Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
H. W. Longfellow
Have you ever wondered why some computer-generated translations sound a bit strange to native ears? Well, there are several explanations, but my focus here will be on English words used by German speakers.
“Duplicate Content” is such a word, the ominous “shitstorm” is another. Some English words make it into dictionaries and glossaries, while others hover on the verge of widespread acceptance – or being translated, as it may be. And if a clever linguist comes up with a word to replace the “foreign” English word, this new German word – a neologism or perhaps a coinage – may find its way into the permanent vocabulary.
So if you want to grab the attention of your German readers, go for it: use the English term if it is widely used in different settings and social groups. Comprehension is a key indicator of the success of your localisation.
But how do you know what words to use? – The answer is quite simple, really. Ask an expert.
Hot and cold, heißgeliebt or heiß geliebt?
Opening a box of Easter egg dyes recently, a smile came across my face when I read the instructions, and I simply had to share some more interesting German language facts with you.
The phrase ‘kalt gefärbt und heiß geliebt’, translated by the manufacturer as ‘cold dyed and much loved’, illustrates a semantic peculiarity of German given some extra attention in the last spelling reform. You may have heard of a group of adjectives consisting of two words or one, depending on how you want to write them or the literal or figurative meaning. The ‘compound’ spelling – two adjectives combined into one word – sometimes conveys a sense that is ‘more than its parts’.
Both spellings are usually correct, as the bible of German, the Duden will tell you, but some controversy over the loss of semantic differentiation (and because Germans simply love compounds!) meant that since 2006 the need to split adjectives is no longer the official spelling rule.
The phrase in the packaging of the Easter egg dyes, on the other hand, illustrates a wordplay based on the opposites of cold and hot: the eggs can literally be coloured using a ‘cold’ dye, and choosing the two-word spelling for 'heißgeliebt' here was really a matter of balance and parallel structures. Nice, huh?
Do you have similar instances of semantic or orthographic peculiarities of German that you would like to discuss with me? Send me a message or an email, and let’s talk.
In the meantime, I wish all friends and clients of Witinall Language Services a very
As the temperatures rise, new opportunities and project ideas present themselves. And your German customers are waiting to hear from you. So don't make them wait. Get your translations, transcriptions or subtitles out there now!
Get your free quote from Alexandra today!
Hello, dear blog readers!
Another great (?!) year lies ahead of us, so let’s start it with a good laugh.
I simply had to share this delightful fruit juice label with you. It says, “This juice contains…” followed by slightly unusual citrus fruit symbols.
20 clementines and 5 tangerines (“Mandarinen”) make up this juice, but no “Fandarines”, “Wandarines” (hikers), “Schlendarines” (slackers) or “Pandarines”.
I’m a fan!
Wishing all friends and clients of Witinall Language Services a very
happy, healthy and prosperous new year!
Christmas is almost upon us again, and with it comes the call to think of those less fortunate than ourselves by donating to good causes.
by Summer Worsley
In 2019, the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) began the process of changing its name and logo, prioritising the Te Reo Māori (the native language of New Zealand) translation before English.
Now, the government agency is known as Waka Kotahi - NZ Transport Agency, a move that has drawn a fair amount of ire from commentators.
A Reddit user expresses their frustration.
About Te Reo and its history
Māori is one of New Zealand’s official languages, and it was the only language spoken in NZ prior to the arrival of European colonisers in the 1800s.
Since the first settlers arrived, the Māori language has been subjected to the known linguistic pitfalls of colonisation, including suppression in schools where children were formally and informally forced to ‘kōrero Pākehā’ (speak English).
By the mid-20th century, it was clear that the course of just a few hundred years had significantly hindered the language’s rightful place in NZ society, prompting a range of efforts to preserve it that really only began in earnest in the 80s.
Initiatives such as the kōhanga reo movement, which saw Māori pre-schoolers educated in Māori, and the kura kaupapa programme, primary schooling in Māori, attempted to reverse some of the damage.
