Words Fail Me (and Isn’t That Awesome?)

Yesterday, I talked about situations in which one person just wouldn’t understand what another was explaining because they just didn’t have the mindset for it. But as UZ pointed out in a comment to that post, sometimes, it’s not the mindset that gets in the way: instead, it’s the vocabulary. Here, language barrier plays a part, but the big issue is that at least one side either doesn’t have the kinds of words needed to describe what’s going on, have words with the right meanings but the wrong connotations, or in some cases have words they just can’t use for cross-linguistic reasons.

Lack or surfeit of concept, of course, is the simplest way to go, and simultaneously one of the easiest and one of the biggest pains in the neck to render. In this case, one side generally has both concepts and vocabulary for something they’re dealing with (be it a different sensory input, emotion, device, scientific concept, what have you), while the other doesn’t. While it’s most commonly shown in interactions with different species who really are operating on alternate modes of perception, it doesn’t require biological differences to make a difference: I, for instance, nearly failed a color test on my way into kindergarten because I’d grown up distinguishing between ‘red’ and ‘raspberry’, and the swatch they were trying to get me to call red was definitely the latter. Either way, some people render the unfamiliar concepts as [untranslatable], while others conlang up words to go with them.

UZ’s example 2 in the comment, on the other hand, demonstrates what happens when one side has a word (or a segment of vocabulary, in this case) that technically has the right meaning, but also has the wrong connotation:

2) They spoke a different language from the main POV characters. This was a bit of a problem as the main POV language didn’t have any proper translation for most of their technical terms – the mechanics of a breeding program falling outside the scope of their cultural morality.
I say no *proper* translation because most of the breeder’s technical terms did translate – but only to profanities because of the morality gap. But, the “dirtyness” of the bad language was lost on the breeders because it wasn’t wrong for them…

This is one of those cases where yes, there’s a word for it, and most people know that word—it’s just that the word happens to have extra implications, most often ones that are obscene or unthinkable. (Taboo concepts have an annoying tendency to do this.) Imagine sex ed, replacing the clinical terms with the ones that got you in trouble in school, and you have about the right idea.

And then there’s what happens when a word isn’t bad, per se, it’s just one that will at best get you odd looks if you use it because of how it sounds in another language. My linguist mother’s favorite example of this is the Choctaw word for turkey, “takkonloshi”, which literally means ‘big chicken’. This may not seem too odd, until you consider that unlike in most cases of adapted words for animals, the Choctaw were in the right environment to run into wild turkeys from the get-go. So the problem isn’t having to conceptualize the turkey in terms of something they were already familiar with; the problem, instead, is that the original Choctaw word for turkey is “fokkit”. (A note on Choctaw orthography: unlike in many other languages, “o” is not always rendered verbally as a long o—and this includes this particular piece of vocabulary. Starting to see the problem?) While obscenity is the easiest source of problems, sometimes it’s just having meanings that conflict with each other that cause the issue: “Barf”, Farsi for snow, works well as a brand name for detergent in Iran, but I wouldn’t export it to America without translating it first, would you?

Then, for extra flavor, add minor translation errors—and then combine them with the elements above. I was once on a conlangers’ message board at a time when one of the popular activities was the “Polyglottal Telephone”, where a passage was translated from one language to another (sometimes real, sometimes created) in sequence to see what the end result would be. Sometimes they’d get through intact, sometimes the details would be cosmetic (someone misunderstanding a deliberate use of the wrong verb in a passage that incorporated “beeping lights” and fixing the lights so that they were blinking). And then there was the time when human error was mixed with an Example 2 vocabulary error, going from burning dresses to potentially pornographic blasphemy in the length of about two translations.

The meaning and the intent may be good, but sometimes the vocabulary just isn’t up for the task—and since that can characterize the languages, the people using them, and possibly the interaction between cultures or subcultures as a whole, why not run with it?

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