language

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The joy of language

Language is a funny thing – it’s fluid, it appears to be constant but the use and meanings of words change.
When we arrived in the UK from South Africa, we quickly learnt to say ‘trousers’ and not ‘pants’. The meaning were quite different in the two countries. What I understand by the word ‘now’ is not what a British person understands and to confuse them (British) even more, say ‘just now’ or even ‘now now’. Then in South African English we have ‘ja-nee’ (adopted from the Afrikaans meaning ‘yes-no’ – what??? I hear you exclaim).

So often I come across the same word used by authors in the same sentence let alone the same paragraph. When I was doing my thesis, I was reliably informed by one of my supervisors not to use the identical word in one complete sentence unless you absolutely had to. It made sense in terms of reducing confusion but more significantly enriched my writing (if only I could do the same when I speak).

To be honest, I hate the writing process – I only do it because it disseminates the wonderful stories that I discover as an historian. But the one thing I do enjoy about the art of putting words on paper is the challenge of finding synonyms – words or phrases. So I was particularly excited when I came across this article on lost words. And reassuringly, I’m not the only one who likes words, so does Ayòbámi Adébáyò.

And, rightly or wrongly, I’m all for recouping those lost words and reinstating meanings of a by-gone era. Too many words have been high-jacked for political purposes which in a global world such as the one we operate in, is most restrictive. Not least because it removes variety and the element of learning. I recall once being asked to reprimand a student for plagiarism – the evidence? They had used the word fracas. Such a ‘big’ word used by a student from India in the UK automatically meant they’d cribbed from somwhere. The student was not reprimanded but the staff member was given a lesson in cultural nuances. So long as we keep insisting that authors write to meet ‘our’ language requirements publishers are not going to break down cultural barriers and truely embrace diversity.

(I can’t help but chuckle that the ‘readability’ sampler on this blog says ‘needs improvement’: no sub-headings, one-third of the sentences are too long and shock-horror! I’ve written in the passive voice).

Why not try some books written in a non-traditional English style? For starters, here at TSL we have:
Shaka are Dead
The Roots that gave birth to Magical Blossoms
Kenya Days, Moonlit Nights
Then there’s:
Room by Emma Donoghue
The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Haskek

first published 4 January 2018, updated 2024

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Language – crossing boundaries

With the increase in cross-boundary and cross-cultural writing, it’s important that the writer gets the language of the protagonists right but also to ensure that the reader knows what is meant.

The importance of this was brought home to me quite early on in my stay in England – in South Africa what we call pants are called trousers in England, while pants in England refer to underwear. There are different definitions/understandings of the term now which I won’t even venture to explain in text – if you’re curious, find a South African and ask them to explain the difference between now, just now, and now now. Engaging with a Caribbean colleague enlightened me to a different meaning behind the verb to cane. In South Africa and it appears British school slang this was to get a hiding whilst in Jamaica it meant to get high on drugs. An article in the Harrow Times brought introduced another meaning of the verb to ride. But sometimes, it’s more straightforward than double (or triple) meanings. Sometimes, terms are used from another language.

So how do authors convey these different interpretations of words to ensure their readers get the point?
Anna Ryland’s A Second Chance has a glossary at the end of the book for those who want to double check they’ve understood the Polish terms used. John Samson’s Shaka are Dead and Maya Alexandri’s The Celebration Husband make the meaning explicit through the context in which the slang is used.

Thanks Pablo for the image

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