Bad Language

Come closer. Yes, you. Come here. Listen to me. Do you hear what I’m saying? Do you understand it?

I bet you don’t, or not quite as I mean it.

Look, a recent alleged science fiction read had nanocites that adapted people to speak a universal language.

Why is it that languages get no respect when it comes to world building and future projection? Oh, it’s not a science in the sense it’s not predictive. (No, I don’t even care if some colleges consider them almost a science – mine did) but it’s a science in the sense of analysis collection and observation.

Is it because we don’t have math? (We do, you know? It’s just weird and done with different symbols.) Or is it because to paraphrase Pride and Prejudice “Any savage can talk?”

I do understand the unique difficulties of writing future language or past language for that matter. Since our goal is to tell a story and attract readers, we really shouldn’t make the language itself an opaque barrier between ourselves and the reader. To an extent I did that with Shakespeare (unwittingly, though over-immersion.)

I understand the … convenience of things like the Star Trek universal translators, or the nanocites that give you competence in language.

It also – unless you posit some way in which to decode the brain itself, and even then – is one of the most impossible things ever.

I’m tired of stories where you get a universal translator. Or even stories where you get some sort of injection that suddenly makes you understand and speak the other language.

You can do that – sort of – in a magical world, because if you have people who can conjure stuff out of nothing, and people who can change into dragons or lions, there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t be able to also to get to that space behind the eyes and change people’s definition of this or that, or affix new words to it.

But in a scientific world… well…

Most of us don’t consider language anything special – at least not in terms of being able to talk. We started doing it too young to think of it as a great achievement, or to remember the process of it. In fact, unless you have learned a foreign language after ten, you probably have no idea how involved a process it is.

What you are learning is not so much new words to affix to the definitions you know but new definitions to go along with them, and also – due to the subtle miracle of syntax – new ways to manipulate the symbols that those words are into new thoughts, that sometimes could not be thought in any other language.

David Pascoe incidentally, while blogging about his grandfather’s passing mentioned calling him by the Swedish word Mofar – mother’s father. Part of the reason for this – correct me if I’m wrong, because I haven’t used Swedish in 30 years, and when I last did use it it was to translate instructions for assembling and operating big industrial weaving machines (which is why I learned it, since the area I come from is heavily textile and imports machinery from Sweden.) – if I remember correctly is that Swedish has no word for “grandfather” or “grandmother” as such, so it creates port-manteau ones. (In the same way, if I remember correctly, just like in the English of Shakespeare’s time “grandchild” is the same word as nephew or niece.)

The lack of a word or agglutination to another group changes the symbol in the head. In English you can say you have four grandparents but not so in Swedish. And if you go into the English of Shakespeare’s time, a man might have felt greater affection for his granddaughter than his niece, but he would have trouble thinking of them as different categories.

The other day (okay, three years ago) while cruising ebay for a gift for a friend who loves the “old style” Portuguese towels, (which I think are here called guest towels) which are made of linen and heavily embroidered, I came across a listing for “Portuguese towel” “Linen” and “embroidered” and I thought “Well, that’s a little pricey but not crazy” then looked at the dimensions. It was 3 meters by two meters.

At which point I burst out laughing and sent the seller a note, “You mean tablecloth, not towel.”

You see, in Portuguese the two are toalha. Possibly because when such niceties as household linens were introduced, they were both lengths of embroidered cloth, and the use they were put to might vary. The answer I got back was a frustrated “We did that? DUH. No wonder it’s just sitting.”

I told them not to feel bad, because when I’m really tired, I will do that too. And I don’t actually think in Portuguese and translate. (I haven’t since my second year in English class. You can’t speak a language competently while you do that. I did use to think in five or so languages concurrently, flipping from one to the other depending on what I was doing. But I broke that habit – forcibly – so I could write more fluently in English. Yep, the things we do for love.)

But the problem is that somewhere on the very back of my mind, the first time I heard the concept of something that could be used to wipe yourself and/or to lay on the table while eating, the concept was fused under the same word and the word resembles towel. In the same way I’ll spell English in a phonetic LATIN way when I can’t even see straight as far as the screen, from being so tired, I’ll flip to a united concept of household cloth stuff. And let me tell you, ladies, gentlemen and microbes, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – to compare to the expression on my son’s face when I tell him to go put the towel on the dining room table while getting ready for a holiday dinner.

Which brings us to the nanocites someone had injected into her character to make her understand alien – not even human, but alien, languages. Pfui. That’s all. Yeah, the nanocites could, if we grant the usual sf-stretch give someone basic and obvious concepts that all humans share. Things like fingers and toes, and house and food. Maybe. Those concepts, even among humans are capable of more or lesser parsing.

For instance, another thing I tend to do if caught off guard is tell people I have twenty fingers. Why? Because fingers and toes are all one word – dedos – in Portuguese. You add the distinctions with a phrase. Toes are “dedos do pe” and thumbs for that matter are dedos polegares. (This is why I sympathized with FoxFier’s statement that she has five fingers and a thumb. It’s the type of thing I’d like to do.)

On the other hand, Portuguese will have words for things English doesn’t. No, I can’t think of any of them off the top of my head, but that’s because I rarely think in Portuguese anymore, and also it’s early and I’m on my first cup of tea. Get me in Portugal and serving as translator for my husband and kids, and yeah, I’ll stumble on a thousand of them.

By the way and as an aside, this is as good a place as any to dispose of the myth that English is the most difficult language ever to learn or that it has the largest vocabulary, or even that it’s the only language that borrows words. I beg you please to give up on that before I rolls my eyes so hard that they become cat toys again. I’ve heard the same boast made by native speakers of every language on the planet. And every language on the planet borrows like mad. Unless you come from a small and very isolated, and very culturally backward linguistic group who hasn’t had any contact with anything since hunting-gathering, your language will be 90% borrowed and clobbered together from spare parts. Once, after I’d said this in a writers mailing list I used to belong to, someone came back with the clincher that no, English has MORE words than any other language, and more of them are bothered. First, they were assuming that the difficulty in learning a language is vocabulary and not structure. Maybe it is for some people. It certainly never was for me. Second, and more importantly they are confusing a refreshing lack of linguistic chauvinism with having more words. Yes, English will unabashedly add the words to their dictionary once they’re in use. Foreign speakers will borrow English (and other) words just as much. They just don’t admit to it. They’re too proud and old to admit to petty thieving, so the word will be used with abandon but will never make it to the formal language or the dictionaries. For instance, my dad tried to explain to me a highly technical plumbing term he called beepash. It took me a second to figure out what he was pronouncing and then I assured him I knew what a bypass is. He didn’t believe me. In Portuguese it IS a technical term of plumbers and surgeons.

Now I know France is like this too. I don’t know enough of the culture to swear to German or the other more recondite languages – but in Portugal you have generations of these “bastard words” that everyone uses but which are not in any language. It can amount to a whole different dialect that changes from village to village and at a greater level from region to region. Suffice it to say that when I went to elementary school, I had to learn my first foreign language, since the teacher didn’t allow dialect in the class. And it means you could learn Portuguese for years, but if you’re dropped into a region where people aren’t aware you’re foreign and trying to speak standard language for your comfort, you might not understand a single word. My Italian teacher said the dialect of my village reminded him of the Italian of Milan more than it did of straight Portuguese. I think he was trying to be insulting.

Now, given all of that in linguistic confusion between humans and often between humans whose language comes from a common ancestral language… How can there be a “universal translator” or even nanocites that change the way you understand languages? Considering how difficult it is for me to step back and think in Portuguese – it feels exactly like going mad. The thought moves in circles – I think the later would be an excellent way to drive someone insane. (Um… I smell an Analog story.)

Yes, I can see where it would be an excellent device to get the language to move along and not hang up the story. But if you’re going to use handwavium, then the universal translator is better than something that will actually mess with the brain. Just be aware you’re using something that is as unlikely as FTL and maybe more, because it involves messing with the space behind the eyes, where the prototypes of the world exist. And throw in an error or two just for fun.

Months ago, in a moment of boredom, my husband and I amused ourselves by playing with Google translate (which btw is miles better than the preceding Altavista, where the woman who did the hardcover cover for Draw One In The Dark ran my proposal to decide to draw a cover about a zombie who wore a seashell (I’m going to guess pearl of heaven has something to do with seashell in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, though I can of course understand vast swathes of it) and fought dragons in Dracula’s castle. I mean, judging by the cover.) to translate something simple like “Hello, good morning, would you like breakfast” into Portuguese and back into English. What we ended up with was something like “Good Morning, you are breakfast.”

Now, I’m just going to guess this type of error might cause some diplomatic trouble for aliens communicating with humans.

Good. After all we’re writers and we thrive on, as older son puts it, hurting imaginary people.

You know what they say – okay, they don’t but they shouldn’t – if you can’t fix it, hang a flag on it and call it art.

But do stop talking about learning languages as if it were something as easy as a contact lens to change the color of your eyes. In humans at least, language is not an organic process. I do realize in the States languages are taught badly enough that it seems you have to be born speaking a language to ever be fluent. Trust me, you don’t.

Now stop making me roll my eyes. It always comes up snake eyes anyway…

Writing something so that it is understood as close to my thought as possible requires more than translation – it requires simile and image and attention to the sound to create a mood and a cadence, so that you can feel/see what I saw. That’s the art of the novelist.

Granted, most people don’t think of word use as art but that’s a rant for another day.

I’ve spoken long enough. Let those who can hear understand me.

Stop short changing language. It’s more complex than you think.

379 thoughts on “Bad Language

  1. When I was taking German in college, one of the TAs mentioned an editorial written in one of the big German papers about the “corruption” of the German language due to all the English words which had infected it. To drive the point home, the editorial was written almost entirely using such borrowed English.

      1. I remember when French writers on computer science started using the new official French words: ordinateur = computer, logical = software, informatique = computer science, and no doubt others that I haven’t encountered. Because you know “le computeur” is just so déclassé. (What? “déclassé” is a perfectly good English word!)

        My mental model is that when a French speaker sees a foreign word, they say, “Euh, the nasty thing. It probably has fleas and worms. Let us have it put down by the authorities,” but an English speaker says, “Oh, it’s cute! Do you think it needs a home?”

        1. My issue is that the Latin languages respell loan-words, to conform with their mispronunciation, where in English the word is taken in the original spelling and mispronounced anyways.

            1. The obvious response is “Y-not?” but then again I am one of the secret masters of the obvious. (as well as being coma-impaired)

              1. you definitely seemed coma impaired to me, you seem conscious to me. Unless you sleep type.

                1. I have woken up a couple of times after getting to bed late and found my inbox has replies to comments I do NOT remember making the night before.

                  It may be before I go to bed, but it’s still sleep typing!

        2. My mental model is that when a French speaker sees a foreign word, they say, “Euh, the nasty thing. It probably has fleas and worms. Let us have it put down by the authorities,” but an English speaker says, “Oh, it’s cute! Do you think it needs a home?”

          Perfect encapsulation! And applicable to all sorts of foreign things, not just language.

        3. About the only internet related word the French Academy came up with that people use is “aerobas” (sp?) which is the @ sign. Everyone else sending “textos” from their “portable” that are received as “email”

          (Of course in French Email is English Enamel, which is going to cause some fun with Google translate down the way. “I’m sending you an enamel about my pan’s emaill which is flaking off”)

      2. Yes, English does not so much borrow from other languages as it follows them down darkened allies, coshes them over the head, and then rumages through their pockets for pieces of loose grammar.

              1. The Japanese have done pretty well with the deal. Of course they’re nearly as eager to adopt new words as we are; they have an entire script, katakana, specifically for words like konpyuuta and jiinzu and soshioroji.

                1. I’ve heard that what the Japanese do to the adopted words is “interesting”. As in an English speaker/reader won’t know what English word the new Japanese word is from. [Smile]

                  1. Well, tempura, for a Portugese dish they adopted, came through without much change; it was a word they could pronounce.

                    1. According to the wiki, it came from monk food. Having dealt with real live monks, their cuisine more resembles bachelor food that it does their “national” cuisine.

                      I will grant you, monks typically produce things that are more recognizably food than the typical fasting bachelor*,**, it is still nothing quite like what you would expect from the typical mom of five kids.