The use of Māori words in domains that had been overwhelmingly English increased, too. In 1984 a telephone tolls operator named Naida Glavish began greeting callers with kia ora (hello), sparking the so-called ‘kia ora controversy’. The now Dame Glavish was demoted for her refusal to stop using the Māori greeting.
One would think there are lessons to be learned here, yet 30 years later in 2014, a 17-year-old KiwiYo employee was told not to greet customers by saying kia ora.
Pushbacks to increased Māori use abound
Here in New Zealand, it often seems that for every step taken to ensure Te Reo Māori doesn’t reach extinction (a very real threat), there is a disproportionate reaction from citizens who view these steps as an affront.
Pushbacks to the revival of Māori come in the form of hate mail and threats to broadcasters who use Te Reo, overtly racist comments on social media threads, and conservative leaders who are “utterly sick” of the increased use of Māori.
Prior to WWII, most Māori spoke Te Reo as their first language. By 2006, Statistics New Zealand data showed that around 23% of Māori could hold a conversation about everyday things in Te Reo.
In 2022, just 1% of New Zealand’s total population speak fluent Te Reo while another 2.7% can hold a basic conversation.
The language is clearly in danger, so why is there such a vehement reaction to revival efforts?
Is linguistic diversity threatening?
It’s often said that people are afraid of what they don’t understand; that they find it threatening.
As one threatened viewer told NZ’s Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA): the use of Te Reo on public programming was “discriminatory toward non-Māori speaking New Zealanders and divisive", because they felt "purposefully excluded".
In 2021, the BSA announced that it would no longer take complaints about the use of Māori, which upset the threatened among us but was championed by many others as a way to help stop everyday racism.
Although NZ is often lauded for its race relations on the international stage, the reality for many Kiwis is far from acceptable. In this society, the relationship between Māori and Pākehā people has been problematic since its very beginnings. And it is still marked by injustice and inequality.
Numerous past acts of violence carried out against Māori by Pākehā haven’t been fully addressed or settled, and statistically, Māori fare worse in social areas such as socio-economic
status, health, crime, and educational achievement.
Complaints about the increased use of Te Reo in New Zealand society represent little more than Pākehā fearing changes to the status quo, one in which they hold an undeniably privileged position.
Further on the topic of machine translation (addressed by Summer in her latest post):
The original reads:
Faster than I thought possible, he grabs me, gives me a proprietary embrace and a toe-curling kiss.
But the translation engine thinks that "a toe-curling kiss" means that someone is kissing you "with his toes":
Schneller, als ich es für möglich gehalten hätte, packt er mich, umarmt mich und küsst mich mit den Zehen.
Or this, where "Neither do I" [say anything] becomes "I don't know either".
He says nothing. Neither do I.
Ich weiß es auch nicht.
I could go on, but I just wanted to wish all clients and friends of Witinall Language Services
A LOVELY SUMMER HOLIDAY!
Make sure you spend a day or two outside to relax and have fun!
And if you're working and need some help with German or English transcriptions or translations, just call or write to me at my office any time. I look forward to hearing from you.
As Summer addressed the machine translation issue in her recent post, I couldn’t resist adding a few titbits from my “blunders and howlers” collection. Because one thing that keeps me on my toes most of the time I review machine-translated texts is how common lexical phrases or grammatical constructions are mistranslated. Take a look at this sentence, for example:
She made your aunt promise that she would…
Straightforward enough, you might say. But it became
Sie hat deiner Tante versprochen, dass wir uns …
She promised your aunt …
He was up again within seconds to throw up into a bush to the left, hucking up all the turkey he’d eaten earlier.
Er war innerhalb von Sekunden wieder auf den Beinen und warf sich in einen Busch auf der linken Seite, wobei er den ganzen Truthahn, den er zuvor gegessen hatte, in sich hineinschlang.
In the German sentence, our hero is not “throwing up” into a bush; he is “throwing himself into a bush”. This action seems to have made him hungry: he is gorging himself (!) on some more turkey rather than spitting it out. You can safely say that this would make for some very unusual reading …
Okay, so dialectal variants and sublanguages are perhaps not every machine’s forte. Still, it’s amazing how often you will find very simple constructions mangled.
