Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Sprechen Sie English?

About making another post about language I am afraid.

Helen learning (Swiss) German has been busy and I had have some language learning do myself. However, there can be no book for grammar reading or checking dictionary as I already told was what the rules grammatical are and the vocabulary I know before.

One of the hardest aspects of starting a new job in Z├╝rich has been learning International English. Unlike Americanese this is not a bastardised version of English, rather it is a confusing result of any number of mistranslations. And it varies according to the origin of the speaker.

It is easy to understand how this happens. I have (at least) two similar problems with German.

I really struggle to say 'wann' and not 'wenn' if I want to say 'when'. This is quite problematic, especially in shops and service situations. "I would like a sandwich if there is no mayonnaise in it" begs a response but "I would like a sandwich when there is no mayonnaise in it" can lead to a really long wait.

And whilst in English we use the word 'time' for both instance and duration, in German I often use 'zeit' (duration) instead of 'mal' (instance). It is hard to translate the difference between 'zeit' and 'mal' because we are so used to describing both concepts with the same word. But perhaps it is something like:

Colleague: Greg, are you coming to get some lunch?
Greg: I'm a bit busy today. Next era.
Colleague: [blank face]

This varying use of the English language makes for an interesting mental workout as you can never assume that what you heard is what was meant. And it makes for great confusion in the impersonal assaults that are business emails these days.

But it makes you a bit more humble about your own use of the mother tongue. And a bit more precise. Given my natural tendency to loquacious language this is quite an interesting test.

That said, working with the part of the organisation that sells to and supports customer across Central and Eastern Europe leads to some incredible sentences.

Try this:
  • go to
  • type in (or copy and paste, as you prefer) This sentence really should make sense
  • now copy the text translated into German and paste it over the English sentence
  • now translate it back from German to English.
Admittedly, Babelfish is a notoriously bad translation tool but imagine if that had been a forty-odd word sentence with conditional sub-clauses and complex concepts...

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