                      *Take one loaf store bought french bread, one can canned shellfish (any type), olive oil, and steak seasoning. Break the french bread in half, and squish pockets in each half. Open can of shellfish. Deposit one half of can in each half of the loaf of bread, season liberally with steak seasoning, and a generous quantity of olive oil. Microwave for 1-3 minutes or until to hot to pick up.

                      **Empty one bag lentils and one bag barley into large pot. Cover with water and bring to boil. Remember to dispose of it before it starts going hair.

                    2. Hum… it’s tenpura in Japanese, and the dictionary indicates it’s from tempero or temporas in Portuguese? Interesting that the “n” gets switched to an “m” when Americans borrow the word…

                    3. Ah! That does not mean dish in breading or crumbs but “Spices” — tempero is merely “spice.” So, yeah, they borrowed the word, but it was the wrong word.

                    4. nothermike: The Japanese syllabic character that is transliterated “n” (as opposed to the characters for na, ni, nu, ne, and no, which are different) does not always represent the sound n. If it precedes a consonant, it can be m, n, or ng (the sound at the end of “ring”). If it comes at the end of the word, it makes the preceding vowel nasal, in the style familiar to speakers of French and Portuguese (I believe Portuguese represents it by putting a ˜ over the vowel in question, as in “São Paulo”). So at least my girlfriends introductory Japanese textbook says.

                      If you transliterate according to the standard rules you will get “konpyuuta,” but it’s pronounced more like “kompyuuta.”

                  2. The Japanese treatment of English names is adorable! The only one that comes to mind is “Amana.” Ah-Mah-Nah, but all somehow one syllable.

                    It’s Amanda. (Girl on the ship and a straight-out-of-anime Japanese shop girl.)

                    1. Yeah, I hear that in anime theme songs. They often stick in English words, seemingly for decoration, but if you don’t have the printed lyrics displayed you may not recognize them as English.

                    2. Speaking of borrowed words– watch Fairy Tail in Japanese. There’s enough English that you can ALMOST follow it without subtitles.

                    1. arubaita — pronounced ah-ruh-bah-ee-tah — is the word most people use. And yes, it’s a pretty direct lift from arbeiter, the German word.

                      But Japan has been borrowing words for centuries. First they borrowed writing from China (kanji, supposedly at least three major waves), later mixed in a phonetic local alphabet that they added (hiragana, which does a nice job of representing the Japanese phonemes, which are NOT all directly equivalent to English — rah is neither “r” nor “l” and is HARD for a foreigner to learn to pronounce correctly), then tossed in the exact same phonemes represented in a different alphabet for foreign loanwords (katakana, introduced because one of the emperors got frustrated with all the foreign loanwords looking just like Japanese, and declared that foreign words would have their own alphabet — notice that he didn’t want to stop using them, he just wanted to know which ones were foreign). Sorry, runaway sentence…

                      Along the way, you get things like the Japanese woman who demanded that I tell her what castella (a very popular cake) meant in English, because it is obviously an English word, and then she got very angry that I didn’t know the English meaning (I believe that one is a Portuguese loanword, if I remember right, from the days that the Dutch and Portuguese were wooing Japan).

                      So, yeah, Japanese is an enthusiastic borrower, if slightly twisted. Anime! Pasacon! Makudonarudo! Sumatohon (that’s smart phone!). How many examples did you want?

                    2. It’s not true that katakana was designed for foreign words. IIRC Katakana was created in the late Heian period by monks. Hiragana was later developed by women at the Imperial court at about the same date. The split between the usage of katakana for foriegn words and hiragana for japanese endings is a 20th century one, or maybe late 19th cent.

                    3. I studied to be a Spanish/English interpreter in the local hospital. In Spanish for most terms, they use the Latin just like in English.

                    4. I think Masgramondou is right — the story I learned about the origin of katakana seems to have been simplified. Looks as if it originated with monks trying to markup things, and then at some point — I found a reference to 1946? Way late! — someone ordered that it be used for foreign words, and hiragana for real Japanese words. It’s still true that the phonemes in hiragana and katakana are identical. Just different uses.

                    5. Borrowing/multiple writing systems/…

                      I used to work for the company that was training Japan Air Lines pilots back in the mid-70s (Napa, CA, as there was no space for doing the task in Japan at the time). It was fascinating looking at JAL’s internal magazines with a mix of hiragana, katakana and spots of “romanji” like raisins in a cookie.

                      We’ve been learning a bit of korean, and are finding lots of loan words there. Sort of. “Cell phone” sounds like “hand-a-pon”. Wife (a number of possibilities) may be “pu in” (well, it sounds like that, even if the spelling translates as “buin”, or it might just be “weipu” (they have to do something with F and V that don’t occur in korean).

                      Multiple ways to say “yes/no/I hear what you’re saying not implying that I agree or not”, which can be one of a small number translated as “yes”, depending on the relative status of the speaker to the listener.

                      Now I have to figure out how many different ways they have of saying “thank you”…

  2. Hum, that means I’m going to have to change how my aliens “teach” kidnapped humans their language. [Wink]

    Although, the aliens method required that they have the human language “on file” before they could “teach” the humans their language.

      1. One of the more instructive stories of an extreme polyglot learning something quickly is Barry Farber’s tale of distinguishing the men’s room from the women’s room under pressure. He used the 25 odd languages he had studied pretty thoroughly and historical principles and relationships to make a right choice.

        I wonder what relationships might be among alien languages as used by different aliens. I suppose it would depend on past interactions among aliens and so be more or less knowable to Homo Sap.

    1. Have them teach it to Americans. Americans will say, “Have you got any new vocabulary? You got words for things we haven’t thought of yet? Can we mispronounce them, or shorten them, or use them as suffixes?” (Hey, it worked for -burger and -nik.) They may not actually learn the language but they’ll adopt chunks of it into “English.”

  3. The issue with Morfar is specificity. He could always have said Bestefar (Grandfather), but that doesn’t identify which grandfather in particular.

    Morfar is Mother’s Father, a particular person.

    So when I wish to say a particular Uncle, I either identify my mother’s brother (who is no longer living) or my father’s brother (the youngest one of which is still living).

    1. Yeah, you could say bedsteforældre if you wanted to say grandparents as a general term (except I write Danish, but it comes to the same thing), but mostly you talk about the particular person, who will be Mormor or whoever.

      1. Finnish has somewhat similar names, there is the general grandfather ‘isoisä’ (literally ‘big father’, iso means big, isä is father), if you want to specify you’ll say either ‘äidinisä’ = mother’s father or isänisä = father’s father. And then there are all the petnames, vaari, pappa, paappa, faari (those all come from Swedish, Finnish has borrowed a lot from Swedish). And grandmother is isoäiti, or mummo, or mummi.

        We do differentiate between mother’s brother and father’s brother, first one is eno, second setä, but setä has become a generic, it’s starting to replace eno. And almost any adult male they know can be called ‘setä’ by children.

        Between English and Finnish, one of the areas which sometimes frustrates me is winter and, specifically, snow. Finnish has more words for snow. Often I’d like to say exactly what kind of snow, and there are no words in this language. But Finnish is also losing that variety, people a few decades younger than me recognize fewer of those snow words than I do. What was important to people who moved in the forests and fields during winter nearly daily is no longer something that matters to generations of which most people live in towns and cities.

        1. More words maybe, more descriptors not at all. The snow cat crews responsible for grooming slopes and avalanche prevention have a vocabulary for snow that rivals and may even surpass the famed Inuit – see e.g. an article in Outdoors Magazine on that very subject. Myself I can make myself understood sometimes in terms of klisters and waxes and others ways of conditioning skis and snow boards for different snow conditions – it was the sort of melting snow that made everybody reach for silver wax?

          1. Yep, but it’s specific, not everyday vocabulary. Finnish skiers etc seem to have ones too, but from what little I know of those theirs seem to be mostly new, made up words, at least some words ones modified or translated from those used by English speaking skiers, not the old ones I know.

            1. Bob Thompson (friend of Jerry Pournelle onetime computer writer) wrote Tuesday last There was snow, sleet (in the US/Canadian sense of tiny ice pellets), sleet (in the UK sense of mushy snow/rain), and I think maybe even some graupel. so give the Americans time they’ll have more words back in common usage as global cooling hits.

        2. And almost any adult male they know can be called ‘setä’ by children.

          In Brasil (can’t speak for those strange European types), we have the same thing with ‘tio’, but it’s not universally accepted. Many people of my and my parents’ generations seem to get annoyed at being called tio by strange children. I remember an older acquaintance fair to ripping some mouthy young punk a new one: “I’m no uncle of yours, or I’d have you over my knee by now!”

        3. We use tons of descriptors for snow, we have snow pellets, powder, sugar, popcorn, saltshaker, wet, snowball, and many other types of snow. (and apparently whoever named a lot of those was hungry, I didn’t realize how many corresponded to food until I started to type them out). But yeah they are all descriptors not seperate words.

        4. Living in the midwest I wish we had more names for snow. Or even a nice pithy, guttural, swear-word sounding epithet for black ice. Or that black nasty snow that looks like rotting stuff, or that weird melting packed snow that looks like packing styrofoam.

          On a different note, I just discovered that the Germans got rid of the formal case, “Sie”. So how do I speak to Pope Emeritus Benedict the Sixteenth, should I meet him?

              1. Yea– When we lived there, I was taught Sie and then the children used du. So I couldn’t understand them … then the dialects. 😉

                1. I..was odd. My host exchange family were the ONLY ones who decided to follow the rules and not speak English with me. (Okay, the father gave me “secret breaks” from time to time, but… still) I was constantly inundated, and by the time I was there a week I could fool natives that I was German. Then they’d speak too fast for me, and I’d have to point out I was an American. Then they’d ask me to speak English. 🙂 I became popular in the German school because I tended to use American slang from many eras, rather than just what was popular. So the only time in my life where I was popular in High School…was in Germany. I found it a bit disconcerting.

                    1. I’m not sure. I wasn’t there for a year– only six weeks. It was through my German class in High School… so I got there right after the wall fell. We had one of the first bus tours through Berlin. It might have been through the Goethe Institut, we worked through them quite a lot.

                    2. I was Rotary Exchange. I went to Colombia. They didn’t do Germany at that time because the Germans insisted that the students be fluent in German

  4. I hear you. And agree. Been thinking about this lately, in terms of what it means to fiction and fictioneers. In my — admittedly limited — exposure to learning not-born-to languages (Spanish, French, Latin, German) it appears to me that any sufficiently sophisticated vocabulary will, of necessity, include a relatively deep study of the culture from which the language arises. And that, in order to understand either language OR culture, one must study both. And, in the process of world-building alien cultures, one must consider both.

    1. Oh hell yes. I’m learning Mandarin to improve my ability to read Chinese. It’s *much* easier when you can see how the word works in the cultural context.

      1. Because the Thai alphabet doesn’t put spaces between words, it’s quite hard to learn written Thai until you’ve spent at least a few months learning spoken Thai. The foreign alphabet isn’t the major problem — it’s quite a rational alphabet, although the Great Tone Shift that happened a few centuries back has made it not quite so rational anymore. (Used to be that a “low-class” consonant produced a low-tone syllable by default. Now a low-class consonant cannot produce a low-tone syllable: it produces a mid-tone syllable by default, and can produce either a falling tone or a high tone depending on tone marks, but you cannot ever get a low-tone syllable from a low-class consonant, post-Great Tone Shift.)

        No, the big problem with learning written Thai is that until you learn the words, it’s very hard to see where one word ends and the next word begins. Once you have enough vocabulary, then you can start to read written Thai pretty well.

        1. Degenerate habit, putting a space between words. The ancients knew nothing of it. It was those medievals in their Dark Ages who started it.

        2. Welsh and other Celtic languages have a different problem. You can read the word, and you can say the word, but you can’t necessarily look it up in a dictionary unless you’re pretty far along with how soundshifts work.

          Example: When we pronounce “an apple” in English as “a napple”, in Welsh they spell it that way. You have to know in what contexts that spelling convention can occur, or else you don’t know what the unmodified initial letter of the lexical item really is, in order to look it up in a dictionary.

          1. Ah, yes, Welsh: whereof I was once upon a time introduced to the quick-and-dirty pronunciation concept of the “h” as a verbal backspace-delete…

          1. I don’t know and I haven’t asked (Googling counts as “asking”), but I can make a pretty informed guess, just based on your (implied) pun.

