Found In Translation

Language has always fascinated me. I love the way we can get the same message across with entirely different combinations of sounds and/or gestures. I love that I can have a conversation with a Japanese person that no one around me can understand (though that’s less likely these days). I guess it was this ‘secret code’ idea that excited me when I was young because my parents used it against us.

If my parents wanted to discuss the idea of buying ice creams without getting us kids all worked up, they had their own code. They’d add a nonsense syllable before every vowel so that a conversation might go:
‘DELLo yELLou thELLink thELLat wELLe shELLould bELLuy ELLice crELLeam nELLow?’
‘WELLe’ll bELLe hELLome sELLoon. ThELLey cELLan hELLave ELLone thELLen.’
This is where I’d jump in, simultaneously pointing out the ice cream shop to my siblings and complaining about the heat.
‘ELLit wELLon’t bELLe ELLas nELLice.’
‘ELLokELLay. ELLif yELLou ELLinsELList.’

I learnt to understand the code long before I could reproduce it, which is the way I learn languages. First I understand bits, then I try to use them and make lots of mistakes, then finally, I pick up the pattern.

Real languages are made more interesting by the culture and different thinking behind them. A literal translation of ‘good luck’ to Japanese might work as a description (‘It was good luck that found your wallet again’) but not as a directive (‘Good luck in the exam’). Instead, Japanese people say ‘Do your best.’

My French lessons and conversations covered many aspects of courting including, ‘What’s your name?’, ‘What’s your phone number?’ and ‘Are you married?’, but wedding protocol was never covered. I guess it was assumed that by the time you got to that stage you’d have found out. I had been to two weddings in French but in one I was the Best Man and too concerned with getting my own role right to take notice of the exact words the couple used. In the other, I was too far away to hear.

My own marriage happened so suddenly that it never occurred to me to ask anyone what I should say. It was only during the ceremony when the Mayor paused that I began to sort through the options. The literal translation ‘Je fais’ didn’t seem right. Neither did ‘Je voudrais’, a translation of ‘I would like’ fit. There was also a small chance that it would be something like ‘Je lui prend’, which translates as ‘I take her,’ but it was more likely to be a verb used specifically for weddings – one that I didn’t know. In the end, I decided to go with a simple ‘yes’ and accept this as part of the process of making mistakes. Against all odds, it turned out that ‘oui’ was the correct response, reinforcing my love of language.

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