Linguistics and SFF: Connotations and the Failures of Dictionary Definitions

16 Jul

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Shadow and Bone and the Russian Language

If you’ve been reading my posts on linguistic appropriation and foreign languages in SFF, you might have noticed that a great deal of the problem comes from the misuse or misunderstanding of foreign words and their meanings.  There’s a fairly simple reason for this, and it’s something that online machine translation efforts have greatly contributed to:

Words have a denotation, the literal meaning of the word: “cat” is a four-legged animal of the genus Felis.  Further, words have a set of connotations, the set of cultural or emotional associations that are connected to the word.  Cats are often considered solitary, imperious, curious, etc.  Connotations are what lend words to the various metaphors (and more generally, all forms of analogy) found in human language.  Then, many words have cultural or historical baggage.  Finally, there is idiomatic language, which provides another layer of meaning to word.

How does this relate to linguistic appropriation and translation failure?  Dictionaries, the most commonly available resource for learning the meaning of foreign words most often include only the denotation of a word, and very occasionally limited historical, idiomatic, or connotational information: ethnic slurs in a dictionary may contain a note that the word is a pejorative.

And, if that isn’t enough, there’s etymology.  This could be construed as a historical association,but I think it has enough relevance to be treated as its own category.  Etymology is the linguistic history of a word: when it first entered the language, the language it came from, changes it has undergone even while part of the current language.  All of these things are relevant.  Consider English.  Words of a Latin or Greek source are often considered more sophisticated than words of Germanic origin.  People who speak mostly in Latin or Greek roots are often considered elitist or snobbish as opposed to those who speak with Germanic roots and grammar, who can be considered un-intelligent, or homey.  This is an association that all native speakers of the language make.  But it may not be immediately obvious to a non-native speaker.

Similarly, Japanese has a strong Chinese influence, especially in literature or religion, for example.  Japanese words with Chinese origins are used and perceived differently, than those of native Japanese origin.  Many languages have similar dichotomies.  Loan words are perceived differently, and a non-native speaker may not know which words are loan words, and whether their source language gives them negative or positive associations.

In order to use a language that is not your own effectively and respectfully, you have to be aware of all of these things.  What may seem like a perfectly reasonable translation may shock or offend a native speaker.  One of the things a writer has to accept when using a language that is not their own is that they will mess up.  They’ll miss something.  It’s inevitable when you consider everything that goes into choosing even a single word in the mind of a native speaker.  But you can do things to lessen the chance of such an occurrence, even before you consult a native speaker.

What you cannot do is attempt to include a real foreign language in your story just by consulting an online bilingual dictionary.

And of course the same issues apply with any historical figure, or pop culture icon, or myth, setting.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Why Non-English Words?


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3 responses to “Linguistics and SFF: Connotations and the Failures of Dictionary Definitions

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