To top off today’s selection, here’s my current favourite:
He spied a young kid chewing on a piece of bread, leaning on a shovel.
Er entdeckte einen jungen Mann, der auf einer Schaufel kaute und sich auf ein Stück Brot stützte.
The translation says: „He spied a young man chewing a shovel and leaning on a piece of bread.” Cheers to that!
A few reasons why AI and translation software will NEVER top human-produced work
by Summer Worsley
With advances in modern technology, it's no surprise that machine translation has made its way into our working lives. There is now an app for your phone, a program to run on your laptop, and even an earpiece device that translates foreign languages in real-time.
The availability of machine translation technologies has changed the landscape of the translation industry. Although it's a great asset to be able to speak with someone from across the world in a different language (albeit with the grammar skills of a three-year-old), there are many reasons why you would want to use human translators instead of software.
Human translators understand context
Context is the surrounding circumstances of a word or phrase, and it's critical to understanding what you're saying exactly, be it in text or speech. For example, if I say "I love ice cream," the three-word sentence can have different meanings depending on who I'm talking to and why.
If I say this to someone else who also loves ice cream and has just expressed a similar sentiment, then there's no confusion. But what if I say this to my partner while we're fighting over bills? She will likely interpret my words differently than if we were talking about dessert together.
In this case, context dictates that being left alone with a tub of Ben & Jerry's can be seen as anything but sweet.
If you've ever tried using machine translation software like Google Translate or Microsoft Translator (and let's be real: how many of us haven't?), then you've seen first-hand how context isn't taken into consideration when computers process language data into another language form.
In fact, it can often result in nonsensical translations due to a lack of proper context, like that time the Australian Defense force tweeted utter nonsense in Arabic. Or when Clairol, a company that should have known better, ended up with its ‘Mist Stick’ curling iron promoted as a ‘Manure Stick’ in Germany.
Machine translation can't yet respond to literary and figurative language
Machine translation is generally only good at taking a specific word, searching its database of translations, and returning the corresponding result. This means that it cannot understand context or connotation, nor literary or figurative language.
In part, this is because machines do not process language in the same way humans do—they don’t have an innate understanding of meaning or nuance. For example:
“The sky was yellow with birdsong all day long; it was impossible to sleep.” A human reader understands that “yellow” doesn't mean colour here but rather describes an overwhelming abundance of something. But a machine would simply return a literal “yellow with birdsong all day long; it was impossible to sleep” as its final product without any explanation for what exactly makes this sentence so strange and beautiful at once.
If we look closer at our previous example, we can see where the problem really begins: the sentence contains idioms (a phrase with a meaning that cannot be determined from its individual words). Idioms depend on context and convey meaning not through literal definitions but through common usage by people within a specific culture over time, which machines simply don't have access to.
Literary translation is not just a literal word-for-word process. The translator is required to interpret, adapt, and transform the literary work in order to make it culturally accessible to the readers of their target language.
For example, if you’re translating a novel from English into German, your first step is to understand what kind of story you’re dealing with.
Is it fiction or nonfiction?
What kind of language use does the author use?
Does he/she use slang words or highfalutin expressions?
What are his/her cultural references?
Once you've answered these questions, then you can begin translating segments at a time without making any major mistakes that would affect the integrity of your translation effort overall. A machine cannot do this, nor ask the questions needed to do a good job in the first place.
Mistranslated documents carry the risk of legal liability
Mistranslations can be dangerous. Mistakes in medical documents, for instance, could result in incorrect treatments, putting patients at risk of serious complications.
Mistranslated contracts could lead businesses to lose money or to inadvertently fall foul of regulatory requirements. And some mistranslations may not be immediately obvious—they might not even be noticed until they've had an impact on large numbers of people over a long period of time. And the more people the mistranslation affects, the likelier the chance of a stratospheric fee.
Mistakes carry risks for individuals as well as companies: if you simply want your message understood by its intended audience, you could end up looking silly. Like when ‘Got Milk?’ was translated as ‘Are You Lactacting’.
