Words, Words, Words

Word: “a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing”.  Oxford Online Dictionary

Picking up passing scraps of conversation, or tuning in to radio or TV programmes, we are all aware that language is constantly evolving, never more so than in the last few decades. The pace of change everywhere has been fuelled by rapid technological progress, cultural shifts and wide dissemination via the internet and mass media. New things and novel ideas require fresh means of expression. It’s a two way process. Words lose popularity and drop from common parlance within the lifetime of the original speakers (Rather! I say!). Broadcasts from the 1950s on “the wireless” and Pathé “newsreels” already sound pompous and stultified to modern ears. Yet that same period in America spawned a host of new words for new concepts (fast food, junk mail, DJ, weirdo, sexism) which caught on rapidly around the world and still seem quite new today.

With the current popularity of period drama, we may even be struck by how odd our modern expressions would have seemed back then. Anachronisms – such as the use of “learning curve”, “fan club” and “defining moment” in the UK TV series Downton Abbey – provide fun for gaffe spotters. Getting the language of the period right is perhaps even more important for creating atmosphere than costume and setting – a misused phrase can stand out like a pylon in an ageless rural scene. But because words and meaning have changed significantly over time, programme producers are aware that to stick too closely to the language of more distant periods can make it alienating and impenetrable to a modern audience. The past can indeed seem like a foreign country.

The diverse origins of the English language have resulted in a peculiarly rich linguistic culture. Other languages may perhaps boast greater purity, or more actual dictionary words, partly depending on how variants, compounds and inflections are counted, but contributions from the linguistic heritage of Anglo Saxon, Latin and Norman French have melded with more recent influences to create a varied lexicon replete with multiple layers of meaning. Strangely, grammar, the actual structure of language, is much less subject to external influence, and changes very slowly, but one of the peculiar strengths of English is its vast ability to absorb new vocabulary.

Al dente, sushi, latte, macho, siesta, doppelganger, zeitgeist, déjà vu… we assimilate new words from a variety of sources and influences, but not many neologisms now come into English from other languages, the massive trend being in the other direction.

Words which evolve from a shared localised culture, whether popular or highbrow, can be opaque to outsiders – references to British youth subcultures (hoodie, chav) or to literary sources (Catch-22, Orwellian, scrooge) can be equally mystifying.

However the most noticeable aspect of language development in recent years is the rapid globalization of new words for new concepts in science, technology, the media and popular culture, and here the predominant influence is transatlantic – from US to British English. By extension, the worldwide source for most modern neologisms is the American-English-dominated internet, and to some, the plethora of new words can seem like an invasion. Official bodies in many countries (Russia, Sweden, France and Spain) attempt to prescribe accepted terminology, often amidst fears about the corruption of the official language.

With hundreds or even thousands of new words emerging each year, the ever changing panorama creates a particular challenge for translators looking for meaning. In Britain, non-prescriptive dictionaries record common usage rather than official acceptance. New words may arise as compounds (earworm, senior moment), new phrasal words (laid-back, chill-out) or blends of words (staycation, brunch, metrosexual).  Abbreviated words (detox, decaf, sat-nav) or words formed from acronyms (yuppie, ASBO) have become increasingly common, as have text messaging abbreviations (LOL, BTW), whilst large numbers of old words have gained new meanings (surf, tweet, hack, sad, cool) or have been altered by the addition of prefixes or suffixes, sometimes borrowed from other languages (uncool, über-modern, fashionista).  New terms move from slang status to more general acceptance, disseminated by the media. Other terms come and go, arising from transitory political or cultural events (eurogeddon, eurosceptic).  The Oxford Online Dictionary may even be ahead of most of us, having already raised definitions for such new compounds as omnishambles, buzzworthy and hackerspace. Who knows how many of these will survive? Such words have to prove their longevity before they can get in to the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary, but even here the notional ten year rule is disappearing: despite its relative novelty, “tweet” has been accepted for inclusion this year!

The problem for translators is that not all languages may adapt so readily. Many languages, such as Turkish, Hungarian and German, have similar ways of dealing with new concepts, by building up a descriptive compound word from component parts, allowing almost infinite variety. However, preferred terms for common objects may take a while to emerge, the concept itself may not be familiar to the target audience, popular names may differ from officially minted terminology, and the step from popular use to official recognition may take even longer.  In Spain, the term “email” is widely encountered but “correo electrónico” is officially preferred. Some words like “avatar” (Sanskrit in origin) have been directly adopted into other languages. Hungarian and Russian have their own, home coined words for the World Wide Web (“világháló” and “всемирная паутина”) but in Germany, “das Internet” is more widely used than the home produced version “das Weltnetz”. Other terms like LOL (“laugh-out-loud”) are subtly transformed by local speakers, so “jajaja” in Spanish, becomes 555 (hahaha) in Korean! Curiously, “geek” in Spanish becomes “friki” which also has an Anglo-Saxon origin, whilst Germans use an English word “Handy” for mobile phone, a term not recognised by English speakers!

Popular slang may be of limited concern to professional translators, but new terminology is also constantly being introduced in science, medicine, business, marketing and politics, yet until very well established may not be recorded in printed bilingual dictionaries and is unlikely to be found in automated translation systems. It is up to translators themselves to be part of the ongoing process of defining and explaining new words and concepts, whilst keeping a close eye on developments!


Written by: Sarah Wright


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