Water Cooler Musings: On Translating

Translating prohibited

Funny how some days the talk around the water cooler is pretty standard fare, like who got to bed late last night and why, like which TV shows are funny and which ones are overrated, or like the crazy things that go on at our jobs. So of course today we had a rousing time talking about — what else? — dialects and translation technology.

I work with this girl whose family is originally from Norway, and she actually goes back to visit fairly often. I’ll call her Marika. At the same table sitting beside me was Sara.

Me: Do people over there speak in a weird way?

Marika: Well, um…

Sara: Weird? That’s not right to say.

Me: Oh, whoops. I meant different. Yeah, do they speak in a different way?

Marika: Well, yes. I mean, they speak English but there are so many different dialects as well. It can be hard to keep up.

Me: You speak Norwegian?

Marika: No, but you pick up some being around them for a little bit.

Me: Really? I could pick up Norwegian?

Marika: Sure.

Sara: Suuuuuure.

And of course that made me think about the French and Spanish courses I took while I was in school, and how if a kid is exposed early enough to other languages, that kid can pick up the languages like a fish picks up swimming. Imagine if you were in a household where at least three different languages were spoken regularly, and how advanced you would be in switching from one language to another.

Sara: Wouldn’t it be cool if some day, you know, before we die, we’re able to carry on us a universal translator so wherever we are it translates word for word what is being said?

Me: Then we wouldn’t have to wonder if the natives were talking about us behind our backs.

Marika: The natives?

Me: Uh, yeah. I’m not saying what I mean today.

Sara: I’ve got a translator for that.

Me: I just don’t like people talking about me behind my back in another language.

Sara: Sure.

Marika: Suuuuure.

I believe I said something about our Smartphones already being able to do the translating, but Sara brought up the good point that even our phones can’t keep up with certain dialects, slang, and accents that exist out there. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to have a translator that can keep up with the rapid fire way that people constantly shift and change language. Sara agreed, but still insisted that a translator could come pretty close, that we had the technology to make one that was almost perfect. At some point, maybe we will, but until then I think human translators will still be in high demand.

And don’t even get me started on sign language!

Sam

Water Cooler Musings Archive

Trying to Sound Smart

Want to sound smart or want to be smart?

I remember when I was six years old and I wanted to sound just like my mama. I wanted to sound “grown up.” I would go around the house repeating what she said, so I could sound smart, but I would get it all mixed up. When I wanted to say “shirt” and it came out “shit,” though, that was the final straw. My mother sat me down and told me in no uncertain terms that if I couldn’t tell anyone the meaning of the word then I couldn’t say it. So that was the end of my career of swearing until much later in life.

However, I did take what she said to heart, which is when I started trying to read the dictionary. Continue reading “Trying to Sound Smart”

Grammatical Faux Pas

Grammar! Grammar! Oh yeah!

A friend of mine challenged me the other day over my use of the word “less” when I really meant to say “fewer.” When I looked back it in stark black and white there was honestly no way I could defend my position, and I felt beyond embarrassed. For me, an English teacher, who knows all of the rules, to blatantly demolish one because I was tired when I wrote the phrase was an untenable position. I immediately deleted it and hoped no one else had seen the horror that was my grammatical faux pas. But we are all human. Here are some of the more egregious grammatical faux pas I have seen and heard: Continue reading “Grammatical Faux Pas”

Dueling Dialects

I remember the first time my wife heard me speaking on the phone with my mother. Her mouth was on the floor by the time the conversation was over, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. For the entire second half of the phone call I kept shooting her looks that meant, “What’s the deal?” but she wasn’t talking. Just staring. So, when it was over and we both hung up, I asked her what was the deal. She told me that I sounded different, and I asked her how. Apparently, I use an entirely different dialect when I speak with my mother, not even remotely the same as the one I use with my wife, and I hadn’t even realized it. It made sense, though, when I thought about it, because over the years I have learned to shift and change the way I speak when I’m in certain company. I guess it has just become a natural part of how I approach the world, with several dialects.

