Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Why There's No Such Thing As "Untranslatable"

A lacuna is also a type of hole, as illustrated
in this beautiful picture of shells.
While celebrating the diversity of language is somewhat of a hobby of mine, I am also somewhat irritated by words (often on the internet) that are labelled as "untranslatable". It often seems that most of these untranslatables merely lack a direct linguistic or cultural equivalent, known as a lexical gap or lacuna.

If you throw "untranslatable" into a search engine, you'll be met with plenty of listicles (a portmanteau of "list" and "article", if you were wondering) designed to provide light reading online, generate ad revenue, and provide you with an opportunity to kill some time. Every one of these will give a number of "untranslatable" words along with a description of what they mean.

Translation is often so much more nuanced and complicated than throwing out a word-for-word equivalent and, in the case of these articles, an actual translation appears alongside the words that are supposedly untranslatable!

Depending on your outlook, translation can come in almost any form. You may remember from our "Intro to Translation Studies" posts that scholars Vinay and Darbelnet categorised translation into a number of methods, some of which don't require you to have found an exact equivalent to have translated a term.

It's also important to consider what you need the translation for. If these "untranslatable" words had appeared in a novel, for example, the translator would probably be unable to provide a dictionary-style definition as has been done in these articles. However, while translating them may be difficult, it would not be impossible for the best translators. Sometimes even the best translators cannot find an equivalent term or phrase, and might have to make use of footnotes to explain the term. However, whether you consider this to be a good or bad translation, the word has technically still been translated.

With that all said, most of these lists are very fascinating and I enjoy reading them. I just wish they wouldn't call them "untranslatable"!

What are your favourite hard-to-translate words that don't have a direct equivalent in English? Put them in the comments below and don't forget to provide the translation... if you can!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Intonation: Music in Language

After looking at speech tempo on Wednesday, I got distracted reading about intonation, and thought I'd share a bit of information on this wonderful linguistic phenomenon that occurs in spoken language.

Pitch varies with frequency, much like these waves that represent
visible light.
Since spoken language is transmitted by sound, every word you utter has pitch. Intonation is how your speech changes pitch, which is one of the things that makes language so amazingly nuanced. Intonation serves a number of functions in speech, all by doing little more than increasing or decreasing its pitch.

Intonation helps us to determine whether a statement is interrogative or affirmative (a question or an answer) by noting if intonation rises in pitch or falls. In English, a rising pitch indicates a question and a falling pitch indicates an answer. However, you may notice that if you doubt your own answer to a question, your speech tends to rise regardless.

San Fernando Valley, California
A number of English dialects around the world have a feature known as the high rising terminal (HRT) in which pitch rises at the end of the sentence. This is common mainly in a number of Australian and American dialects. This feature of speech has been popularised thanks to the valleyspeak sociolect spoken in southern California's San Fernando Valley, where everyone sounds like they're asking questions constantly.

It can also be used to place emphasis on certain words or clauses in a sentence. In written language, this is often indicated by the use of italics (in the case of words) and parentheses in the case of clauses.

Intonation also helps you to remember things. Next time you find yourself repeating your shopping list back to yourself in the aisles, listen to your rising intonation as you name each item. Apparently this is because the items are easier to remember that way. It's also a useful thing to know if you're studying for an exam!

My favourite function of intonation is undoubtedly the way that it can give your speech emotion. Those listening to you talk can often guess how you're feeling due to the variations in your pitch.

It is worth noting that intonation does not refer to tone, which is the change in pitch utilised in tonal languages to distinguish between words. I'll have to have a look at that one another day!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Speech Tempo: What is the World's Fastest Language?

If you speak a foreign language, at some point you've probably been in that mildly embarrassing situation when you've had to ask somebody to speak either more slowly or more clearly. Then you may have wondered, "why do they speak so fast anyway?"

From my experience, it seems quite clear that most people (regardless of their mother tongue) believe at least one particular language to be spoken more quickly than their own. I imagine that part of this is due to the fact that when hearing a foreign language (especially when first learning it), your brain is working so hard that you barely have time to keep up, making the language feel really quick with a sensation that you're trying to keep thousands of different plates spinning at the same time.

How fast you speak a language is known as the speech tempo and, as I suggested, human perception of this phenomenon is largely subjective. However, there are ways to measure speech tempo, including measuring it as a rate of syllables over time, since the length of words varies wildly across languages. This measurement can be taken either with or without considering pauses in speech. It is known as speech rate when counting pauses and articulation rate when ignoring pauses.

An interesting study on this subject was published a few years ago, which found that the quickly spoken languages (of those studied) tend to contain less information per syllable. However, those spoken more slowly tend to contain more information per syllable. I've put the results into an interactive chart below so you can see for yourself.

As you can see from the chart, languages with a low information density had a high syllabic rate, and vice versa. Mandarin was shown to contain the most information per syllable (since Vietnamese was a reference) while Japanese contained the least. In terms of speed, Japanese was the quickest and Mandarin the slowest.

Spanish was the fastest European language and German the slowest. Spanish also had the lowest information density of all European languages, while English had the highest. It seems to be that as humans, we all tend to deliver information at the same speed.

Which languages do you think sound like they're being spoken the fastest? Do you struggle with the speed of native speakers' speech for any languages you've learnt? Tell us about your experiences with speech tempo in the comments below.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday and the Language of Easter

For many Christians around the world, today marks the celebration of Good Friday, the day that marks the crucifixion of Jesus. Throughout human history, religion has been an important part of life for many people, so it is unsurprising that it leaves a lasting mark on language. Today we're looking at a few of the ways Good Friday, Easter, and Christianity have left their marks on the English language.

Jesus being betrayed, with a kiss from Judas Iscariot.
Good Friday

For many English-speaking Christians, naming the day when their lord and saviour died good may seem a bit peculiar. While the meaning of Friday is uncontested, the explanation behind the term good is fairly complicated.

Some believe that the use of good may refer to the actions of Jesus, rather than some of the other events of the day, meaning that the term is being used in reference to God and holy things instead of its more common everyday usage.

Etymologically speaking, the good in Good Friday is also thought to have originated from "God's Friday", Gottes Freitag, or from the German Gute Freitag.

Ostara, the Pagan goddess of spring and fertility.
Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot was the disciple who betrayed Jesus by delivering him to the Romans in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. Due to his betrayal, his given name, Judas, is sometimes used to refer to a traitor either by referring to them directly as Judas or even as a Judas. This is used across most varieties of English in a very similar way to how Benedict Arnold is used American English. Arnold defected from the American Continental Army to the British Army during the American Revolutionary War.


English differs from other languages in that it doesn't use a term related to the Latin word Pascha to refer to this holiday. The roots of Easter go all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European term aus, which refers to shining. This later become austron in Proto-Germanic from *aust-, referring to the East and the sunrise. This became Eastre or Eostre and then the Old English term Easterdæg before finally becoming Easter. It should be noted that the English term for the Christian holiday actually comes from the name of a pagan god of spring and fertility!