          2. Hit “Post Comment” too early. I meant to talk about the wealth of implied information that can be carried in a language, even in such things as jokes. The fact that “package” has a second, innuendo-laden meaning in humorous English speech was enough to clue me in to the meaning of a Japanese word I’d never encountered before. Interesting how language works, innit?

  5. ” I don’t know enough of the culture to swear to German or the other more recondite languages”

    Happens I was chatting with my German lady friend the other day, and we got talking about this very topic. When I lived there, I worked for a guy who was very diligent about making me learn the echt Deutsch words — so instead of “das Computer” it was “der Rechner” and so forth. So then we were talking about my new day job, and wondered what the German was for “Chief Technical Officer”

    Every source we could find gave the translation “Chief Technical Officer”.

  6. Speaking of which, Sabrina Chase (Happy Birthday today kid) has an interesting approach to this in her book The Scent of Metal where some people from Earth encounter other people and have to point-and-grunt to get their point across (at least initially). She does fall back on Deus Ex Machina to move the plot along, but by that time the difference between the people and the Eevars incident with the khendi had been well established. Yeh khendi (candy).

    I guess you had to be there.

    1. Thanks! (How did you know it was my Hatching Day? Have you been hacking the NSA servers again, young man?)

      I send to Sarah a beautiful virtual floral arrangement for this topic. I try not to hammer the reader over the head with it, but I am VERY much against magical universal translators. Besides the logical problems you mention, it removes lots of potential *fun* in the story. Mistranslations, or, even better, when both sides THINK they understand each other but are missing some crucial details that only become apparent in, say, a battle. And in a truly alien culture there will be concepts humans simply do not have and thus cannot have a word for. You do have to fall back on point-and-grunt with excursions into interpretive dance, and, eventually, lots and lots of observation.

      1. No I am not hacking them, but I do have friends.

        Actually, I just remembered it from sometime in the far past at Castle Argghhh! Blame John.

      2. “Young man?”, harumph. I am probably a decade older than you as all of my friends who were getting their Nitany PhDs were long gone before you got there. I just photograph “young”.

      3. And in a truly alien culture there will be concepts humans simply do not have and thus cannot have a word for.

        Yes, this even came up in the Lensman series, where the Lens is pretty much the ultimate Universal Translator. Once in a while, a Lensman would run into a concept in some alien’s thinking that simply had no commonality to work from.

        1. Hal Clement used a translator as a piece of magic to enable stories. But in Still River, at one point he had a character ask whether they all got something when she said, “Luck,” and contemplated the way none of them denied it.

        2. CJ Cherryh’s entire Foreigner series is based on this concept. Her aliens LOOK close to humans, both sides THINK they understand ezch other, and it starts a war. The result being that the two sides isolate themselves from each other with only one person to translate between to cut down on misunderstandings. (Of course, this system starts to breakdown)
          I think this was one of the first books that made me stop and really think about just how hard it would be to really learn an alien language.

        1. W00t! Three exclamation points! Thank you everyone for the good wishes. I encourage you to celebrate my Hatching Day with some small (or large) act of hedonism 😀 (So far for me: yummy bento box lunch, coming up, chocolate!)

          1. Bento– bought, or home?

            I’m selfishly hoping home, because I’ve been trying to get the rice to “work” for years, and I fail!

            Either way, they’re addictive. We’ve got the minions hooked on gyoza as the ultimate food. (Even better than french fries, because they’re meaty.)

            1. *blink* you can make bento at home?? 😉 No, this was boughten, but at a proper place where I was bowed to when it was handed to me. I think that makes it taste better….

            2. Er? Bento is just a lunch box. Lots of different kinds. Anyway — write me offline (mbarker at computer dot org will work) and I can probably find out what to do with rice. You want regular everyday rice, sushi rice, or ???

              1. Oh, my rice is fine– EXCEPT if I make onigiri ahead of time, or lay it down in a bento box. The sweet rolled eggs turn out fine, the salted salmon I made was fine, even the fried teriyaki spam turned out fine. But the rice is… gross if not eaten while fresh. 😦

                Husband blames the fridge. Ah well.

                1. When I used to make onigiri, I salted the rice slightly while fluffing it. After it was finished cooking. Then while it was still warm and sticky, I would make them into balls, and put the nori wrapper. Allow to cool before putting in bento box. Bento box rice is also put in cool so it doesn’t spoil. If packed in while steaming the rice’s own moisture plus heat makes it spoil. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom about packing lunch boxes that I was taught.

              2. Bento is just a lunch box.

                Here’s another example of the Problem Of Language.

                It is “just” the word for brown bagging it in Japan, but it isn’t, too; my husband took in a box lunch today, but I doubt anybody would call it a bento because it was leftover…uh, casserole… and a sandwich. Even when I put a salad and a bagel sandwich in the (adorable!) Samuri bento pack I got him for Christmas, that’s not a bento.

                Bento is used for a Japanese style lunch, which is going to mean rice and usually attractive presentation…not whatever leftovers I thought would taste OK when reheated, plus sandwich or salad to fill in any gaps!

                1. Well, yes, most folks here (I live in Japan, if anyone has missed that) do make pretty fancy lunch boxes. On the other hand, there’s a lunch time tv show now that goes out to small factories and offices and takes pictures and talks to people eating their real ordinary bento. While many are quite attractive, others laugh and show off — a slab of yesterday’s pizza and salad, or similar leftovers. It’s kind of reassuring to see that everyone doesn’t have ai sai bento (lunchbox made by beloved wife 🙂

                  1. We got hooked while we were stationed out there.

                    If he gets to use one of the (over priced, but so cute!) imported boxes depends on if I did the dishes!

                    The Ziplock boxes with a sandwich cavity and a half that sized “Whatever” cavity are wonderful. They’ve survived a couple of years of use already. Not bad for something I bought at the dollar store mostly because it was actually made in the USA.

                2. Second thought — if it was in a brown paper bag, no matter what it was, most Japanese would say it wasn’t bento. Has to be in a bento bako — bento box — although tapa is growing in popularity. Tapa? Plastic boxes, so called because of Tupperware.

      4. Sometimes, learning the language can be the point of a story. I remember a short story that probably appeared in Analog in the 1970s. It involved an American who, IIRC, had crashed on a somewhat-primitive alien planet that the Russians were trying to bring into their sphere of influence.

        The basic setup was that the planet had a sufficiently-low gravity and thick-enough atmosphere that man-powered flight wasn’t too hard. The Russians had sent linguists, but the American was an engineer.

        The story ended with the Russians expressing astonishment that they’d been isolated with the priest caste and accomplished nothing of real import, while the American was in the middle of everything (he’d been improving their gliders, and helping out because of his engineering mindset). His response was that, if you wanted to communicate, it helped to have something worth saying.

  7. We had an interesting discussion on the comments of Red’s Planet because the beings in the strip were using “extraterrestial” in a scene where only one of them was from Earth, and she wasn’t talking. Closest equivalent was the commonest accepted explanation.

    of course, it’s an all-ages comic.

  8. I’m sure she’d also argue that if people really understood each other, there would be no conflict.
    Despite all evidence to the contrary.

    Meh. Let the aliens communicate with their plasma rays. Or try to explain that their use of “prey” is ironic.

          1. That was what the Adorable Robot in the ’80s Buck Rodgers TV show said, continuously; “Beedeebeedeebeedee.” Who knew he was making translational nanocites?

              1. I was amused when Lucas reused her costume at the end of the “second” Star Wars film. I kept thinking “dang, I’ve seen that outfit before. On an older woman.” Bingo! Col. Wilma Deering.

    1. Heh. That was exactly what I thought of too. “Heh” is a nanocite because I’ve seen it used by other people. . . .

      (Not there’s a dystopia for you. Imagine if every time you used any word it had to be footnoted to identify the person from whom you first heard it!)

      1. *twitch, twitch* For the love of mud, please don’t say that so loud. I’m reviewing footnotes and citations today. *twitch, twitch*

        1. I recall loving that I could just block-quote structural engineering analysis and government studies, and the more thorough I made the paper, the less work I actually had to do.

          1. This was in psych class, and meant I had to take my thoughts, and research who had come up with the ideas before me. It was… annoying. But yours sounds good, actually!

            1. Wow! When I handed in a paper that was mostly quotes my prof yelled (for values of yell) at me and lowered my grade. I was told that you were to use quotes sparingly and that most of your paper had to be in your own voice supporting your thesis.

              1. That’s the theory.
                The practice can be different.
                The (minor) trick is to find technical sources that cannot be paraphrased. The prof can’t get upset at you for quoting something that *has* to be quoted. And if you set up your thesis to require a lot of that…
                Getting the professor to sign off on your proposed thesis beforehand is rubbing salt in the wound, but I advise it.

                😉 Yes, I took entirely too much enjoyment from antagonizing teachers.

  9. Heck – I recently had to figure out how to register my US company to hire employees in the UK. How hard can it be? We speak the same language, and I grew up watching BBC shows, so this should be a piece of cake.

    Um, no. I had no clue what half the stuff I was reading was trying to tell me. You don’t have to try to convince me that there is no straight translation from American English to Portuguese (or French, or Chinese, or Esperanto, for that matter).

    You know what I find more unbelievable? When humans interact with a species that has 4 fingers or 6 fingers, and no one mentions the fact that the math is totally different. There’s a reason we use Base 10 on earth, and for that reason, the natives in Avatar would have used Base 8.

    1. There’s a joke that the UK and the US –indeed the entire anglosphere– have one language which divides them. Usage, spelling and maybe grammar are different in each of these countries. If you add bureaucratese to the mix, it’ll be hell.

      1. Back around 1980, on a trip to Jolly Olde, Beloved Spouse & I picked up a phrasebook for Brits visiting America. It included such useful advice as not asking the beat cop around for a nice Sunday joint and to avoid offering to stop by a girlfriend’s place in the early morning so as to knock her up.

        OTOH, I am sure I have previously mentioned the slightly hysterical glazed look a Brit gets when Americans talk about “fanny packs.”

        One thing a Universal Translator will fail ‘orribly at is slang ‘n’ idioms (a special kind of slang.)

    2. totally different? Having worked in decimal, binary, and hexadecimal, I assure it’s much smaller than you’re thinking.

      1. Yes, once calculations are examined, the base notation will become clear. If you look at 7 x 7 and see an answer of 61, you’re working in Octal, for instance.

        1. Douglas Adams didn’t mean for the Ulimate Question of Liefe, the Universe, and Everything and its answer to prove the universe works in base 13 — but he underestimated the fans.

    3. I was taught British English in School. I still read a lot of British English books, but I read way more American English ones. For years the only English speaking person I could practice spoken English with was somebody from New Zealand, but I have also spend one summer in Canada and worked, and shared an apartment with, two summers with an American.

      I suppose that is one of the reasons why my readers complain about my English. It’s English, but it’s not any specific type of English. I suppose (or hope) it’s mostly American English, but I do mix in bits and pieces from the other varieties. 😀

      1. English (British) was my Belgian mother’s 3rd or 4th language, so some of the niceties went by the wayside (she never did master the pronunciation of “th”). Almost all the way to college, my friends in the middest part of the mid-West told me I had a British accent, faint but audible.

        1. people think Robert has a British accent, and it’s from my having learned British English first. He ignored the other stuff but picked up a lot of British.

          1. We left BC when I was three and I was already talking. I have folks ask me where I am from– even though I don’t hear it — Both of my parents have the Idaho accent.

          2. For a long time my English was so accent-less that people wondered where I’d come from. Then I got a Midwestern accent but used Southernisms and bits of Yiddish and German. That got even stranger looks. And I speak German with a Franco-Austrian accent, touched by British. At least, until I start matching the regional accent. *shrug* There must be a chameleon in the family tree somewhere.

            1. I took a one-semester course in linguistics one year. The professor had everyone stand up individually and read a specific paragraph loaded with words that were pronounced differently in various parts of the country. She then told everyone where they were from, sometimes down to the county.

              Except for me – I was the only military brat in the class, so my regional indicators were all scrambled.

