Language is Alive

“What up, cuz? Let’s get blacked out because I’m finna hit a lick for an elbow during vulture hour, so get your strap. We’ll wait in the cut and roll up on him.”

Learning a foreign language is hard enough. It is simply not fair that just when you begin to feel competent, words from the vocabulary list you learned in college morph into strangers, or an entire grammatical construction disappears.

The construction that disappeared on me was the fault of the ancient grammar book used by my high school. People laughed at my speech: apparently I sounded just like their grandfather.

Vocabulary change is a fact of life. New words are coined and others drop out of use, as readers of Shakespeare know. English has changed so much over the centuries that the modern reader needs foreign language instruction before meeting Beowulf’s Grendel. Today’s language will sound quaint in 100 years, and with the Internet facilitating the creation and widespread adoption of new terms, one of us might have a difficult time understanding the English of the next century.

Sports (vuvuzela), politics (refudiate), television (“Jersey Shore”-speak) and technology (thumbo) provide a stream of new words. (See this post for a dictionary of terms from “Jersey Shore.”) Teenagers are upset when they hear adults use their own special slang, and yet as we move out of the teen years, we take some of that slang with us and it becomes part of the general vocabulary. Cool made it. Hep did not.

Today’s translators and interpreters maintain current vocabulary with Internet interactions that were impossible 20 years ago. Slang comes and goes quickly, and translators, dealing with the written language, have the resources and the opportunity to research the odd phrase that their language instructors never saw.

Pity the interpreters, those who handle the spoken language. Interpreting has an immediacy that few other occupations possess. Courtroom interpreters in particular hear and repeat vulgar language that is not part of their home lives. They must also grasp and immediately rephrase in another language the slang of the drug culture and street gangs, the meanderings of mental competency hearings, the emotionally charged pleadings of a child during an international custody case.

Writing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, reporter Rochelle Olson captured some gangsta slang from Hennepin County District Court:

A lick doesn’t involve a tongue; it’s a robbery. An elbow is a pound of marijuana. A strap is a gun…. A .22-caliber gun is a “deuce-deuce.”

In the cut? That’s a place to hide between buildings, and vulture hour is a prime drug-dealing time. Imagine the mental machinations required to move those phrases from English to Somali, for example. (Read the rest of Olson’s article here.)

When living in Germany years ago, we found that even the best-trained English speakers could not follow us when we dropped into the accent of the Deep South. It was a useful trick. Various online translation programs are doing a wonderful job helping us understand each other today, but I foresee using that same trick except with Shakespearean vocabulary or outdated grammar when I might not want my words translated!


About tembua

Tembua: The Precision Language Solution provides comprehensive linguistic services for 100 languages to private industry and government agencies on a global scale. Services include document and website translation and localization; conference and 24/7 telephonic interpretation; glossary development; proofreading, text adaptation, editing, multilingual design and DTP; transcription; technical / custom authoring editing, foreign search engine optimization; translation memory management; subtitling.
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