But if you're hoping for legal protection, then it's essential that everything is translated correctly so that all parties involved know exactly what is being said in written communications.
As translation technology improves, human translators will still be needed
At a time when AI is improving so rapidly, it’s tempting to wonder whether we’ll need human translators in the future, but while AI can help with some things, it cannot translate anywhere near as well as a human expert, nor will it ever be able to.
A machine can’t tell if your text is meant to be funny or sarcastic, or if it's written in a formal tone or a casual one. And even if an algorithm was able to make those delicate distinctions, it would still have trouble writing for humans because it lacks our ability for nuance and creativity.
As AI gets better at translating, it will become a more attractive option for companies who want something fast and cheap. But savvy businesses know that words drive profit and growth and that words are only effective when wielded well; when they tap into the consumer’s psyche and cause them to take action.
If you need help with your words, either from English to German or vice versa, please get in touch.
A New Study Warns We Might Lose 1,500 Endangered Languages
by Summer Worsley
A groundbreaking study led by The Australian National University (ANU) warns that we could lose 1,500 endangered languages by the end of this century.
Lindell Bromham, an ANU Professor and co-author of the paper, noted that around half of the world’s 7,000 recognised languages are currently endangered and warned that without “immediate intervention” language loss could triple within the next 40 years.
Published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the study focuses on the predictors that put endangered and vulnerable languages at higher risk.
A total of 6,511 languages, more than 90% of the languages spoken worldwide, were analysed with 51 predictor variables that included aspects such as the number of speakers (population), documentation of the language, legal recognition, landscape and climate (both associated with language diversity), and socioeconomic factors among others.
The study found that contact with other languages “per se is not a driver of language loss”, a finding that runs counter to commonly held beliefs.
Instead, the paper notes several other drivers including a few surprises such as greater road density, which encourages population mobility and movement. The study also found evidence that higher levels of education can negatively affect language diversity.
Professor Bromham noted that “Contact with other local languages is not the problem – in fact languages in contact with many other Indigenous languages tend to be less endangered.” Whereas with greater road density, “it’s as if roads are helping dominant languages ‘steam roll’ over other smaller languages.”
It’s telling that this major study comes from Australia, a nation with one of the world’s highest rates of language loss. The nation is home to more than 250 Indigenous languages, but according to a 2018-2019 government report, only 123 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are still used.
Meanwhile, the use of foreign languages spoken by expatriates in Australia is also falling. For example, census data shows that around 354,000 Australians spoke Italian at home in 2001, but by 2016, that figure had dropped to around 272,000.
As Ingrid Piller, professor of applied linguistics at Macquarie University puts it: "Australia is in many ways a graveyard of languages."
Of course, language loss is not only an Australian problem; the falling level of language diversity is a global issue. In 2011, for instance, the Guardian reported that the last two remaining speakers of Ayapaneco, a language spoken in Mexico, were not speaking to one another. Then aged 75 and 69, the two speakers both worked with linguists to help produce a dictionary of the tongue they called Nuumte Oote ‘the true voice.’
Codifying threatened languages is one way to help prevent their demise, as the ANU study notes: “To avoid the loss of over 1,500 languages by the end of the century, urgent investment is needed in language documentation, bilingual education programmes and other community-based programmes.”
UNESCO runs an interactive map of the world’s most in-danger languages, which you can find here. The online version is complementary to the Atlas, a print version detailing the same information. Both also cover revitalised languages, those that have been brought back from the brink of extinction.
At-risk languages worldwide
Currently, UNESCO lists 577 languages as critically endangered, a designation that comes just one categorisation behind extinction. Of these, 196 languages had just 1 to 50 speakers and 116 had 1 to 5 speakers. Here are just a few examples of critically endangered languages from around the world:
Also known as Dian, Dampal, and Dampelasa, this language is spoken in several villages in the western coastal area of Sulawesi’s central province in Indonesia. According to the Endangered Languages Project, “Dampelas speaking parents tend to speak Indonesian to their children in hopes of improving their opportunities for the future.
