30 Jan /13

The birth and death of words: why translations must always evolve

translations evolveLanguage is often considered to be a static and lifeless thing. However, much like any organism, languages -and indeed the words within them- have a life cycle and are capable of evolving, changing and shifting. To understand language usage, we must understand why and how languages evolve. In the instance of so-called dead languages (Latin being often cited as one, as well as Ancient Greek), a particular language or dialect of a language relates particularly to a certain span of time of a certain culture.  Additionally, in almost all societies where written language has been used, there are instances where, rather than continually creating new words, a language simply borrows existing words from another language. Finally, along with borrowing existing words, a language may take existing words and adjust as well as assimilate them to fit the native tongue thereby reflecting periods of military invasion or conquest, cultural assimilation or expansion, and social reorganization or stability.

Much like any other aspect of culture, language, in structure and usage, is specified for and reflects upon the society using it. For example, Latin, which had become static and fallen out of widespread social use by the 7th century- 1400 years ago, requires 20+ words to explain the concept of nuclear winter, whereas, in Modern English, which has only been used for the last 450 years and is still evolving, the concept of nuclear winter is taken as being understood by the phrase itself. Though it was sufficient as a means of widespread communication during the times of the Roman Empire, when the Roman Empire finally disintegrated, the Latin language was unable to fully cope with the large-scale influx of “barbarians” who had little to no knowledge of Latin. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that Latin couldn’t be resurrected and used as a means of communication, it does demonstrate that Latin has proven unable to evolve and meet the basic needs of modern language users, such as ease of use, ease of understanding, and speed of communication.

In modern times, though we are still finding languages that are falling from widespread use and dying out altogether, a much more common occurrence that is being witnessed is that of languages “borrowing” from each other. A key example of this is Mandarin Chinese: though it is a widely spoken language, it can be argued that Mandarin Chinese is a language that has been slow to evolve, which is why words that reflect modern concepts are often imported from other languages, such as English terms like “compact disc,” “USB drive,” and “tablet.” For Mandarin, in the short term at least, it is much simpler to borrow terms like these than it is to create new terms and/or new definitions for existing terms which adequately describe the concept in question.

Beyond borrowing terms, which, as mentioned before, is often a short-term solution, a long-term solution is language assimilation. Arguably, the best example of this is the English language. Although originally a West Germanic language, English in its present form also contains elements of Greek, Latin, various Norse languages, French, and countless others. Many examples of this assimilation have been recorded, and the process of linguistic assimilation both continues and expands as more varied language speakers come into contact with each other via geographically independent social platforms such as the internet.

Essentially, all of this proves that all languages are in constant state of change. Whereas in the past languages spoken in remote location of the world could literally stay unchanged for centuries, in our modern world of limitless communication even the most remote dialect will be inevitably be infused by words from other languages and will thereby be rescued from becoming another dead language.

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