Tonight I made ratatouille.  It didn’t turn out that fabulous, but it did get me thinking about words from other languages.

Every language has words that come directly (or nearly so) from other languages.  My high school language teacher (who was also something of a linguist) referred to them as “borrowed words” which I think is pretty apt.  I’m not talking about the gradual offspring words that grow naturally from a language’s ancestor, words in English that bear a similarity to those of other French or Italian because they evolved from the same original Latin root.  I’m talking about words that we got directly from another language, because we didn’t have a word for that and we needed one.  It’s the “Hey, they already have a name for this, let’s just use it” mentality, and you find it in every language.

The immediate examples I can think of are food and technology.  We’ll get to technology in a minute; let’s start with food!  Food is very regional (has anybody outside of South Dakota ever heard of chislic?) and when it gets moved to different areas, it often keeps its original name.  You can order paella or ratatouille, cook some farfalle to eat with your chardonnay, and none of these words will ping your spellcheck even though they are Spanish, French, Italian, and French again, respectively.  This doesn’t just happen in English.  You can go to Japan and order a hanbaagaa and biiru if you’re craving some American food.  (Say the a “ah” and the ii “eee” and you should get it.)  I especially like the example of hanbaagaa, because it’s a Japanese version of an English word borrowed from a German place!  (It’s a double borrow!)

Now let’s talk technology.  This is an area where things go global quickly, so the name sometimes just gets moved around the world with the item itself.  For example, in Japanese, Korean, and Polish, the word for computer sounds remarkably like the English word “computer.”  Of course, the nicknames that develop are different regionally – think “mobile” (British) versus “cell” (American) to reference the same kind of phone.  There are also places (like France) where the people in charge of the language will actually make sure to find a suitable word within the language, even for new technology.  (According to my best friend, there are not a lot of borrowed words in French.  They are very protective of their language.)

At this point I need to step up on my mini-soapbox for a brief minute.  As a former student of Japanese, it makes me crazy when borrowed words end up mispronounced.  Karaoke becomes “carry-oh-key” and I make ugly faces.  I mean, really, in what other English word is the letter A pronounced “ee”?  Kah-rah-oh-kay, people.  And sake ends in “ay,” not “ee”!

Let’s get back on track and look at what this means for writing.  Fantasy authors make up words (and sometimes whole languages) all the time, for fictional races and species.  Given how the real world works, with different cultures using the same word for something, wouldn’t it make sense that two races (humans and elves, perhaps) would experience a similar effect?  This would especially be the case if they were connected very suddenly, with sharing of food and technology and many other things all at once.  (That’s why Japanese has so many borrowed words – when they rejoined the world from years of isolation, they got a sudden influx of lots of foreign stuff.)

Just something to think about the next time you order sushi and work on your novel!


A Language Barrier

Yesterday I mentioned what is probably the most impressive part of the show War Horse: the amazingly life-like horse puppets.  While I am still undecided on my overall opinion of the show, there was another aspect of it that I thought was handled beautifully and which I think is worth a post here.  That aspect is how they handled the question of language.

There are three different languages spoken by the characters of the show: English, German, and French.  While I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, this particular show-goer speaks only one of those.  In order to include the audience, all of the actors spoke English, albeit with the accents of their supposed country.  Most of the time this doesn’t matter; during the entire first act, we only see the British side of the story, and even when we switch to the other side of the fighting, they are usually only interacting with others who speak their language.

The brilliant part of the language question is how the actors portray the barrier when they interact across languages.  The beginning of the second act starts with a German officer shouting a tirade (in accented English) at a captured British officer.  The response from the British officer?  “I don’t speak German!”  The scene continues in such a way that it is clear the two captured British soldiers and several German soldiers can’t understand each other.

There isn’t an actual language barrier, but the script is written to convey one, and the acting is done accordingly.  The first time, it took me by surprise, but it worked well.  Much like with the horses and their puppeteers, I quickly forgot they were acting and believed they truly couldn’t understand each other.

Incorrect Word Assumptions

One of my mom’s pet peeves is the word “orientate.”  One of mine is “conversate.”  These two words have the same thing in common: someone has made an incorrect assumption about how the source words work.

In The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher calls this process analogy, and he uses a classic example.  A little kid who has only ever seen forks with four tines may call a three-tined fork a “threek,” because of the coincidental sound of the number “four” in the word fork.

We’re used to the following relationships:  the noun education and the verb educate, the noun communication and the verb communicate, the noun fornication and, well, you get the idea.

Here’s the problem: the rule applies in the verb-to-noun direction.  Verbs that end in “-ate” turn into nouns that end in “-ation.”  Indicate becomes indication.  Vacate becomes vacation.  It doesn’t apply in the other direction, and most of the time we get it.  Interpretation comes from interpret, not interpretate.  Deprivation comes from deprive.  Exploration comes from explore.

In the cases at the start of this post, conversation comes from converse.  And orientation?  It comes from orient.

So what happened with the two I mentioned before?  Easy.  Someone didn’t know the right base verb, and they made an assumption based on how they knew other verbs worked.  Guy Deutscher argues that this force of analogy is one that helps to not only create new words (my spell check has no issue with orientate, for example) but that this is, in fact, a very good candidate for how complex language structures came into being.

Words and language can be so much fun!

It’s Still English… Right?

I’m reading an interesting British book, about a guy who traveled around the world for six months looking for birds.  My best friend found it for me at a used book store in Houston and brought it to me when he came to visit.

I enjoyed reading his impression of Canada and two locations in the United States – seeing familiar countries through an outsider’s eyes is always fun.  It’s also giving me the traveling and birding bug again, so it’s a good thing I’m already planning a couple of trips in the next couple of years!

The unusual thing about this book is the language.  For the most part I don’t notice a difference; he doesn’t write with a lot of slang.  When there are unfamiliar terms, I’ve been able to get enough from context.

This current chapter, though, is different.  Perhaps because New Zealand (the location for this part) reminds him of home, the descriptions are full of slang terms that I don’t get.  Google translator will not do English (Britain) to English (American) but I did find one online British to American translator that did the job for some of the words.  Now I know that a “semi” is not a truck, it’s a duplex, and even though it sounds cute, “twee” really means tacky.

Isn’t language fun?