Not to be confused with the Iranian language of the same name, Luri, also known as Lúr and Lur, is a West Chadic language that was spoken by just two remaining people in Nigeria, according to information gathered in 2002. Of the region’s dominant languages, Hausa and Langas, the latter is also considered endangered with just a few hundred speakers remaining.
A native American language of the Iroquoian family, Oneida is now spoken by just a handful of people, with estimates ranging as low as 47 and as high as 500. According to the University of Wisconsin, the language “has only been written down systematically in the last couple of generations.”
Why language diversity matters
Linguistic diversity matters for both ethical and aesthetic reasons. Because language is so closely tied to culture, the loss of a language means the loss of elements of some people’s identities. Unfortunately, this often comes about because of policies that marginalise both the language and its speakers, such as mandated schooling in a dominant language.
Plus, diversity, in and of itself, is a thing of beauty. Every language is special and unique, and each carries its own cultural knowledge. Losing these means losing a little piece of our humanity.
No matter how prominent or ‘minor’, every language can express infinite ideas and concepts, and every language holds generations' worth of knowledge that has been built and shaped by its speakers.
The world is a richer place with linguistic diversity.
by Summer Worsley
But to whom, and what is a cliché exactly?
Inspired by Will Smith yeeting Chris Rock’s face at the 2022 Oscars ceremony and then exclaiming “keep my wife’s name out of your (expletive) mouth”, I started thinking about mouth phrases.
To bad-mouth, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, keep my name out of your mouth, potty mouth, and all the rest of the motley, mouthy bunch.
I don’t like mouth phrases, they leave well… a bad taste in my mouth.
Even as I type this and see the word mouth over and over again, I can feel my aversion rising for no discernable reason, except that to me, mouth phrases are tedious, they’re old news.
And that right there is what makes them a cliché, to me at least.
Simply put, a cliché is a phrase, that’s “regarded as unoriginal or trite due to overuse” (OED). Clichés are a collection of word groupings that are so hackneyed they can be considered trite, pat, mere white noise.
Yet we use them all the time.
If any of the phrases below annoy you to the point where hearing them is like nails down a chalkboard, or you’ve just had enough of them, then it’s a cliché to you.
A woman’s place is in the home
As sharp as a tack
Playing devil’s advocate
In a nutshell
The very definition of cliché is audience-centric, the inclusion of the word ‘regarded’ tells us that there’s a certain level of subjectivity at play. Regarded by whom, one might ask. The vast majority or just a few?
The truth of the matter is that one person’s cliché may very well be another’s linguistic stalwart. As an elder Millennial, I used ‘yeet’ as a regular verb in the first line of this post, a usage that might not bug other elder Millennials but one that might cause any Gen Z readers, once ardent yeet users, to heave a collective sigh or even raise a half-hearted “okay, boomer.”
To this particular audience, yeet’s day in the sun is over. But if you’ve never seen ‘yeeting’ as a stand-in for slapping or hitting, it cannot be cliché.
Tracing cliché’s roots “a worn counter of a word”
Borrowed from French, cliché — with or without the accent mark [cliché or cliche] — was once a printing term. In the past, a metal plate (aptly called a stereotype) was employed to push ink onto paper, a process that could be repeated over and over again on fresh sheets of paper.
Cliche, in French, essentially means a stereotype. It’s the past participle of the verb clicher, “to print in stereotype.”
There could also be an onomatopoeic element to cliché as the word mimics the noise of the plate being pulled away from the paper. The term’s meaning has since left the French nomenclature of printing and through English’s borrowing and semantic broadening has come to mean oft-repeated.
Research suggests that the earliest recorded use of the word in its current meaning dates back to 1881 when a writer complained about the “facile clichés of diction.” Roughly 40 years later, it appears that people were getting a little sick of cliche itself:
“The word ‘cliche’ itself, we have seen, is a cliche, a worn counter of a word.” - Havelock Ellis, The Dance of Life, 1923
Today, cliche is undergoing another change, no longer only designating tired linguistic or narrative habits, it can denote anything that is seen often or causes the audience to grow fatigued, such as Millennials jumping on passé Gen Z slang terms in a desperate bid to remain relevant.
