Languages are cool

So I’m registering to get an outpatient lab test done at Lexington Medical Center (you don’t want to know — suffice it to say that a really annoying abdominal virus has slowed down my blogging, and everything else, for several days), and there’s this sign on the desk. Under the headline, "Interpretation Service Available" are the following two sentences in English:

Point to your language.

An interpreter will be called.

Under that is the same message translated into 20 other languages — Arabic, Armenian, Cantonese, French, German, Hindi, Hmong, Italian, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.

At first, I’m really impressed that the Lexington Medical folks can whistle up such a veritable United Nations from among their staff at a moment’s notice (I mean, it’s a good hospital and all, but whoa), but then I realize this is a phone service — Language Line Services, to be precise. Basically, it seems you call them up and get them to tell you what the patient is saying.

Anyway, as the lady is asking me insurance questions, I’m getting lost in the fascination of contemplating the myriad ways all these foreign chaps have of relaying one simple message. I don’t just mean that the words are different; I’m talking about the fact that they’re almost never a literal translation, thanks to the magic of idiom — and culture, and (in at least one case, I suspect) politics.

Note that I’m not claiming to be conversant in all these language — even the western European ones. But you pretty much know that there’s something really different going on when the first of the above English sentences is rendered this way in French:

Montrez-nous quelle langue vous parlez.

… and this way in Spanish:

Señale su idioma.

…and this way in German:

Zeigen Sie auf Ihre Sprache.

The plot thickens when you contemplate the differences between the two Iberian languages. Compare the Spanish above with the Portuguese:

Aponte seu idioma.

Note that the Portuguese is the closest of all those listed thus far that is almost exactly a literal interpretation of the English, "Point to your language." Except that apparently "aponte" conveys a meaning that renders the preposition "to" superfluous.

Whereas if you take the Spanish literally, it says "Signal your language." (And says it politely, using "su" instead of the intimate "tu.") Apparently, señalar (to signal) is one way you can say "point to" in Spanish. But I also find that the more literal apuntar can mean the same thing. So why wasn’t the literal version used? Does it have a slightly more accurate connotation? Does it depend upon which of the many nations the Spanish-speaker happens to hail from? Do more people who call into the service come from countries or regions that prefer señalar, or does this sign merely reflect the whim of the particular interpreter who helped put this sign together?

And while I’m on a questioning jag, why in the world are Spanish and Portuguese so different? Oh, I understand the history and all (or I did 30 years ago when I had it in college), but why do they not even sound like related languages? Spanish is the only one of these 20 languages I have ever been fluent in (the result of living in Ecuador as a kid), but when I hear Portuguese it might as well be a Slavic tongue, for all I understand. I can (sort of) follow Italian much more easily — it sounds like Spanish, to my ear. Maybe the two years of high school Latin have something to do with tying them together for me. Which brings up another question: Why is it that Spanish seems a purer derivative of Latin than Italian? Is it the echo of empire? Is it for the same reason that some forms from Elizabethan English that died long ago in Britain can be heard today in Appalachia?

(If you’re wondering what the registration lady is doing all this time while I’m grooving on the sign, I kept her pretty busy with the fact that I didn’t have my insurance card with me. So she tries to call me up by name, and gets my Dad instead. I ask her for a scratch sheet of paper, my eye on the translations. Then I suggest she look up my daughter, who had had my card when she came in for a test last week, which was why it wasn’t in my wallet. Eventually, she straightens it all out. When I’m on my way out from my test, she catches me back at the sign still copying translations, and asks if I’d like her to make me a copy of the whole thing. "Um, yes, I would. Uh, thank you very much. See, I work for the newspaper, and …" oh give up, there’s no way to explain this behavior. She was amazingly sweet to indulge my eccentricity so.)

Enough of this. Probably no one will read it. Well, one last point — the "political" difference. It struck me that only the French interpretation had to include both the masculine and feminine article with one of those awkward "slash" compromises that the politically correct resort to: Nous vous fournirons un/une interprète. (At least, I assume those are the masculine and feminine articles. I’m sort of reaching the limit of my linguistic abilities here. As near as I can tell, that means, "I think I can reach it from here with my four iron.")

Meanwhile, either the Italian (Un interprete sarà chiamato), the German (Wir rufen einen Dolmetscher an) and the Spanish (Se llamara a un intérprete) all assume that the masculine is inclusive, the way we once did in English (I know they do that in Spanish), or they don’t demand a distinction in the articles in these instances. Can it be that the French are really more like us than they would choose to let on?

Oh, well. None of this is why I went to the hospital. But wait — let me close with my personal favorite linguistic anomaly. In Tagalog, the message goes like this:

Pakituro po ninyo ang inyong wika.

Magpapatawag kami ng interpreter.

What a coincidence, huh? That’s almost as cool as people in Latin America playing béisbol

By the way, I fully expect to be chastised as a Philistine for my ignorance by people who actually understand these languages. I’m even looking forward to it, because I’ll learn some things I don’t yet know about them. All I really know for sure is that languages are cool — to an unschooled geek like me, anyway.

One thought on “Languages are cool

  1. Laurin

    The linked story about the similarities between the Appalachian dialect and Elizabethan English is interesting. A few months ago, PBS aired a special entitled Do You Speak American?, which explored variations on English in America.
    In the program, the similarities among the “native” accents of the USA’s oldest cities such as Boston and Charleston and their closeness to a British accent are noted. (For example, most of these accents don’t pronounce the hard “r,” but, rather, pronounce “r” as “ah,” in the manner of the Fritz Hollings).

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