          3. That’s an easy bit of world-building. ESL-speakers tend to take on the accents and mannerisms of their instructors. Works in other languages, too (as you’d expect). When I can manage fluent speech in German, I have a Leipziger accent and can manage to speak English as though I were from Hamburg. Takes a lot of work and concentration, so I can’t do it at the drop of a hat. But., if you can manage to Heinlein that attribute onto your characters, and explicate certain nuance, you can make your characters and world-building a good deal richer.


            1. I remember small cousins, raised by New York born parents in South Carolina. Talking along in a New York accent until one of them started to read a book aloud, like she learned in school, and out came the southern accent.

              1. My wife, an American Air Force brat (i.e. lived all over the country), spent one summer with paternal grandparents in her childhood – who were from England and Norway. To this day, British visitors and expats will try to guess the county in England she was raised in!

    4. There’s a reason we use Base 10 on earth, and for that reason, the natives in Avatar would have used Base 8.

      Which, of course, also infallibly proves that the Mayans had ten fingers on each hand, and the Babylonians had thirty. And we ourselves have a sixth finger that pops into existence when we use feet and inches, dozens and grosses, but disappears again when we count dollars and cents or metric units.

      Because ‘the math is totally different’ depending solely on the number of fingers on each hand, right?

        1. I’m all in favour of beating up on that waste of celluloid, but come now! Let’s at least beat it with a stick that won’t break in our hand.

    5. Makes one wonder about the ancient Babylonians, then; apparently they used a base-60 numbering system (inherited from Akkadians and Sumerians). We still use it for time-keeping and angular measurement.

      1. Well. 60 is 5 x 12, and 12 is the number of joints in the fingers of one hand: added to that is that a dozen is such a handy number, far more divisible than 10 which is divisible by 2 & 5, where a dozen is divisible by 2,3,4 and 6. It must have had some deeper basic meaning since they divided the year into 12 sections were they could have done it by 13 lunar months, and according to an astrology book I read once they could have divided the zodiac into 13 as well (don’t understand that but I don’t understand the zodiac anyways)
        You come back to “math or meaning” questions again and again. Is it important because it is eunumerate, or is it important in spite of that?

        1. It has been many a year since I saw the demonstration, but that was almost exactly how the person explained the use of base 60 — using each finger joint, the wrist and elbow joints as well, as I recollect. For Phoenicians needing to do a quick cargo tally it would make sense.

    6. actually the Na-smurfs could have had worked in base 9 using every joint in each finger, base 6 for fingers only or base 8 for all fingers and thumbs

      And I am reminded of Tom Lehrer’s song “new math” in figuring subtraction in base 8

  10. We’ve had panels about that at conventions I’ve helped develop programs for (these days not as staff but as one of the people who get invited to the brainstorming session for panel topics). I was on a recent one at ConDor (held annually in San Diego) where the consultant who develops languages for George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series was another panelist. It turned out that his definition of “universal translator” was a device that was programmed with information on every known human language; this caused some confusion, because my definition of “universal translator” required the ability to translate previously unknown languages of alien species, including species whose medium was not sound, but color changes or light flashes or electrical pulses or chemical secretions or gestures or other things I haven’t thought of—which I think of as a plot device rather than a realistic possibility. That difference of meaning in fact is a nice example of nontranslation.

    If you want an example of linguistic hard sf, take a look at Tolkien. His world overall is fantasy, but the languages are as rigorously worked out as Hal Clement’s or Poul Anderson’s planetary landscapes.

  11. I learned a lot of German for my degree (plus living in Germany helped). It was when I was in the hospital in Germany and the nurse would ask me to do it in German and I had no idea. A lot of pointing was involved. One of my nurses who spoke some English, gave me a book that translated German technical phrases into English. Then I began to not need the book because I was hearing the phrases a lot– They considered me quite fluent even though I knew I wasn’t. 😉

    1. I studied German for five years, and there was a point when I could read it and understand most of it, and understand a lot of what people were talking about when they spoke in German (provided it was the generic, no heavy accents or regional dialects). But I have never been able to really speak it. That seems to be the hardest part. Even with English there have been points in time when, even though I could understand as well as I understand Finnish, I stumbled badly when I tried to speak – and the first time that happened it really surprised me because it was only a few years after I had been completely fluent as a speaker. But I had not used it at all during those few years, just read it.

      1. Don’t feel bad. I learn English from childhood but there are words that I can’t pronounce because I only know them from reading. (I have extreme problems with “sounding out words” which hurts my spelling).

        1. Haw — I wager not five percent of Americans could properly pronounce “victuals” — and seventy-five of the ninety-five percent who can’t would declare the proper pronunciation WRONG.

              1. short for Maitre -D’hotel”, which for most of us is the floor manager or shift supervisor. Supposed to be pronounced all french, but Mom pronounced it “MEY-ter Dee”. Mom had a particularly anti-fancy attitude.

      2. I stumble in speaking “military” or “electronics” because I haven’t been using them lately.

        Instead of really regional dialects, we’ve got different technical sub-dialects for set jobs.

      3. The tongue needs practice, and I swear the parts of your brain that do the “concept-grammar-words-pronunciating” functions that are different than the “”hear-identify-decypher-understand” parts of the brain. I fumble with well known song lyrics in English under pressure, and I needed a good run up to be 100% in Spanish after I let myself get rusty on it, but it wasn’t that I don’t know or understand, it is more like a herd of panicked sheep trying to get out a chute, they get clotted up and crosswise and you have to wade in and start yanking ’em out one by one.

  12. I suspect the cheating where an author decides “OK, this will be the regional pidgin for trade/diplomacy/insults” is closer to what would eventually happen. You find a way to translate from your native language to X, and someone else has a device or learns to work from X into their language. You only have to wrap your mind around two languages. It does leave the problems of pheromones, light patterns, physical gestures, what have you, but that’s what plot is for.

    Re. language difficulty. I wonder if something like Russian, that is a hybrid in some ways, is difficult for everyone? I collided with the inflection aspect but could grok other parts of it. Would a Mandarin speaker, say, absorb the inflections but have trouble with the alphabet and gender-endings? *shrug* I don’t know enough about inflected languages to know.

    If anyone is interested in a little book about why English doesn’t fit the Germanic pattern, John McWhorter’s _Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue_ is fascinating. It considers English as a pidgin, looking at grammar.

      1. If you have a membership in Audible (or other source) I strongly recommend the audiobook version — some of the pronunciations in the book are written for trained eyes only.

    1. I gather this is a real problem when dealing with language groups that rely heavily on allusion, metaphor and simile to make their points. Unless you know the references even something as seemingly straight-forward as Lincoln’s “House divided against itself” loses much potency, while Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” is almost completely lost on the modern readership.

  13. There are creatures that are either sentient or damn close on Earth today (corvids, cetaceans). We have studied their languages for decades and can’t understand them other than a few basic things. I think understanding alien languages may be harder than we imagine.

    1. They are not co-operating with those efforts. They are perhaps willing to learn some of our words, but they are not trying to teach us theirs. It might be a bit easier if we were dealing with creatures who tried to cross the barrier as hard as we did. And had math.

      1. I’m not convinced they have true language. This makes things very difficult, because if they are primarily communicating in sophisticated shadings of emotions, it’s not likely we will decipher it easily.

    2. parrots!

      Alex the parrot learned quite a bit of language. Got 80% accuracy on tests. Given that once he was presented with a tray with six things and asked, “What’s green, Alex?” — he iterated the other five things and tipped the tray over — that may have indicated he didn’t want to get any higher.

  14. Speaking of Portuguese, I had to teach some military fellows back when I was “young”. Their background in English came from a more formal background and it required constant thought to keep from using too much engineering slang while conversing with them. It’s always fun when you have a Major correcting your use of English.

    Kept me on my toes and made it easier to talk to the Japanese we dealt with later. Similar language problems, but different personal/cultural ones.

  15. I’ve been going back to watch Farscape on Netflix over the last couple of weeks. First episode the main character gets injected with “translator microbes that lodge in the brain”. Turns out everyone out in space has them except him, and it’s just one more reason for everyone to look down on and pity the stupid primitive Earthling. There is one episode later on where we hear a brief bit of conversation between the alien crew and the main character from uninfected people’s point of view and so get to hear the differences in their speech, but yea, translator microbes.

    On a side note, back in the 8th grade my foreign languages teacher decided to spend the required semester teaching us Swahili instead of Spanish or German because he was bored with teaching those and because he often spent the summers crossing the Serengeti. It actually seemed easier to pick up than the German I took the following year, although I only really held on to the curse words for any length of time, and those were forgotten by the end of high school.

    1. “It actually seemed easier to pick up than the German I took the following year,”

      That may be because modern Swahili originated as a “traders’ tongue” — developed and used by traders throughout East Africa as a means of general communication with many tribes, each of which had its own unique dialect or language.

    2. TV and movies have an excuse, especially since a lot of people can’t read fast enough to use subtitles. Books don’t have an excuse. 🙂

      (Well, they do, but it’s a bigggggg handwave.)

  16. I’ve also heard that polygots switch personalities a little when they switch the language they use.

    In which case, one could argue that magical nanocites or universal translators or what have you should also cause personality changes. If one supposes that this goes beyond what a naturally learned language would do, one could well have madness as a side effect. Or at least require a mindset apart from that of a human.

        1. Hm. I’m trying to parse origins for such. I’m failing, but there sure are some fun possibilities…


        2. Phones.

          My husband’s drops an octave. Mine goes up.

          If I’m talking to a Japanese speaker, my voice goes into “phone” voice.

          None of which I noticed until he laughed at me for matching the Japanese ladies, and suggested I eves drop a little on the shop ladies when it was just women vs when they knew a man was near. Same voice shift!

      1. I changed names depending on whom I was talking to. With regular people I was Emily, with my very religious cousins I was Emunah Sorah(They spoke Ashkenazi Hebrew) my religious name.

    1. There are certainly things that I can say in Spanish at work that I cannot say in English, but it is mostly PC self-censorship.

      1. I once slightly embarrassed a colleague who was raised in the Phillipines when I caught about half of the cursing she was directing at her office computer. I reminded her that Spanish was pretty common in California, cube walls didn’t block any sound at all, and even if a lot of it was PI local color, some of it was recognizable even to me, who only took a year of latin in HS.

    2. Thinking patterns, certainly, can be changed. For instance, if you show people a cow, a patch of grass, and a hen, and tell them to connect the two things that belong together, Americans will choose the cow/hen, and the Chinese, the cow/grass. However, Chinese who learned English as a second language will be more likely to choose cow/hen when asked in English and cow/grass when asked in Chinese. Chinese who learned both young average out the effect.

      The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why by Richard E. Nisbett. Go forth and read. Good book.

      1. I guess I must be Chinese, because I would automatically connect the cow and grass! Might be because of being raised on a farm, and continuing to ‘farm’ on a small scale most of my adult life. The cow/hen connection would be ‘one of these is not like the other’ and more of an urban effect, I would think.

        1. My favorite “one of these is not like the others”:

          Which doesn’t belong: a lobster, a crab, a trout, and a Chinese fellow who just got run over by a steamroller?

        2. You know, a large chunk of the Flynn effect allegedly lifting IQ scores is the part with comparisons, where it means that people are getting more adept at figuring out which two things would be connected in the eyes of an IQ test writer. This does not strike me as an improvement.

          The article I read about it discussed a hypothetical early modern farm boy whose answer to what do rabbits and dogs have in common would be that you use dogs to hunt rabbits, for which he would get no credit at all — just as a child who said they both had four legs would get minimal credit, when he “should” have said, they’re both mammals.

          1. It’s long been the problem of associative questions, under-recognized. Brings up not only varying backgrounds, but differing mechanisms for building models of the world.

            I’m not sure how effective IQ tests can be, beyond establishing retention of formalized education. Rife with biases, inevitably.

            1. Hmm – when I was exposed to them, they seemed more for evaluating retention of non-formalized education. I.e. what things has the subject noticed or been told in life settings about the world and what conclusions have been drawn.

              1. The question (which I’m not qualified to answer) is how much do they tap into innate intelligence, how much does it categorize learned methods of evaluation and how much does it reflect the expectations of the developers?

                On the narrow point of associative questions, I think the answer lies upthread.