Idioms may be cliches, but they’re not the same thing
Slang, idioms, and cliches are often confused, and while there is overlap because any slang term or idiom can become a cliche, they’re different things.
An idiom is a grouping of words with a collective meaning that doesn’t match its constituent parts; to be over the moon means you’re ecstatically happy and under the weather means you’re feeling sick.
Slang, meanwhile, is words or phrases that are synonymous with other words or phrases. These are often generational, tied to a particular social group, or both. For example, in the 80s bogus meant undesirable.
Cheugy is a particularly interesting Gen Z slang word. Coined in 2013, this pejorative can be used to describe the lifestyle trends linked to the early 2010s and Millennials. It carries an extra meaning though: the social groups of yore appropriating Gen Z trends, but way too late to the party.
I’ll yeet myself out of here.
by Summer Worsley
Notes on a Scandal
In 1972 the biggest news story in the United States broke with much shock on the public’s side and much chagrin to the Republican Party: a burglary at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters was linked to Richard Nixon’s government.
The Watergate building in Washington DC was the scene of the crime, and by extension, the scandal became known as Watergate.
Nixon resigned in 1974, the first U.S. President to do so, avoiding an impeachment trial and possible removal from office for abuses of power.
Watergate was a major episode in twentieth-century U.S. politics, and it had an interesting and lasting effect on the English language and others: Watergate spurned the use of the rather productive -gate suffix and gave us a new way to discuss scandals and controversies.
What’s so special about -gate?
The -gate suffix is unusual in a number of ways. Firstly, -gate by itself contains no semantic elements that originally connoted or denoted ‘scandal’, ‘affair’, or ‘controversy.’
Today, we all recognise that -gate means scandal because it now carries that meaning — not a bad effort for a morphological oddity that entered our lexicons a mere 50 years ago. That, by itself, makes it stand out from other English suffixes, most of which are from Latin and Greek roots and carry a distinct semantic meaning.
The suffix is also special because it swiftly spread around the world and into other languages. The Handbook of Morphology lists -gate’s use in German, Hungarian, Greek and others. Consider Valijagate, here a Spanish noun, valija, meaning suitcase, is combined with the English -gate.
It doesn’t stop there, though, the concept and structure of the -gate suffix’s format works in other languages. In Milan, Italy a 1990s political scandal was dubbed 'Tangentopoli', where tangente means kickback or bride and poli means city. Calciopoli and Vallettopoli are two of the scandals that followed.
Another interesting thing about -gate is that it doesn’t change a word’s class like many other suffixes in English. For example, the -ly suffix makes adverbs from adjectives, sad becomes sadly. The -ous suffix makes adjectives from nouns, so pore becomes porous.
(Well, I can’t think of a -gate compound word where the word class is changed to a noun from something other than a noun, but please leave a comment if you can!).
Gategate… has the “obnoxious -gate suffix” gone too far?
In 2014, Caitin Dewey called the -gate suffix “obnoxious” while writing about Gamergate for The Washington Post. It’s a fair summation that many people would agree with. It seems that -gate is tacked onto any number of events, be they scandalous or humorous.
There’s even a whole Wikipedia page devoted to listing -gate events. While perusing this list, I came across Gategate, also known as Plebgate and Plodgate, a British political scandal that involved an MP swearing at a police officer after being asked to use a different gate to enter 10 Downing Street.
A Bloomberg article on the topic notes that -gate is popular worldwide but that it “appears to have reached new heights of absurdity in the U.K.” The writer goes on to say that Gategate is taking the practice of -gate scandal naming “to its logical conclusion.”
It does seem that -gate is frequently applied to humorous events and PR disasters, especially in the United Kingdom. There’s Piggate, for example, which involved former Prime Minister, David Cameron, sexual acts, and a pig’s head.
