtlety and nuance of language cannot always be ‘decoded’ by a software based on language rules. As a result, translation software is often unable to produce translation with a high level of accuracy, and needs to be used by a translator who is proficient in both languages. Google Translate took a different approach to designing translation software by amalgamating and comparing existing translations. It operates on the assumption that words and phrases in one language have often already been translated to other languages. Therefore, by designing a programme that is able to search and identify the existing translation which has been used with the highest frequency (underlying assumption that high frequency of usage is correlated with high degree of accuracy) on the Internet, it is able to translate languages with a relatively high level of accuracy.

Beyond highlighting the novelty and ingenuity of different approaches to designing translation programmes and the embodied assumptions of the nature of language, Bellos gleans the common thread of language as a mirror of the human condition:


In the great basement that is the foundation of all human activities, including language behavior, we find not anything as abstract as ‘pure meaning’, but common human needs and desires. All languages serve those needs and serve them equally well. If we do say the same things over and over again, it is because we encounter the same needs, feel the same fears, desires and sensations at every turn. The skills of translators and the basic design of Google Translate are, in their different ways, parallel reflections of our common humanity.


Several reality checks on translation are highlighted in the book, chief of which is the notion that translation does not convey the exact “same” meaning.


But when we say that a translation is an acceptable one, what we name is an overall relationship between source and target that is neither identity, nor equivalence, nor analog—just that complex thing called a good match. That’s the truth about translation.


If you want the same thing, that’s quite alright. You can read the original.


A good translator is one who has a good understanding of both the languages and the cultural contexts in which they are used. In circumventing the difficulties of language and delivering a translation that retains the spirit and force of the original text, the translator lends his own touch to the final product. Bellos often goes beyond the technicalities of translation and relates it to the philosophical underpinnings of how language and its translation are viewed:


The practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different: we speak different tongues, and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same—that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings and so forth. Without both of these two suppositions, translation could not exist.



What consistently comes through in the penetrating and engaging analysis of language and translation in the two books, is the rich and diverse foundation on which language is based and which continues to influence its evolution—human nature, conscious and unconscious habits, intended and unintended consequences of interaction and problem-solving, and sometimes simply pure randomness:


Below the level of consciousness and going by too quickly to think much about, speaking is ripe for habit-forming, for mission creep. Once something gets started, it has a way of hanging around and settling in—even when the language was doing just fine without it.


All languages are full of detritus from things that have changed beyond recognition unmourned—or, put another way, language change is an ongoing procession of mistakes.


As an organic record of human history, our common humanity and sometimes divergent philosophies, the languages that we know of (and their accompanying linguistic habits) in their current incarnation are merely a juncture in the long chain of dynamic transformation, which would invariably pass into antiquity. And that is a humbling reminder indeed.

Loh Su Hsing is Head of International Fundraising and Advisor to the President for Southeast Asia at Asia Centre, an independent research institution based in Paris.