The “Down Home” Dialect

This is the one I use when I’m around “the fam,” including my mother, my sister, my aunts and uncles, and my cousins. Interestingly enough, I tend to use it as well when I’m just around other black people. Now let me explain. Since I grew up in an environment that was entirely black, and I had interactions only with black people, the dialect of Philadelphia blacks became my dialect too, from the time I was able to talk. And it remains the easiest, most natural dialect for me to speak because I don’t have to think about it. Most interesting about this dialect is the usage (and non-usage) of the verb “to be,” and all of its many forms. When using the “down home” dialect, there is constant shifting of the verb. For example:

“We be going to the gym.”

“They is wack.”

The other common occurrence in the “down home” dialect is to leave out the verb “to be” altogether. For example:

“This coffee bad.”

“Who y’all got?”

There is also no “th” sound in the “down home” dialect. When a “th” is normally found at the end of a word, the dialect sounds it out as if it were an “f.” And when the “th” sound is at the beginning of a word, it is changed to a “d” sound instead. For example:

“Dey be wif Boo Boo and dem.”

The glory of the “down home” dialect is the level of familiarity it automatically supposes. Just today when I was at work, another guy who works there (also black) came through my section with a case of Heineken under his arm, apparently out for the day and doing a little shopping. We had a small conversation about the beer, and I just slipped right into the dialect without a pause because he did it first. It’s like riding a bike. When a bike is around, you just pick it up and ride off, no questions asked. And even though we had never spoken before, we had a genuine conversation as if we were old friends. Like we were down home.

The “Casual” Dialect

Now, the dialect I use at home is generally going to be the casual dialect, which, while it is a lot different from the down home dialect, still has an ease to it, especially after all these years in the same place, with the same people. The major difference between the two is that I still have to think about what I’m saying in the casual dialect, making the title just a tad bit misleading. It still isn’t standard spoken English, however, because I often use different phrasing to make a point. One of the ways I do this is through imitations.

The Bill Cosby: “I gots ta get the jellllllo pudDING pops.”

The Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Ev-er-ee-bod-ee get to da chop-pa!”

Another way I change up the phrasing is through inventing words, then using them in wild and crazy ways.

“The sun is always twilighting before it goes down.”

“I am quite confabulous, don’t you think?”

I keep all of my verb phrases intact in the casual dialect, and I make use of the “th” sound. However, probably as a result of living here, I do tend to drop off my “g”s at the ends of words, and to make all words plural by just adding an “s.” There is also a tendency in the casual dialect to leave off parts of oft-used phrases. There is a simplicity to the casual dialect, just like with the down home dialect, but everyone can generally understand me when I use the casual dialect without needing a translation.

The Proper” Dialect

This is the one I have to spend the most time thinking about. It is usually the dialect in which I write as well, so you are familiar with it if you read my blog. I pay attention to pretty much every grammatical and language rule in the “proper” dialect. It is the dialect I save for when I’m in front of a group full of people who are listening to me. This includes when I’m teaching, when I’m in an interview, when I’m at a social function, and when I first meet someone. This last one was a surprise to me, but it bears out. Most people, upon first meeting me, think I’m stuck up or snotty because of this “proper” dialect I tend to drag out when in an entirely new situation. After a small amount of time, however, my comfort level eases and I naturally slip into the “casual” dialect, which is apparently my friendlier one.

I don’t know if any of that will ever change, even though I’m cognizant of it now when I wasn’t before. If anything, the “casual” dialect and the “down home” dialect will get a little closer together, so I’m really not thinking about either one, just speaking. The “proper” dialect will always exist for me, and I think it’s obvious why. Everyone needs to pull out the “educated” speech patterns when in certain situations, but it takes a lot of energy sometimes.

How you be talkin’?

Sam

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