Monday, July 30, 2012

Finding your own language

I just had the strangest linguistical sensation.

You see, my country has a very relaxed way of looking at the whole language thing. Where other countries go for the whole translating things before they are deemed suitable for public viewing, we just take the path of lesser resistance and let it be whatever language it happened to be when it was made.

Which means that movies are shown in English, French, Urdu or [language] on television or cinemas, and helpful subtitles are provided just in case.

Now, given that Sweden is a part of western Europe, most of the imported movies are in English (or, rather, American English). Which means that most kids are exposed to a flood of the English language just by existing in a television culture, and it happens that they learn the language before they learn to read those helpful subtitles.

Which also means that the translating of books will turn into a strange endeavor pretty soon. If the author writes in English, most will just read it in English rather than wait the months or years it takes to publish a translation. Which in turn might put pressure on the publishers to translate faster (i. e. sloppier), which in yet another turn just makes people think that translations are sloppy -

Anywho, sidenote aside. The point here is that exposure to the English language is a very natural part of everyday life.

But. The main, dominating and official language of the land is still Swedish, and that is the language everyone for the most part sticks to. (Even I, judging from how much more attention my Swedish blog is getting from me.) Yet the prevalence of the English language means that words, phrases and idioms are slowly migrating from the one to the other, and it is not uncommon to find that the languages merges in various ways. Such as someone knowing the English word for something, and not quite remembering the Swedish one. Or, in more technical or academic situations, that there just is no Swedish word for something.

You see how the question of language becomes rather complicated here. On the one hand, you get quite along by just knowing Swedish - it is, after all, the mother tongue. On the other hand, the ever increasing intermingling of Swedish and English means that you lose an ever increasing part of the subtext by not knowing English. One example of this is imported idioms that makes sense if you have heard them used in English before, but really doesn't work in a purely Swedish setting.

This, of course, has a whole range of interesting consequences. One of them is that local variations in the use of English occur, that by way of cultural context does not translate well into purely English settings. These variations may seem ever so natural to us locals, but are in fact just that - local.

My strange linguistical sensation, then, was that I for a moment found myself wondering if a particular thing was either a feature of the English language in a broader sense, or a more local variation. And in this moment of uncertainty, I started to wonder if I really understood these languages that I use every day. Of if I only had a very local, very new remix that seems to emerge bit by bit every day.

I'm not sure I'm going to be finished with this thought (or sensation) any time soon.


  1. This reminds me of the joke about the tomatoes crossing the street, one getting run over by a car, the other saying: Come on, catch up! (If you don't get it, "catch up" is pronounced like "ketchup".)

    It didn't translate into Swedish at all. The Swedish translation of "catch up" does not sound anything like ketchup, and ketchup in Swedish is the same - ketchup - but it does not resemble any other Swedish word or idiom. Still, a weirdly (mis-)translated version was a widely popular joke for years. And most of the people telling it had no idea that it was a translation to begin with!

    The world is weird in many awesome ways.

    (An attempt to translate the Swedish version of the joke back to English would be "Come on, ketchup, let's go". And like I said, there is no other way to interpret the word "ketchup" - it just means "ketchup".)

    1. It get's ever weirder when one takes into account* that ketchup is an imported Malay word, kĕchap, adapted over time. Makes you realize that the use of languages is connected in even more ways than one might think at first glance.

      I must admit I didn't think of it as a translation. I just thought people had heard it in English, and were repeating it from memory. I learn things every day, it seems. :3

      *Thank you, Wikipedia.