                1. One IQ test I took I was marked wrong when the word I used wasn’t the choice in the tester’s manual.

                2. I believe that the IQ test was developed and calibrated for its ability to predict how a person would adapt to college. It is a serious mistake to confuse it as measuring intelligence, just as it is a serious mistake to believe intelligence has anything to do (other than ability to recognize and adapt to patterns) academic performance. Especially among the upper crusts, the right answer is always the expected answer, never merely the correct one.

                  1. This would fall more in line with what I’ve read regarding the essential flaws in using IQ tests for evaluation. But I’ve only read around the periphery of the subject.

        3. Definetly cow/grass, well if the cow is eating grain the hen will dig through the cowpies to for food, but cow/grass is the logical connection that comes to mind.

    3. I have a hypothesis that says you have to at least pretend (to yourself) to change your attitude to that of the native speakers in order to speak another language properly.

    4. I curse in English when I’m mildly pissed. I have to get really, monumentally angry before I use Finnish curse words. I prefer to stay as ladylike as possible, but using most of the English cuss words just doesn’t feel like cursing to me. 😉

      1. Oh, yes. When my wife gets annoyed you can gauge the severity by whether she uses English or Cantonese imprecations in expressing her displeasure.

        I don’t even *speak* Cantonese, but I’ve learned which words mean trouble.

        But I think a lot of that is just that “bad words” in a foreign language don’t have the emotional intensity that they do in your own tongue. I’ve noticed that the longer she’s been in the US the more careful she is about using potential trigger words.

        A secondary effect is we often learn foreign words by hearing them used by native speakers, without considering the context. We don’t get always grasp the emotional impact, or – sometimes – the real meaning. This leads to the story of my sweet-tempered, innocent, and monoglot great-aunt who named her dog “Chinga” because she had heard the word and thought it sounded pretty. She was *very* embarrassed when the Spanish meaning was explained.

          1. Yes. Now imagine a sweet older lady standing in a public park calling the dog’s name at the top of her lungs to get it to come back from a run. A public park with as many Spanish as English speakers.

            1. She shouldn’t feel embarrassed. I find that to be a lovely image.

              Or was that howlingly hilarious?

        1. Cursing and feeling:

          A very nice Catholic man, father of umpty, volunteers for teaching Shakespeare.

          For the adult class, he shares this trick, and only in the adult class:
          Read it this way for the emotion. “Oh what a F*ing piece of work is man; how F*ing noble in reason-


          No, he doesn’t say “eff-ing.”


          1. Old joke: the wife, tired of hearing her husband’s constant potty-mouthed swearing, unloads on him using every word she can remember hearing him say. When she runs down, he responds “you’ve got the lyrics pretty good, dear, but you just don’t know the song”.

            1. Mark Twain’s story about his honeymoon, or being newly married: he had trouble with his collar and shirt one morning and cussing under his breath managed to toss it out the window in a high rage. He didn’t realize the transom was open and when he wandered back into the bathroom his new wife, Livia, repeated back to him pretty much what he said. He claimed to have replied,”My Dear, if it sounded like that I promise I will never swear again!”

  17. I have an organic translator called an ear worm that translate to ear worm and then to human or Basic. Of course the ear worm gets sulky—

  18. This is an idea I’m working around the edges of, and looking for resolutions for. How far could a (much advanced) program with comprehensive databases for two languages take you in automatic translation? Not universal translator (From what base data? You just met ’em.), but with full access to multiple data-sets and on-the-fly comparative analysis?

    How much would knowledge of older forms of human languages and an understanding of linguistic drift assist the above program?

    I’m not expecting perfect translations, and recognize much of language is carried via non-verbal cuing. I’m really just wondering how much hand-wavium is possible without being ridiculous.

    Relating to Sarah, I’m also dealing with characters much like her brother, somewhat natural linguists with access to advanced tools. I want to move the story along without bogging down in language issues while not ignoring the inherent difficulties of language divides.

    I also want a pegasus.

      1. Could you dump the intelligence bit off on the organic component with decision trees? You’re still stuck with things like “I think you’re saying…”

        Rapid comparative analysis including visual assessments to produce a decision tree of possible meanings, the user then has to rely on context, body language assessment, etc. to select the appropriate (hopefully) response?

        Of course, there’s a whole host of individual assumptions on either side, even in something like a trade language, so fun to be had.

        Might I tag you in the future (middle distance) with details so you can pick me apart? I’ve got some experience dealing across multiple languages, but no full translation experience.

        1. You give the decision tree weighted probabilities, where the body language interpretations modify the weighting decisions. Typically, you would go with the branch that had the highest probability value, and back-modify the weighting algorithms if you did not get the response you expected.

          1. Sarcasm and dry humor would routinely break the translator, so you’d have to introduce emoticons or modifying gestures. “This is a joke.” “Don’t believe this part.” “This is a poetic image.” “Angry hyperbole not to be taken seriously.”

            1. In his _In The Courts Of The Crimson Kings_, S. M. Stirling had a Martian (long story about why Mars has life) language that had “built-in” indicators for “metaphors”, “hyperboles”, etc. Needless to say, it was extremely difficult for Terrans to learn.

              1. It was also tonal. Which can often be hard for speakers of non-tonal languages to grasp.

                After 30+ years exposure I can *hear* Cantonese tones most of the time, but I have the devil of a time actually reproducing them.

                I struggle with sounds in other Indo-European languages that English doesn’t use (I have real trouble with tge Norwegian unvoiced O sound), but tones seem far harder.

                From things SMS has said online I believe that he deliberately used tones and an analytic grammar akin to Chinese to make it seem more “alien” to his English-speaking audience.

                1. What was “fun” was to hear the “pirates” talking. We knew what they meant by what they were saying but it sounded strange. Especially when we knew that Martian phrases were much shorter than what the meaning in English was.

            2. These things routinely break translation from English to English among two people born in the same town.


                1. Incidentally, in this context, “‘kay. Thanks! Bye” would be a literal translation, and a meaning-based translation would be something like “I would like you to start this immediately, and wish to convey that I presume you will do so without directly ordering you from an authoritative position that would result in you spending time doing something else entirely because I do not have the authority; subtle indication of possibly self-aimed mockery as being somewhat childish and flighty, in the manner of a young adult in an informal text situation.”

                  And this is why I’m a little less impressed by “but English doesn’t have a word for X!” stuff than I use to be; I fell in love with the subtle meaning differences that English DOES have!

            3. Like the prefaces elcor from Mass Effect use when they speak?
              (Species with no expressive face, monotone voice. They have to do that so other species understand them.)

              Mournfully: I have no connection to YouTube from work. So I cannot post examples.

              1. I was just thinking of that. Especially the bit between shopkeepers: “Did you hack your translator so you could lie to the customers?” “With sincerity such that skepticism would be deeply insulting: no.”

                1. What? You didn’t remember the ad featuring Hamlet with an all-elcor cast? ;-D

            1. As you may have figured, I did some significant planning on this sort of thing, some time ago, though it was only for text, and meant for conversation, rather than translation. The process I had in mind went something like this:

              Take sentence, identify recognizable words.
              Next, create a set of homophones, near-homophones, in case subject is typing words not intended.
              If unrecognized words are there, get list of likely words based on common misspellings, possible phonetic spellings, etc
              Graph sentence (actually, extract words into their likely categories, but it’s the same thing as graphing), for all combinations of word lists created above.
              Tentatively reject obviously inconsistent structures.
              Compare sentence graphs against current subject, if an ongoing conversation. If not, compare to common discussion themes, based on the subject and verb identified for each graph, as well as common sentence structures used by people who discuss such subjects.
              Build a meaning tree from these comparisons, by using the dictionary database associated with the program. Dictionary has weights for commonality of usage, both overall, and in conjunction with other words. It would also contain non-standard forms such as slang, dialect variations, etc.
              Weight the subject of an ongoing conversation higher in the meaning tree than others.
              Choose the highest weight value for the meaning tree, and respond to that. If you’re doing translation, at this point, you would use the dictionary and language rules to construct a sentence (or possibly more than one) which would convey as closely as possible the meaning of the original sentence. You could allow for multiple translations, if you wanted.

              Following a conversation would allow the program to update its dictionary database and the slang/colloquialism list with modifications to the meaning list and the weights assigned to them, add new words/phrases, etc.

              I’m sure I’m forgetting some things, but that seems like a fairly good approximation.

    1. Try Ringo’s Troy Rising series for this also C J. Cherryh’s work. I guess you’d have people who are xenolinguists from the most common races co-operate to program a multi-species translator.

      1. I’ve read both. Cherryh is a favorite in how she handles interactions, but she writes whole novels on first/early contact.

    2. In the WIP, the way one of the characters made his fortune was coming up with a translational program which would use AI heuristics to look at the course text, determine from word usage and phraseology cues what dialect it was from, not merely what language, then use contextual cues as well as a database of slang, colloquialisms, indirect references, etc, to give as complete a translation as possible. At the same time, it surfs the net all the time, from news sites to blogs and social networking in order to maintain its database and keep it up to date.

      The character also created a version of that with optical recognition that would help analyze archaeological texts.

  19. Sarah, I think learning language gets relatively short shrift in SF mainly for two reasons. First, you don’t have to think about it for very long before you realize that a story which includes details of Species A learning Species B’s language is rapidly going to degenerate into the most ghu-awful infodump imaginable. In that way it’s like any other SF technobabble. You can spend pages trying to explain your FTL drive and boring the ears off most of your readers, or you can handwave it and get on with your story.

    Second, philology is a complex science in its own right and takes years to master. I know of only one person who was both a writer and enough of a philologist to invent a complete, consistent, believable fictional language. His initials are JRRT. For all others, it’s too bloody hard. You can spend years writing stories, or you can spend years inventing your fictional language. I know which one I’d rather do…

    On the other hand (and playing devil’s advocate to some extent), I have to wonder if it’s as bad as you seem to think. Oh, certainly no human is ever going to be as fluent as a Centauri in Centaurese, but the early European explorers did manage to solve the problem of basic communication with a whole long list of cultures that had radically different spoken languages. I recall a story of a Mesoamerican woman in the early 1500s who was basically a living Rosetta stone, capable of speaking and understanding Nahuatl (Aztec), Quechua (Inca), _and_ simple Spanish. Her services as a translator were MUCH sought after…

      1. She probably picked it up from a horizontal dictionary. People do move around … traders, diplomats, and such.

        1. She probably picked it up from a horizontal dictionary. People do move around … traders, diplomats, and such.

          Which can be interesting for languages that vary by the gender of the speaker. I (and many foreigners married to Japanese women) tend to speak ‘female Japanese’ which can lead to confusion.

          1. I had a friend who was (reasonably) fluent in Japanese. He was serious enough about Karate that he spent several years living in Japan to study there, and he (apparently) used the correct “male” flavor of Japanese well enough that he could sometimes pass as a native speaker in a short conversation. (As long as he wasn’t visible. Not many Japanese with red hair, blue eyes, and a fair/freckled hide)

            Came the day I heard him laughing to himself. He that he was thinking of a dinner party the night before – another American married to a Japanese woman. He explained that X had learned Japanese from a female instructor and mostly spoke it at home with his wife. No real experience using it outside that context. So big, burly, hyper-masculine X spoke Japanese like a prissy little girl.

      2. There was originally a gulf-regional trade jargon based on indian languages around the Gulf of Mexico. It was a trade language similar in concept to Chinook jargon, except that one is completely lost and the other is pretty much dead. Vera Cruz should have been part of that trade language region, and Malinche might have spoken it too.
        Jargons like Chinook are mixings of languages, usually the easiest pronounced words, for common nouns and common actions. Sometimes it was simple comments like, “Klahowya, mamook wawa?” (hi, make talk?), but there are transcripts of sermons in it as well (“O Sagahalie Tyee, nesika papa…” Oh God our father…). In 1800’s it went from essential in dealing with the indians, to being kind of being a way to separate yourself from the greenhorns, to the way for the adults to talk above the heads of the kids in delicate subjects.
        It took mostly from the local language groups, and as the Canadien trappers for the Hudson Bay Co showed up the jargon started borrowing from French, and then again from the American settlers -either from easier words or for newer technologies. The word for gun is “musket” for example.

    1. JRRT’s writings are science fictional in the sense that he used philology and linguistics as his science.

  20. Hal Clements story “Impediment” always impressed with the idea that humans can’t be telepathic because we each think in literally different ways. Like one person’s thoughts are in unix, another in windows, another in OS9. Except each persons develops their own mental operating system in their brain. A telepathic species would all have to communicate in the same mental language. It might beable to detect the thoughts of another species but it would be random noise until they could interpret it.

