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2002-12-10: Words, words... oi, pay attention at the back!

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Categories: All Personal Tech

Inspiration for this ramble comes from Addl (www.addl.de) and a post at the Archive (www.tfarchive.com), "you can say you to me". To briefly summarise, many languages have multiple forms of the pronoun "you", used depending on the familiarity and regard held for the individual addressed. With French it's 'tu' and 'vous', with German it's 'du' and 'sie', giving rise to the phrase "Sie können du zu mir sagen" …which is, literally translated, "you can say you to me"…

Now, language operates as Holmesian logic—that is to say, when addressing someone in a language structured in this manner, the decision-making thought process typically occupies no more than a fraction of a second. In fact, it's often an entirely unconscious deduction, one we might never really think about, particularly in a more insular world than the one which global travel and communications gives us access to. :smokin:

I'm the first to admit that my head does a Gordian knotting exercise when confronted with alternatives to English grammar. German is relatively easy, because it follows more familiar patterns than French or Welsh. It's the syntax of those last two languages which befuddles me, because they operate under fundamentally different thought processes in some areas. Most particularly, the placement of nouns and adjectival description must be particularly nightmarish for Welsh/English bilingual students who don't possess strong language skills. Switching back to French, an example:

La femme a recherché le stylo rouge.
(The woman searched for the red pen.)

Except that that isn't the literal translation; stylo = pen (m. noun), rouge = red > The woman searched for the pen (red). In each instance, the colour of the pen would be stressed in the intonation of the sentence as there are likely to be pens of other colours—were there not the descriptor would be redundant. Try to frame a description in your head for a moment. "Blanche" is 'white' and "une fenêtre" is 'a window'.

In this instance, the English (a white window) offers the description before the subject object—we must listen to the end of the sentence before we know what to look for, or what is being described. When writing prose description, careful use of this technique allows an author to build anticipation and suspense within a sentence as well as as part of a broader plot. It also—more obviously—requires that an audience must listen past the description. Without wishing to culturally stereotype, perhaps this is why continental languages tend to be spoken more rapidly - speakers wish to proceed to these 'interesting' parts of sentences… ;)

Not all French description is structured 'noun—adjective', of course… size tends to come before; eg, "la grande boule noir". However, the language remains grammatically fixed to a degree more rare in English: "the big black ball bounced down the beach" as readily lends itself to scripting in the form "the ball, big and black, bounced down the beach". Actually, this highlights another problem faced by translators: rhythm of language such as alliteration is almost impossible to sustain: "the big black ball" possesses a cadence absent in "la grande boule noir". Songs which rhyme tend to highlight greatly different selections of vocabulary… the authorial thought processes are greatly affected by the form the language medium takes. (eg, French has more words ending in vowel sounds.)

More worrying is the widespread tendency of language to gender inanimate objects and abstract concepts—why is a rubber female? Why is a café male? Women face far greater obstacles to equal consideration when a bakery is female and a hospital male; a doctor male and a nurse female. Why is philosophy female? Why is art male? And, a rather more pertinent question to ask: who decided? :?

Despite not sharing in this dubious form of explicit division and hierarchy, English speakers are far from lacking in complicity; many still feel terms so implicitly gendered that they have driven to always reference 'female doctor' or 'male nurse', because they don't expect those gender/job combinations. This isn't exactly prejudice in and of itself (there may be rational and empirical reasons for considering one situation more likely than another), but it can rapidly escalate to such with those irrationally hostile to any intrusion upon their blinkered view of the world as possessing a static status quo.

Okay, this has taken me far, far too long to write, and I really must start marking… :yawn:

End note: to those at all interested in what's going on in my life right now, I apologise. I wrote this on the train because my head was too fragged to cope with marking yr9's sonnets at 11am on a Sunday morn. I will endeavour to post something relevant soon.


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