Journalists and social commentators often cop the blame for the overuse, misuse, or abuse of -gate, but as this Twitter user points out, it’s just so handy in a headline:
Headline gate? Source: Twitter
The biggest -gate offender in history may surprise you. William Safire, a New York Times op-ed columnist and former Nixon speechwriter loved adding the obnoxious suffix.
Famous gates (and a few funny ones)
You can probably think of at least five ‘gate’ scandals off the top of your head (if not, check out that Wikipedia page). Here’s my pick of the bunch:
Bridgegate - As with Watergate, Bridgegate’s cover-up may have been far more offensive than the crime itself. In 2013, appointees of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie colluded to create traffic jams on the George Washington bridge by closing lanes. The point? Possible political retribution, according to numerous sources.
Fajitagate - Three off-duty San Francisco police officers, a bag of steak fajitas, and two police chiefs out of the job, quite the scene. This scandal got its name after it was reported that the officers in question demanded that people surrender their fajitas.
Nipplegate - Aka the wardrobe malfunction. Not a scandal per se, but a juicy media affair nonetheless. This one sprung up (out?) after Justin Timberlake accidentally released Janet Jackson’s breast during a Superbowl performance.
What do you think, has the use of -gate gone too far?
by Summer Worsley
If you travelled back in time, say any time between the 1920s and the mid-1960s, to Piccadilly Circus in London, you might hear a strange tongue spoken on the streets.
And if you spent any amount of time in the places where gay men gathered or worked, you would surely hear a few in-the-know terms such as nanti, vada, and bona.
These words are all part of Polari, a secret language that was developed and spoken by Britain’s gay men.
Prior to the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men in 1967, same-sex love in the UK was a punishable offence. Besides offering the perfect lexicon for general gossip and critiquing the appearance of people passing by (it contains a lot of evaluative adjectives), Polari allowed members of the queer community to identify one another, even in public places.
“Vada the naff strides on the omee ajax” - Look at the awful trousers on the man nearby.
While often associated only with London, Polari was also spoken in several other UK cities with a large gay population. It was also used extensively by the gay men working on British Merchant Navy ships and passenger ships owned by P&O, according to Paul Baker, a Linguistics Professor at Lancaster University who has studied the language for many years.
Polari isn’t a full language in the truest sense of the word, rather it’s an argot, also known as an anti-language as defined by the linguist Michael Halliday in the 1970s. These secret vocabularies or lexicons typically belong to one distinct group, and many are commonly associated with criminal activities, for example, Thieves' Cant.
“At certain times and places we come across special forms of language generated by some kind of anti-society; these we may call “anti-languages.” An anti-language serves to create and maintain social structure through conversation, just as an everyday language does; but the social structure is of a particular kind” - Halliday
Another example is Grypserka, an elaborate anti-language that’s spoken among Poland’s prison inmates. Halliday’s research sets out the similarities between Grypserka and two other argots (one from the Kolkata underground and another from Elizabethan England) that were utilised by criminal countercultures and underground groups. He explains how these anti-languages shape in-group interactions, in particular, the group’s social hierarchy.
Thieves’ Cant and many other argots are commonly thought of as relics of the past, but many are still thriving today and are, in fact, common in prisons worldwide. Here in New Zealand, for instance, Boobslang offers an extensive vocabulary; Diana Looser’s 2001 research into the anti-language contains around 3000 distinct entries.
Unlike Boobslang and Grysperka, Polari was primarily used to keep its speakers out of prison in the first place. But like these prison argots, Polari was used to keep speakers’ illicit activities undetected by the authorities.
In 2000, a survey of 800 gay men revealed that roughly half of the participants had never heard of the language, and in 2010, Cambridge University designated Polari as an endangered language. After the gay liberation movement and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, Polari became largely redundant; in the 1970s, many of its speakers preferred to be out and proud.
Its legacy still lives on in cultural productions, though. There’s a Polari version of the Bible (which kicks things off with Gloria creating the heavens and the earth), and two brilliant, Polari-speaking chorus boys in the 1960’s BBC radio comedy, Round the Horne. It should be noted that this particular radio show rather blew the lid on Polari, making its secret codes public meant the cat was out of the bag.
