Why are some words untranslatable?

A question that has been posed to me with some frequency recently is why some things are untranslatable. A good example of this is posts such as this, which has the supposedly untranslatable word alongside—ironically—its translation. But I think that if we ask why certain words can’t be translated, we’re actually asking the wrong question. The right question is: why do we think anything at all can be translated?

Tsunajima Kamekichi, Fashionable melange of English words, 1887 (1)

Why is it that we shy away from trying to translate dépaysement but feel quite strongly that a pomme is the same thing as an apple? While a French speaker and and English speaker would probably use the those respective words to ask for the same piece of fruit from a fruit bowl, the phrase “the apple of my eye” is better tranlsted into French as “prunelle de mes yeux”. And if you asked for the prunelle from a fruit bowl, you’d be given something an English speaker would call a plum. So while we think of these two words as the same, on some level, it cannot be denied that they play different roles in their respective languages. No one claims either “apple” or “pomme” are untranslatable, though.

Well, let’s talk a little about what translation is. In linguistics, the standard when discussing languages that the reader is not familiar with (and, since descriptive linguists often work with languages that have a few dozen speakers, this is not uncommon) is to use three lines. The first is in the original language (usually in the International Phonetic Alphabet), the second line is a morpheme-by-morpheme translation and the third is  a ‘sense translation’, which is how an English speaker might have expressed the same thought. (Morphemes, you may be aware, are the smallest unit of language to contain meaning. So the single word “dogs” has two morphemes. “Dog”, which has the meaning of canis familiaris, and “-s”, which tells us that there’s more than one.)

While we tend to idealize translation as the first, a word-to-word correspondence. But even that’s a bit of a simplification, for you’ll often hear people referring to the “literal” translation of something like an idiom, while the “actual” translation is something that maintains the sense but not the wording. The idea that it’s the sense that translations should capture and not the exact wording can sometimes be taken to extremes. Consider FItzgerald’s “translation” of the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which in places diverges wildly from the source material. It is true translation, in a morpheme-by-morpheme sense? No. But we still accept it as essentially the same material in two different languages.

And if we accept that on the level of the poem, then I feel like we also have to accept it on the level of the word. It may take more or fewer words to express the same idea in different languages, but if we believe that we’re capable of sharing thoughts between people (Richard Wright once called language  “a very inefficient means of telepathy”) then shuttling them between languages, no matter how difficult the transition, should also be possible. If anything is translatable, than everything has to be.

Of course, accounting for and explaining the cultural baggage associated with a certain term or replicating levels of meaning below the morpheme may pose a greater challenge. But that’s a post for another day.


Why do people have accents?

Since I’m teaching Language and Society this quarter, this is a question that I anticipate coming up early and often. Accents–or dialects, though the terms do differ slightly–are one of those things in linguistics that is effortlessly fascinating. We all have experience with people who speak our language differently than we do. You can probably even come up with descriptors for some of these differences. Maybe you feel that New Yorkers speak nasally, or that Southerners have a drawl, or that there’s a certain Western twang. But how did these differences come about and how are perpetuated?

Hyundai Accents
Clearly people have Accents because they’re looking for a nice little sub-compact commuter car.

First, two myths I’d like to dispel.

  1. Only some people have an accent or speak a dialect. This is completely false with a side of flat-out wrong. Every single person who speaks or signs a language does so with an accent. We sometimes think of newscasters, for example, as “accent-less”. They do have certain systematic variation in their speech, however, that they share with other speakers who share their social grouping… and that’s an accent. The difference is that it’s one that tends to be seen as “proper” or “correct”, which leads nicely into myth number two:
  2. Some accents are better than others. This one is a little more tricky. As someone who has a Southern-influenced accent, I’m well aware that linguistic prejudice exists. Some accents (such as the British “received pronunciation”) are certainly more prestigious than others (oh, say, the American South). However, this has absolutely no basis in the language variation itself. No dialect is more or less “logical” than any other, and geographical variation of factors such as speech rate has no correlation with intelligence. Bottom line: the differing perception of various accents is due to social, and not linguistic, factors.

Now that that’s done with, let’s turn to how we get accents in the first place. To begin with, we can think of an accent as a collection of linguistic features that a group of people share. By themselves, these features aren’t necessarily immediately noticeable, but when you treat them as a group of factors that co-varies it suddenly becomes clearer that you’re dealing with separate varieties. Which is great and all, but let’s pull out an example to make it a little clearer what I mean.

Imagine that you have two villages. They’re relatively close and share a lot of commerce and have a high degree of intermarriage. This means that they talk to each other a lot. As a new linguistic change begins to surface (which, as languages are constantly in flux, is inevitable) it spreads through both villages. Let’s say that they slowly lose the ‘r’ sound. If you asked a person from the first village whether a person from the second village had an accent, they’d probably say no at that point, since they have all of the same linguistic features.

But what if, just before they lost the ‘r’ sound, an unpassable chasm split the two villages? Now, the change that starts in the first village has no way to spread to the second village since they no longer speak to each other. And, since new linguistic forms pretty much come into being randomly (which is why it’s really hard to predict what a language  will sound like in three hundred years) it’s very unlikely that the same variant will come into being in the second village. Repeat that with a whole bunch of new linguistic forms and if, after a bridge is finally built across the chasm, you ask a person from the first village whether a person from the second village has an accent, they’ll probably say yes. They might even come up with a list of things they say differently: we say this and they say that. If they were very perceptive, they might even give you a list with two columns: one column the way something’s said in their village and the other the way it’s said in the second village.

But now that they’ve been reunited, why won’t the accents just disappear as they talk to each other again? Well, it depends, but probably not. Since they were separated, the villages would have started to develop their own independent identities. Maybe the first village begins to breed exceptionally good pigs while squash farming is all the rage in the second village. And language becomes tied that that identity. “Oh, I wouldn’t say it that way,” people from the first village might say, “people will think I raise squash.” And since the differences in language are tied to social identity, they’ll probably persist.

Obviously this is a pretty simplified example, but the same processes are constantly at work around us, at both a large and small scale. If you keep an eye out for them, you might even notice them in action.