    H. Beam Piper’s “OmniLingual” also addresses the language barrier.

    Which is why I think Pandora in Avatar is obviously a artifical environment. (Or it’s just another stupid movie that the writers didn’t think through the implications of plug and play plants and animals.)

    1. Ah, now that’s an intriguing thought. A story in which the idyllic paradisaical environment was shown to have been deliberately engineered by someone with really good tech, and having them show up later once humans have been mucking around with their system? Where their unobtainium is maybe an artificially created element that they put there to make things like crazy flying islands? And humans are just picking it up and messing with the scenery? And maybe the planet has already sent some kind of update (incursion of alien species… individuals subverted and adopted into system… elements of alien species driven off-planet… subverted individuals retained for later study/analysis)

      THAT’S a story I’d like to read.

    2. “Except each persons develops their own mental operating system in their brain.”

      Given my limited knowledge of neural networks, that makes sense. We may have the same number of neurons and interconnections, but we won’t have the same ones and the ones in common won’t have the same weights.

      1. I thought the idea might be original to me. It has been a pet hypothesis for ten, fifteen, probably not twenty years. Some of was seeing grounds for it. Some of it was purely for the trolling value as a counter to the cyberpunk/transhumanist ‘of course we can just upload everyone’.

        1. I’ve had a similar feeling, but never put any kind of specification to it, for a long time. Probably because I never seem to understand things (or feel emotions) the same way someone else does.

          1. For me, the inspiration was partly studies relating to psychiatric and psychological issues, and partly the OSI layer.

            I could see how self wiring and stuff could drive language development without language being programmed in somewhere.

            I could see how certain writers of fantasy, sci fi, psychic stuff or people in general seem to assume things, but I didn’t see the proof. I asked myself if I could find a physical reason why it must be so, answered ‘not yet’, and had myself a new pet hypothesis.

            I don’t keep up, and was never really all that informed, but I have the impression that some recent work undermines things compared to when I started.

            1. Studying both cognition and how network routing worked led me to worry that sometime in the future, some really huge network may become intelligent. But I suspect there will be no way to communicate with it. Someone will just determine, based on routing errors, that it is ‘thinking’ with the data flowing through it. Then there will be an ethical question as to what to do with it.

              1. It may learn to communicate with us – for the purpose of either getting the “bugs” out of its system, and/or improving its inputs….

            2. *Snort* Always with the coincidental events, me:

              Reading Murray Leinster’s “The Black Galaxy” tonight, and the MCs stumble on the survivors of a race that was partially telepathic. When they are touching you, you can understand their speech. But they say that “telepathy’s never quite satisfactory because no two people see things the same way.”

  21. I figure a universal translator is like an FTL travel mechanism. A useful bit of unobtainium to help get the plot moving for those plots that don’t need to have people embarrassingly saying they need a blowjob when they are lokign for plumbing supplies in the hardware store*. Hence I always liked the Babel fish – as a concept at least – though not so much if it translates Vogon poetry

    But as someone who is try-lingual (as in I try to speak many langauges) there are limits that no translator can get. Japanese to pick an example has different words for “younger brother” and “older brother” and even “your older sister” is a different word than “my older sister”. Not to mention all the formal grades of politeness.

    *”Ceci n’est pas la pipe que tu cherche” as they might say on Tadeuxine

    1. Heh, foreign-language mistake stories…

      My favorite is the story of the missionary couple who went to language school in France. The wife was shopping for furniture for their new apartment, and went to the bedding store to buy two mattresses. (“Deux matelas.”) But instead she asked for “deux matelots” (the T is silent) — two sailors.

      The salesman knew what she meant, but you can just bet that one got told and re-told around the water cooler. (Or, since French businesses don’t seem to have a tradition of water coolers in the break room like American businesses do, around the coffee table.)

      (Side note: my parents tell this one like it’s a true story that happened to someone they know, but they have never said who it was. Probably to spare them further embarrassment this many years down the road.)

      1. I’ve made most of the foreign language mistake stories regarding French – and if I haven’t my wife and friends of ours in France have.

        The only one that I’m unsure of the actual veracity of was the American couple asking whether the food in the restaurant contained condoms
        (In French a condom is un preservatif whereas some preservatives are “des conservatives”).

      2. I served an LDS mission in Scotland. Every area of the country I was in, we knew we’d picked up on the local dialect when we could sit behind two locals on the bus and follow their conversation without problem. No matter what, if a local knew you weren’t from there, they’d modify how they spoke to you without realizing it. We even had a Scottish Nationalist come up to us once and declare in his local Broad Scots dialect that he wouldn’t modify how he spoke to us at all because he was proud of his heritage. Not five minutes later, he’d slowed down, chosen different words and modified his accent to a more “English-friendly” version.

        One area had had American servicemen stationed there so everyone was used to American colloquialisms. One of my companions had started her mission there and did NOT believe me that she would have to stop using “pants” and other common American words because in other parts of the country, others would completely misunderstand her. Not until one of the ladies in a charity shop we volunteered in took her aside and told her flat out that she would get in trouble if she continued to use those words, did she believe me.

        1. I spent part of my youth in England (I was born in Liverpool – my father was stationed there during the Korean war), and can follow many, but not all, of the English regional accents.

          When my girlfriend and I watched “The Full Monty,” I had to turn on subtitles so she could follow the plot.

      3. “Heh, foreign-language mistake stories…”

        In the autobiography “God’s Smuggler” by Brother Andrew, he tells how growing up in a small town in Holland he wanted to attend a school in England. A lady in his town taught him to speak English, but then just as he was leaving for England confessed to him that she did not speak English, even though she read it … It made for “interesting times” as he tried to communicate in his classes.

      4. Like the American exchange student studying at a religion school in Valencia, Spain: Tasked with doing part of the pre-worship program in church one week, she opened her remarks with “Yo soy embarazada…and it’s all the fault of the Dean of Students”. And somewhat stunned as the entire room just about came apart.

        False cognates, what fun.

        1. yes. Well,a Portuguese exchange student blithely announced to her host family, “An now I’ll go take a douche.” (Shower in Portuguese.) I shall remember their expressions forever!
          And then there was the Dutch exchange student who had a group of us liked up and instructed us to “Smell!” — we ARE all laughing… in his defense.

    2. 7th grade Spanish teacher in south Texas was from Monterrey, Mexico. In Monterrey, bolsa or bolsas is a bag or purse. So she goes on vacation in Venezuela. Decides to go shopping and goes into a store and asks where their bolsas are. Turns out that in Venezuela that term is used for a man’s scrotum.

      1. Frequent problem with dialects of Spanish in Central and South America. And you really have to avoid any colloquialisms, lest you suffer violence.

        1. I’ve got one of those Spanish slang/regional vocab dictionaries. Hours of amusement, plus a verification that there really are tons of different words for car mufflers. (You can see this even in the US, in Spanish yellow page directories/webpages from different cities.)

          1. I’ve heard some fun stories* from native speakers moving about regionally and smacking into the unexpected. ‘Tis engaging.

            *Fun from the perspective of they survived it, and I get to chuckle.

            1. I get asked all the time, ¿qué honda? (what’s up, but lit. “what shakes”.) I’ve come to just answer “Gelatina” (Jello)

              …..the looks on faces….priceless.

          2. German language dialects can have similar problems. Between pronunciation variations and local usages, you can say some pretty interesting things without realizing it. Until you see the large eyes and hear gasps of shock from the older folks. Not that I’ve ever had that happen to me, of course. I assure you. Really.

        2. Friend from Panama vacationed in Cuba after he finished high school. Slept outdoors, hitch hiking about, having a great time.

          One morning, wandered into a village and saw some nice fruit for sale for his breakfast. Asked the woman tending the stand, “cuanto vale para la bomba?” asking about buying a nice papaya. She almost took his head off until he convinced her he wasn’t from around those parts. In Panama, local slang for a papaya was “la bomba”, in that part of Cuba it was slang for lady parts.

          He was enlightened to say nothing of more cautious thereafter.

        1. A yeshiva friend came back from a year spent in Israel with stories about trying to order scrambled eggs. He’d asked to have his eggs beaten. 😯

        2. That’s the slang used in parts of Mexico, “huevos,” though for the contents, rather than the casing. This caused much hilarity when a young pastor doing mission work in an urban area started calling the other young men “hue” as he had heard them do with each other. Turns out it was a contraction of the above… He had no idea until it was explained, as (when learning Spanish in the LA area) he had been taught that they said “pelotas,” which is the term for small balls such as those used for golf or tennis.

          1. In Portuguese it’s tomatoes. So, shortly after marriage I almost choked laughing when my MIL kept extolling the tomato salad in extravagant terms, “When you get to be my age, what you really enjoy is tomatoes.” Dan who knew the Portuguese slang was ALMOST as badly off. The rest of the family thought we were nuts.

  22. Two countries separated by a common language has a lot going for it. By extension two countries lacking a common tongue ought to have a wider gulf. Maybe so, maybe bridges appear when obviously needed.

    I remember a group of expats from all over what then might be called the free world organizing a group for the families social function in Switzerland in the late 1950’s – Most of the non-native English speakers spoke a standard variety of English and communicated easily with most everybody – and this despite some learning and living with UK English and some learning and living in North America.

    Most of the native English speakers used the same common words to mean slightly different things- even be they Commonwealth types speaking to Commonwealth types to say nothing of North Americans speaking to the rest of the world – and miscommunicated with common words about kitchen implements and table settings.

    I’d be curious to hear from our hostess any thought about language and translation in SF as frex in That Share of Glory. Sapir Whorf as in The Languages of Pao. And of course Suzette Haden Elgin generally.

    1. I think that there’s a form of simplified English that pilots use so that they can understand what the traffic control folks are saying.

      1. It’s not truly simplified so much as highly specific and therefore requiring a limited vocabulary. That doesn’t always help, though. There are some times you should definitely be glad you can’t hear the communications between the flight station and ATC.

      2. Yes, there is standardized English terminology for worldwide air traffic control communications that’s supposed to be universal. What actually gets said over the radio around the world varies quite a bit, and throwing in accents and aptitude on the part of non-native-English controllers and pilots, plus any stress, and you get some really funny stories from pilots who work the overseas routes.

        I hear a lot of “wait…what did he just say?” communications around here from the foreign students at the local flight schools, even with their requirement to prove they meet a basic English language skill level before they start.

        Knowing pretty much what communications you should be hearing next helps a lot in figuring out what just got said, but there’s still questions even when it’s all supposed to be English.

        1. TINS: One very early morning (0500 local time), as I was passing 15,000 feet eastbound out of Denver’s airspace, a Lufthansa was coming in. His English was . . . interesting. After several minutes of speaking without communicating, Denver Approach gave him his own frequency. My crew wanted me to put the #2 radio onto that channel, but I refused. I knew both parties were using airplane English, but I had not the faintest idea what Lufthansa wanted.

          1. I worked for a while with a Boeing service engineer/pilot who dealt with the German airlines beautifully. He’d been a service brat in Germany attending a technical high school on the economy – later stationed in Germany flying for the Air Force and all the rest of it – don’t know that he spent time with the Germans at Mountain Home and such but likely enough. He kept asking Boeing HR to send him technical people fluent in German and Boeing HR kept sending young ladies apt to discuss the Sorrows of Young Werther..

          2. I most familiar with Chinglish, but regardless those who are positive they speak English are MUCH harder to understand over the radio or phone.

        2. Ex-boss, and private instrument instructor pilot, told a story of a new ESL co-pilot who, when the pilot decided they were coming in short and needed to do a go-around, requested “Takeoff Power” on the engines. So naturally, the co-pilot took off the power … hard, but survivable landing.

    2. The best was the time in World War II when the British commanders wanted to table a subject, and the Americans refused, passionately.

    3. Most of the native English speakers used the same common words to mean slightly different things- even be they Commonwealth types speaking to Commonwealth types to say nothing of North Americans speaking to the rest of the world – and miscommunicated with common words about kitchen implements and table settings.

      Try raiding with an Australian guild.

      The talking was better than the game!