More recently, trainee Church of England priests held a service in Polari — a queer liturgical linguistic fiesta, if ever there was one!
Other argots have evolved too, as have their functions and designation in society. Gobbledygook is a good example of this. Once the humorous anti-language of working-class people in Victorian England, it’s now considered the overwrought language of bureaucrats.
Today, we still use several words in the same way Polari did, including camp, butch, palaver and naff, and the anti-language’s wit and humour have provided inspiration to many writers, including the late David Bowie. For example, the song Girl Loves Me is written in an intriguing combination of Polari and Nadsat, the anti-language Anthony Burgess invented for A Clockwork Orange.
by Summer Worsley
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is the fictionary we all need
Like many writers and editors, I love a good game of Scrabble. I even attend a Scrabble club and put in a few miles on the tiles each week (I’m not even ashamed of that line).
During club night last week, my opponent played ‘sonder’ in a tight spot, picking up the triple and creating four other words in the process. Unfamiliar with the word, I challenged its play. As it turns out, sonder is a legitimate Scrabble word. As the OED has it, sonder is a noun or adjective meaning ‘of or relating to a class of small racing yachts.’
Google the term though, and another meaning dominates the search results: ‘the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.’
This new and increasingly popular definition is the brainchild of writer John Koenig. For many years now Koenig has been on a mission of sorts to plug the gaps in the English language with new words to describe emotions without a dedicated descriptive term.
For example, vellichor:
n. ‘The strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.’
Koenig’s project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, started life in 2009 as a website that notes its aim ‘to capture the aches, demons, vibes, joys and urges that roam the wilderness of the psychological interior.’ Later, a YouTube channel followed.
Released in print for the first time in 2020 by Simon & Schuster, Obscure Sorrows swiftly made its way to number five on the New York Times bestseller list.
Much like vellichor’s meaning, each neologism in the book, whether playful or poignant, conjures up a strange wistfulness, and Koenig’s masterful prose is the perfect vehicle to deliver this, and these new terms, to readers.
As noted by the Guardian, the fictionary (fiction-dictionary) format of Obscure Sorrows subverts the rigid immobility of traditional dictionary entries. In Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green, the scholar Alain Rey notes that dictionaries and other lauded reference tombs are privileged with implied infallibility, an ‘illusion of totality’; they represent the established and unchangeable order of lexical things.
Although Koenig’s fictionary is written in English and the terms it contains fill gaps in the English language, plenty of other languages, their quirks, morphologies, and phonetic systems, have provided inspiration. Each word in Sorrows carries an etymologically sound meaning, whether built from one language, several languages, or jargon from any language.
Vellichor, for instance, could have its roots in the 15th-century French vellum, from the Old French velin, a ‘parchment made from calfskin.’
For anyone who loves words, whether ‘real’ or real enough to be printed and released into the wild among readers, Obscure Sorrows would make an excellent Christmas gift (if anyone is thinking of me, Alexandra has my address)!
Of course, there are likely to be a few curmudgeons who view the book’s delicious frivolity as a threat to ‘good English’, but these same types of people appear every time an author gets inventive with language.
Alice in Wonderland, which was released in 1865, received frosty critical reception with contemporary voices calling it incoherent nonsense and much more besides. As one critic put it, Alice’s adventures are “too extravagantly absurd to produce more diversion than disappointment and irritation.” Today, though, the work is one of the world’s most-loved children’s books, and several of Carrol’s neologisms, such as chortle and galumph, are now accepted English words — I expect sonder is destined for the same fate.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines proluctance as ‘the paradoxical urge to avoid doing something you’ve been looking forward to—opening a decisive letter, meeting up with a friend who’s finally back in town, reading a new book from your favorite author—perpetually waiting around for the right state of mind, stretching out the bliss of anticipation as long as you can.’
I’ve ordered my copy of Sorrows and when it arrives, I will no doubt engage in a little proluctance of my own.