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.