      1. I love my Lineage II gaming time. Besides the fact that I live with the very cantankerous, sarcastic Australian given to colorful description, we also had in guild a Brit who employed a more deadpan, understated wit with his frankly enthralling, voice – even when he tended to speak in a constant, bored monotone. The ladies in the guild – myself cheerfully included – loved it when he talked.

        He frustrated the everliving hell out of the rest of the guys though. During a raid, he won the dice roll for the raidboss’ rare drop. The only thing he said was “Ta.” One of the Americans, boggled that the Brit wasn’t cheering and sounded no different than he ever did, asked him if he couldn’t at least sound a teensy, weensy more excited.

        “I’m afraid I’m categorically incapable of feeling excitement,” was the reply. “You see, I suffer from the debilitating condition of being British.”

        1. “I’m afraid I’m categorically incapable of feeling excitement,” was the reply. “You see, I suffer from the debilitating condition of being British.”


  23. Something no one’s mentioned yet is the difference time makes on language. When I was at yeshiva (Jewish parochial school) We learned Ancient, Medieval and Modern Hebrew. They were the same language but different. What’s worse was that they were often written differently. Ancient Hebrew was written in a blocky style (I’m sorry I can’t describe more clearly but it’s been thirty years since I studied this) while modern Hebrew is more cursive. Then there’s the ever popular Rashi script which is sort of in between while being its own thing. At least in Romance Languages the vowels are letters which are parts of words. In Hebrew they are little penmarks– dots(nekudot) which tell you how to say a word. Learning to read Hebrew in an intermediate to advanced way, you have to learn how read word without the dots. What joy and fun.

    I think that the Asian languages are the hardest to learn because they read up and down not left to right or right to left. I haven’t learned any European languages in depth, but Hebrew has an enormous amount of grammar. More than you’d ever see in English. I don’t know if Hebrew is an inflected language, nobody ever mentioned it to me. It doesn’t have a neuter as far as I know.

    My point is that this is difficulty with purely human languages. When we get to alien languages it’ll be much harder. In Ringo’s Troy Rising series, there are mechanical translators that people wear. Other times when people are “talking” through their implants aka “plants” translation is assumed. He does show that fluent colloquial speech is the sign of the most advanced race.

    1. These days a lot of Japanese writing is done in standard LtoR. Albeit without spaces, but then the fact that Japanese has two sorts of syllabary plus the chinese characters means that it tends to be fairly easy to break down the words – Kanji and Katakana are main words, hiragana are endings/particles/conjunctions etc. In fact I think I read somewhere that Japanese is one of the fastest languages to read as a result of this division.

      The change of language over time thing could be good for SF with slower than light travel. Assume you have a traveller who takes 500 years (externally) to travel to another star and back. If she has an interally elapsed time of say 5 years her language is going to be dramatically different to the language spoken when she returns

      1. There is a Korean drama that just aired about an alien who arrived on earth 400 years ago (the show goes by different English names, including ‘You from another star’). I have just started the series, and so don’t know how he learned Korean, although it seems that he was lip-reading and then learning how to mimic — maybe.

        Korean music and TV seems to have a fair bit of English mixed in, although sometimes it takes me a bit to recognize their pronunciations.

    2. It’s been established to my satisfaction that humans have a built-in ability to do spoken language or (for the deaf) something structured like spoken language or filling the same semantic space as spoken language. However, written language is an entirely learned skill, and it relies heavily on a human’s innate ability to do spoken language although it uses entirely different pathways. In other words, you can pick up on a language that is spoken around you, but you have to be taught written language.

      I conclude from this that trying to understand an ancient language just from how it’s written is going to be tough. There are going to be lots of rules that don’t make any sense because you don’t know the sounds, but make perfect sense when you consider the sounds of a language.

      I’ve done some work in “natural language processing” (that is, getting computers to understand language the same way that humans do) to the extent that I’ve read some of the standard textbooks on the subject and, um, you can tell that nobody who is actually trying to do this knows much about the subject. They spend years and years producing a grammar that is always going to be incomplete and which is obsolete before it’s begun, let alone by the time it’s finished and then you’re supposed to take that and implement it in the computer using the same techniques used to process the formal invented languages used for computer programming.

      Sometimes, I imagine a way that I could teach a computer to learn organically, the way that people do. If you view language as a kind of a communications protocol and utterances as serving the purpose of transferring some sort of state from the speaker to the listener, then it might be workable. The thing is, I don’t think it would work for written language, and there’s a whole lot of physics that prevents a computer from learning to speak and hear.

      At which point, I usually set that idea back down and pick up the next one.

      1. Actually, tons of people learn to read just from being read to (and being able to see the letters), so there is some organic ability to learn written language. Obviously it’s better if you’re also being taught at the same time.

        Writing, OTOH, is tricky, though I imagine arty/visual people have less trouble picking that up organically.

        1. I’m very visual so being in a class where you’re supposed to learn from listening was very frustrating.

        2. When I was three and a half years old, I surprised my parents by reading to them. So, I’m familiar with the phenomenon of teaching yourself to read, but I’m still convinced that reading and speaking/listening is a different matter.

        3. I have a cousin who learned without being read to, mainly from the Sears catalog. Then he had spina bifida, and wasn’t correctly diagnosed until he was three, so he learned to read before he learned to walk.

      2. “It’s been established to my satisfaction that humans have a built-in ability to do spoken language.”

        Yikes, this sounds like Chomsky. What’s wrong with saying that any creature with enough intelligence can learn a spoken language?

        1. The way I phrased it makes it clear that it is my opinion. The way you phrased it could mean that it is commonly accepted fact, which I do not believe is the case.

        1. Gah, messed up my close tag for that link. At least it still goes to the Nicaraguan Sign Language article at Wikipedia, as I’d intended.

    3. In an inflected language, nouns have different forms depending on whether (for example) they are the subject or object of a verb. Biblical Hebrew uses the article et (את) to designate the object—but not always, and the grammar usually makes the article unnecessary. (Hence the Midrashic principle that the article always expands what it applies to.)

      Hebrew verbs, on the other hand, are very inflected: Not just tense, but the sex & number of the actor(s), whether the action is passive, active, or strongly active, etc., etc. (Modern Hebrew has dropped some of these inflections, and changed the meanings of others; apparently deliberately, though I’m not sure for what reason. The language isn’t easier, and now there’s trouble understanding older texts.)

      The different letter-shapes (see and the linked articles there) are not that bad; the difference between block letters, modern cursive, and “Rashi” script is about the same as between Latin letters in blackletter, italic, and cursive.

    4. Several ancient languages used a boustrophedon layout for language, in which alternate lines were read in opposite directions. According to Wikipedia, the Rapa Nui writings found so far use reverse boustrophedon, in which you always read in the same direction, but alternate lines are upside down with respect to each other.

      And, of course, Old English didn’t use the same alphabet we use now.

    5. “I think that the Asian languages are the hardest to learn because they read up and down not left to right or right to left.”

      Well, some of them. Korean can be top to bottom (sort of like English signage) or left to right. I had at least one of the Japanese instructor pilots at JAL’s american flight school tell me he sometimes had to read a bit of some older documents to see which way it was going, then he could figure out which end of the book to start with.

      He may have been putting me on; he was known to be a (fairly gentle) practical joker.

  24. Hal Clement’s Impediment has already been mentioned up-thread; it’s a reminder that even telepathy won’t quite do the translation trick.

    Another honorable deviation from the linguistic laziness Sarah points out is C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur series. The value of carrying a human on board goes up when Tully goes through a children’s language text, giving the hani enough data to program their translator computers with—at least to establish a trade pidgin. Or where a short contract, put through the translator, becomes a very long text indeed, with footnotes and cross-references, and tables of alternate translations.

    (Oh, and of course her current Foreigner series; but that’s more differences in psychology than in language.)

    Not surprisingly, Ms Cherryh used to teach a foreign language (Latin). You almost must have at least seriously studied a second language to really understand this.

    1. She explores fundamental but subtle cultural conflicts through language barriers in several books. Frequently using the ‘human as outsider immersed’ technique to build empathy and highlight differences with alien cultures.

      Fascinating talent.

  25. What’s the difference between a dialect and a language? A language has a flag and an army.

  26. And throw in an error or two just for fun.
    “As a color, a shade of purple”
    I didn’t get that pun until it was explained to me over 20 years later.

      1. It’s from the flying sorcerer (I think that was the name) and other evidence indicates the character is named after a famous science fiction author. Purple is mauve…

      2. Flying Sorcerers, by Gerrold and Niven.


        The protagonist was actually named Asimov, but the translation dohicky hicupped

  27. In John C. Wright’s The Golden Age, AIs and other tech are such that you don’t need a translator, you can instantly learn any language you wish.

  28. In German, if I recall correctly, there are two words for “cousin,” depending on the gender. Arabic expands this to eight, depending on the gender of the cousin, which parent the relation goes through, and whether it’s a brother or sister of the parent in question. On the other hand, “bookstore” and “library” have to share the same word.

    As I like to say: in Arabic-speaking cultures, it’s kin, not ken, that’s important.

    And slightly off-topic, though relating to the Portuguese student you mentioned the other day who thought that we called a French fry a “friend potato,” we have a dear friend who gets ideas in her head and refuses to be corrected. When I told her the word for south in Portuguese was sul, she just could not accept this because she had had some Spanish, you see, and Spanish and Portuguese are nearly alike, so therefore…. Similarly, she was convinced that in Brazil there must be paella, and maybe there is, but I told her that when I went there, I had feijoada, their national dish. She continued to talk about Brazil (a country she’s never been to) and paella.

    1. There isn’t Paella, at least not under that name. And I once had a drag down knock down fight with a writer in a group who wrote Portuguese saying Mio Dios. You see, she’d been to Brazil and she heard them… (She didn’t understand you hear what you expect.) The words are Meu Deus and instead of io– ee-oh, the sound is eu – Eh oooo which might be subtle but is very clear to people who’ve heard both and were aware of it.
      It also annoys Portuguese speakers no end.
      Similarly, we couldn’t get a friend to pronounce the name of a river in Portugal Mondego. She pronounced it Mon Diego. You see, she knew both French and Spanish, and she heard things that way.

  29. So, is “polyglot” still a word in use today? Because that’s a label I’ve read being applied to a language with a lot of bastardy in its origins.

    1. “Creole” is what you want.

      Technical terms: a “pidgin” language is a trading or work language made up by adults to communicate across very different language barriers in order to get basic things done. “No tikky, no washee” would be pidgin based on English. It typically has very little grammatical form of any kind.

      A “creole” is what you get when children in a “pidgin” language context grow up with it. They invent a full grammatically complete language. Creoles are by definition hybrids, but they are full languages. There are lots of them.

      I wouldn’t call English a Creole — it’s still a very recognizable Germanic language. It’s just acquired an awful lot of other things and simplified bits of its grammar.

      Creoles are much studied on the grounds that these reinvented grammatical structures are more fundamental to human language — things like SVO (Subject Verb Object) order, for example, and other features. Problem is it’s hard to disentangle the external influences of the parent pidgin, and just plain random chance, from any fundamental properties of how humans develop grammar, because Creoles differ from each other significantly.

  30. *SIGH*

    Sarah’s making me miss my dad today. We were both big Star Trek fans (He’s the one who got me interested in Star Trek and SF in general, oddly enough.) and he used to have this hysterically funny routine about how everyone in the universe speaks English. It was great. Unfortunately I can’t remember how it went. It’s been almost two decades since the last time I heard it, but trust me it was sheer awesome mixed with unadulterated bwahahahaha. Seriously. The thing is, he had a point and he didn’t.

    On one hand, everything Sarah said is valid. Language is just plain weird and things don’t always translate accurately, especially when it has to do with concepts as opposed to objects. (IE Most languages, if not all, have a word for leg. The concept of schadenfreude just doesn’t translate into English though.) On the other hand though, story.

    The amount of things that fiction authors screw up is epic. Just the historical mistakes in “historical fiction” would, if written and standard notebook paper and wrapped in abalative material, make a KEW heavy enough that it would make the dinosaur-killer asteroid look like a kid who dropped a pebble in a sandbox. Seriously. Don’t get me started on military stuff either. I just had a conversation the other day about The Rock with Sean Connery. Ick.

