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June 17, 2008


Anent prose style and translatability


For decades now, my exemplar of English prose style has been Winston Churchill: Simple words in simple sentences. And on a blog with an international audience that is just about the only wise style.

I am a lover of words however and I would very much like to use a wider vocabulary than I do. I often write stuff using whatever vocab come to mind: Scientific, literary or Australian, for instance. And I then go through and replace all the uncommon words with simple, well-known words. "Orthogonal" becomes "unrelated", for instance. And I invariably clear up my thinking in doing so.

So I was rather pleased to see somewhere on a blog recently the word "anent". It is an old-fashioned word meaning "about" or "concerning". I wondered how such a word got onto a blog. Are there some parts of America where it is still widely used? In my experience, it is not much found outside Middle English or Early New English. I Googled it and found that it is widely used in their database -- but in all cases that I looked up they were spam blogs. Reality is truly strange sometimes.

Speaking of language, I greatly regret that the Australian idioms I grew up speaking are now far from generally understood in Australia. Radio, TV and the movies have largely wiped them out. The expressions young Australians use tend to be sourced from the media.

Another factor in the loss is that distinctively Australian speech was always unprestigious in Australia. The aspiration among educated Australians was always to speak "The King's English" (RP as the phoneticans call it) and an educated Australian accent these days is in fact quite close to that aspiration -- far closer than most of the accents of England itself, in fact. So it was my growing up in a working class family in an Australian country town that gave me full exposure to real Australian speech -- and I love it. It is so vivid. Somewhere along the line I have acquired an educated Australian accent but I still feel most at ease speaking in my native idioms. Fortunately, the lady in my life comes from a similar background so I often get to do so.

One of the more amusing upshots of all that is that the group of people who speak Australian best these days are the Aborigines (blacks). They are at the bottom of just about every social ladder you can think of so they have never had any incentive to move from the old ways. That blacks are the best preservers of an English semi-dialect is one of the many real-life complexities that confound the simple generalizations beloved of the Left.

It is of course the untranslatability of one form of speech into another that vexes me. Even commonly-used Australian expressions like "Fair dinkum" have no one-for-one translation into international English. And even words from a language closely related to English -- such as German -- are similarly untranslatable. I have written elsewhere about the untranslatability of "Reich" and "Volk", for instance.

I was reminded of that in reading a comment from a German about how Germans are seen in America: In en USA werden die Deutschen in Lederhosen, als Biertrinker und Krautfresser charakterisiert. There is a word there that is not easily translatable either. The writer is saying that in the USA Germans are characterized as wearing Lederhosen and as beer-drinkers and cabbage-eaters. I doubt that it is as bad as that. I myself think of Germany as the land of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. The German-speaking lands are undisputably the home of Western classical music. The untranslatability in the sentence, however, centres around the word "fressen". In German there are two words for "eat": People "essen" and animals "fressen". So if a person is said to "fressen", he is said to eat like an animal. So how do we translate "Krautfresser"? Are Germans describable as "cabbage-gutsers", perhaps? Maybe "cabbage-hogs"? I really don't know.

Update:

I think I've got it! "Cabbage-munchers" would be the right translation above.



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