    The point here is that sometimes things get stretched for the good of the story. In this case, I think it has to happen. If one of the difficulties in a given story is that the two (or three, or ten or a million) have to overcome and inability to communicate then so be it. But, if the story requires communication then it does. But yeah, the cultural component can add a neat part to it.

    In one episode of ST:TNG the crew runs up against an alien race that communicates in a strange way. The universal translator could translate the words, but no one could make sense of what they were saying. It turns out that the aliens were communicating based on their own mythology. I don’t remember the name of the episode, but maybe someone could help me out here.

    The thing here is that even for the misunderstandings they needed a shared language. For most stories, it just has to be there.

    1. Seriously. Don’t get me started on military stuff either.

      Oh, gads, don’t get me started on the “corrections” I’ve had lobbed at me! There’s stuff where (modern) Navy officers are wearing enlisted Marine outfits, and they want to argue with me about stuff I did?

      1. How much of Shakespeare depends on knowing the Bible and classical works?

        Heck, how much of ANY work of literature depends on a common catalog? I read “The Golden Ass” last year, and was thankful for the invention of footnotes — a 2,000-year-old novel that heavily drew on an even older literary tradition. The “current” references in it were bad enough…

        1. Literature and other forms of fiction, yes. However, basic communication between people is possible without those references. IMO the Aliens in that STNG episode were completely unbelievable. How would a child of that species be taught those references without a basic language?

          1. I enjoyed that episode, but I did have trouble with it. I liked it because it seemed to be a serious effort to provide aliens who thought as well as, but not like, humans. I didn’t like it because I didn’t see how the language could ever lead to a technological civilization.

  31. ” It turns out that the aliens were communicating based on their own mythology” It turns out much of fandom was at a loss as to how the young learned to speak the language as it was presented – mythology precedes language precedes logical thought?

    “Darmok” is the 102nd episode of the science fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the second episode of the fifth season.

    Commander Data had some a priori knowledge of the history – now that’s really really strong AI and language.

    1. The problem was that, as the universal translator had been presented, it should have been ignoring the poetic metaphors and just translating it as “I need to go to the bathroom.” But apparently the translator was given too much time to develop its linguistic database, or something.

      Aeh, I wasn’t watching the show by then, and that’s an example of why. My nitpick sensors kept going off, and I couldn’t actually watch the show.

    2. Ancestral knowledge.

      It gets infused with learning machines, or encoded in drinks or something.

      Their true language is a complex of speech, pantomine, FX, stage settings, and the pure verbal one is a stripped down version

  32. “The concept of schadenfreude just doesn’t translate into English though.” And weltanschauung doesn’t mean JUST “world view”, but the nuances are subtle. Some of that can be fun for the writer and the reader. The understanding of nuance enriches life. Teasing them out can enhance a story. A character. Makes me crazy when people describe Latin as a dead language, but it’s not; it lives in all the languages it’s influenced, in all the cognates, borrowings, and derivatives. I sometimes wonder what it would be like NOT to have those understandings. Is it like being deaf?

    1. The Vatican keeps Latin alive and in some sense current as a lingua franca with coined words and new meaning assigned assigned to existing forms. Afrikaans (apologies to Mr. du Toit for any misunderstandings) and Icelandic are consciously archaic in attaching new meanings to old forms e.g. buzz pony for motor scooter and all the oddball scraped hide usage for varieties of Microsoft Wind(holes).

    2. And schwerpunkt. Pivot point does not cover the whole concept.

      Another happily stolen loan-word, currently a technical term in military operations speak, but I’ve seen it used in business as well.

      1. Schwerpunkt always made me think of those wasps who lay their eggs in catepillars, first immobilizing their prey by a carefully judged sting to exactly the right nerve ganglia so the grubs would have quiet meat to feed and grow on.

  33. One of the reasons I enjoy reading your stuff is because there is still enough “correct” language used in ways and places that are interesting and thought provoking. I am sure however, that your American has arrived based on this one: ” your language will be 90% borrowed and clobbered together from spare parts”. True statement, only I have always thought of a disparate collection of impromptu parts hastily bound as being “cobbled”. Might easily be a colloquialism from my youth. In my mind’s eye, the concept conjures an image of a cobbler hunched over a cobbling bench, repairing a boot.

    1. Nah. In this case, I can see the language being beaten into place like cartoon mice. Put your head up, it gets knocked. Also, it is unfair and annoying to use use what I write before caffeine against me 😉

  34. I admit, in one story I wrote a human had an implant which contained a translation program for an alien planet’s known languages. But I did take pains to show it had limits (limited vocabulary) and the protagonist admitted he probably sounded very stupid to the aliens.

  35. Somebody mentioned Piper’s OMNILINGUAL, which was a neat trick, though I doubt it would work as well as was implied. My other favorite SF tale with a strong language element is HELLSPARK by Janet Kagan (who died MUCH too soon).

    I took three years worth of French in high school, most of which slid off like a fried egg on teflon.

    My mother’s trick in getting on in other languages was to assume that the people she was trying to talk to would be as charmed by broken whatever as she was by broken English. It seemed to work for her.

  36. I put the Star Trek translator into the category of being so effective because everybody is turning themselves around sideways to be polite. That’s also why random curses are NOT translated. (In my mental world of Star Trek, normal folks would spend a lot more time doing the kind of “no, more like this–” conversations we have here.)

  37. Oooh, this is a good place to ask….

    Other than the usual joke about “fathers became “Dada” because that’s the first sound a kid makes,” where does that come from?

    Papa makes sense from the same root as “paternal,” but…Dad?

    No, the kid isn’t saying “dada.”

    He’s saying “da ya waga boop boop. High… guh! GUH! Dud. Gyah.”

    1. It is probably the easiest identifiable word a child can say, and hey, it might have not been intended, but it will be reinforced by the parents who love that the child is learning to speak. Is it universal outside of the Indo-European language groups, though?
      (this doesn’t count me, since my first words were “Batman” and “Cookie”, or my cousin who’s first words were something like, “there goes Mr. Jones down the street” according to my aunt)

      1. Robert’s were either “Meow” imitating Pixie or (at well,a year and two months, running up and down the front porch stopped and looked at me intently and said) “When is daddy going to come home?” No ramping up, nothing. And from then on the problem was getting him to SHUT UP.

  38. My Australian, American and British friends have noticed that if I’m tired, my grammar gets strange. It’ll be an odd mix of French and German, and no matter how hard I try to figure out how that even happens, apparently it does. To them, it sounds wrong, and they have to stop and figure out why.

    I’m also told my accent shifts noticeably when I’m talking to an Aussie, an American, or after I’ve spoken to my Filipino relatives back home on the phone. It’s not something I consciously do.

  39. If we broaden the subject from understanding spoken language to Communication, then things get even more interesting. In the story “Something to Say” by Berryman (reprinted in “Analog 6”) there is a linguistic expert and a technical person both on a planet they wanted to influence. The linguist was able to learn the language. The technical person had only the ability to point to things, BUT knew things the natives of the planet were interested in. Guess who wound up having real influence?

    1. Is that the one where the planet had a really deep atmosphere, so that the pressure was rather high at the surface, and the natives had personal glider aircraft, which had small enough wings they could carry them?

  40. Many years back in the first novel I wrote, the interstellar language problem was solved through using about seven different trade patois. You meet up with someone out in the Dark, and you start trying to figure out which languages you had in common.

    I might have to dig that one out – it’s been about 20-30 years, it’s either ripened or rotted, one of the two…

  41. I may have mentioned this before, but this is the perfect thread. My dad, who worked on computers so old one is on display at the Smithsonian, was telling me a (possibly apocryphal) story about an early English-Russian/Russian-English translation program. During testing, they put in the English text “Out of sight, out of mind” to translate to Russian. Then to check their work, they fed it through the other way.

    The resulting phrase was “Invisible Idiot.”

  42. Footnote — I swear one of my Japanese teachers long years ago told me that the Emperor decreed that katakana would be used for foreign words. HOWEVER, the best I have come up with is a reference to a national policy requested by the American Occupation Forces “decreed that Western loanwords be encoded in katakana…” I really liked the story about the Emperor! Drat…

  43. Portuguese word with no English counterpart: Saudade.

    Umteen years married to my wife, and she still insists I have no idea what it means. “Yearn” is about as close as I can get.

    1. A good book on this subject is, “The Meaning of Tingo.” It covers a number of words in different languages that have no direct translation into English.

      I have a friend who is fluent in Japanese, whose favorite Japanese word is tsujigiri. Literally, it translates to “highway cut,” but the meaning is “to test the worth of a blade by using it on a random passer-by.”

      1. I have a friend who is fluent in Japanese, whose favorite Japanese word is tsujigiri. Literally, it translates to “highway cut,” but the meaning is “to test the worth of a blade by using it on a random passer-by.”

        So, what college activists do when they do running strikes of social areas they are not actually involved in, to see what wild accusations get the biggest reaction. (But with a sword.)

      2. Leaves me wondering if the proper meaning is random which is good engineering or just possibly haphazard which isn’t as good but may be good enough.

  44. Reblogged this on Blackeagle's Wizard's Den and commented:
    Sarah Hoyt was born and raised in Portugal, and now lives in the USA — and makes a living from writing *in English*. Her thoughts upon the nature and history of language as it has evolved among humans (specifically Homo sapiens sapiens) AND why the “universal translator” is a Bad Idea are well worth consideration by ANYONE who must deal with differences in the way we communicate with one another.

    And that means Every. Single. One. of us who use the Internet, or make a meaningful living from the exchange of goods, services — and words.

  45. Direct comment, current Baen referential mindspace: the whole of the 1632 series has been enhanced for me by the continuing attention to / inclusion of the importance of language in connecting AND differentiating the denizens of Grantville from their new geographic-temporal location. I am convinced that if I ever try to sell something to Flint&Company using that setting that my greatest challenge will be to divorce my writing in that mindset from my own internal mash-up of “modern” Amideutsch (which is biased upon two years high-school German and some rather eclectic reading since…)

  46. Exercises in Style (French: Exercices de style), written by Raymond Queneau, is a collection of 99 retellings of the same story, each in a different style……….The book has been translated into the following languages :
    English by Barbara Wright (1958)
    Serbian by Danilo Kiš (1964)
    German by Ludwig Harig and Eugen Helmlé (1974)
    Dutch by Rudy Kousbroek (1978)
    Italian by Umberto Eco (1983)[1]
    Greek by Achilleas Kyriakides (1984)
    Czech by Patrik Ouředník (1985)
    Serbian by Danilo Kiš (1986)
    Esperanto by István Ertl (1986)
    Swedish by Lars Hagström (1987)
    Hungarian by Róbert Bognár (1988)
    Catalan by Annie Bats and Ramon Lladó (1989)
    Finnish by Pentti Salmenranta (1991)
    Danish by Otto Jul Pedersen (1994)
    Slovene by Aleš Berger (1994)
    Brazilian Portuguese by Luiz Resende (1995)
    Galician by Henrique Harguindey Banet and Xosé Manuel Pazos Varela (1995)
    Japanese by Asahina Koji (1996)
    Norwegian by Ragnar Hovland (1996)
    Spanish by Antonio Fernández Ferrer (1996)
    Russian by V. A. Petrov ed. (1998)
    European Portuguese by Helena Agarez Medeiros ed. (2000)
    Turkish by Armağan Ekici (2003)
    Zurich German by Felix E.Wyss (2004)
    Macedonian by Elizabeta Trpkovska (2005)
    Polish by Jan Gondowicz (2005)
    Basque by Xabier Olarra (2006)
    Romanian by Romulus Bucur ed. (2006)
    Ukrainian by Yaroslav Koval’ and Yuriy Lisenko (the poems by Yurka Pozayaka) (2006)
    Bulgarian by Vasil Sotirov and Elena Tomalevska (2007)
    Estonian by Triinu Tamm and Jana Porila (2007)
    Pashtu language by Victor Monchego, Jr (2009 in progress)

    Because, by their nature, the various retellings of the story employ fine subtleties of the French language, translations into these other languages are adaptations as well as being translations.

    Different tellings. One of the choices made in translation is what to be faithful to. The feel or the words or…..
    Rhyming Slang for (Loucherbem) ? What about Cockney for (Vulgaire)? See also Between Planets for the lasting effects of a voder teacher.

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