Posts Tagged ‘language’

I’ve always wanted to speak other languages.

At the end of primary school, when each member of my class got to pick a book as a reward for making it through the last seven years, I scouted the position of the French-English dictionary the day before we had to make our selection and headed straight for it as soon as our teacher said ‘go’.

Over the next four years I struggled admirably to convert a West of Scotland accent into a French one, until I was told if I wanted to study geography at higher level, I would have to drop French – one of the more ridiculous policies enforced by my school.

I kept up the French at night school for a while, then switched to Spanish as I considered it more compatible with the guttural sounds my voice naturally produced.

For the next seven years I worked my way through evening class after evening class, finally getting a university diploma and a degree of fluency that allowed me to discuss Basque politics and water shortages – if at a basic level and very, very slowly, in an accent more Greenock than Granada.

Husband and I talked of moving to Spain at some point in the future. The company he worked for had links to a government organisation in Seville, and each year one employee got the chance to move there for 12 months. But if my other half had been lucky enough to be selected, what would I have done for that year? Despite my ability to wax lyrical in Castillian about whether Gibraltar should be returned to the Spanish, I knew that as a professional writer my career options in Spain would be limited. I certainly couldn’t work as a journalist or PR person, writing in Spanish. I’d have to get a native speaker to check everything I’d written, wouldn’t I?

Well, I would. But anyone who has travelled knows that not everyone is so conscientious. I’ve seen examples of poor translation all around the world, and my recent trip to China was particularly outstanding in that respect. From the ‘No Striding’ sign on a railway platform to the ‘No Leaning’ one on a shopping mall bench, it wasn’t always entirely clear what the authorities were on about.

So I’d like to offer my services to overseas governments and industry. I will read the text you have had so carefully translated for your signs and pamphlets before you spend your hard-earned cash getting them produced.

I will tell you when the language is almost-there-but-not-quite-close-enough:

I will tell you when you’re ruining your chances of any native English speaker ever buying your clothing:


And I will tell you when I have no idea what you were trying to say:

Or maybe I won’t. Because much as I hate our beautiful language being abused, correcting these mistakes might just take away some of the fun of travel.

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One of the lesser-known reasons why I thought I might feel at home in Australia is because Australians swear a lot.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am no foul-mouthed harridan. I swear selectively, only when appropriate and only when a more ‘acceptable’ word won’t do. But I don’t find swearing offensive. Swear words are just words with a judgement imposed on them. If you’re looking for an insult, combinations of non-swear words can be more effective.

I hate to say it, but my fellow Scots do have a reputation for peppering their speech with a few too many ‘swearie words’ as they are delightfully known on the west coast. Yes, swearing can punctuate a sentence to great effect. But it should be more of a semi-colon than a comma; tricky to use correctly but amazingly useful when you know what to do with it.

No matter how much they swear themselves, I suspect most immigrants from the UK will find the language used on Australian radio a bit of a surprise. Often British celebrity guests will accidentally let a minor swear word slip, sh*t, for example, and apologise, only to be told that of course it’s f**king alright for them to say that on air. Swear words in songs that would be routinely bleeped out overseas are left in here. This year’s top place in the Triple J Hottest 100 – a kind of chart of the year’s most popular songs – went to ‘Little Lion Man’ by Mumford and Sons, a track with a chorus lamenting how the singer ‘f***ed it up this time’. I heard thousands of people sing it out loud when the band played the Laneway Festival in Perth earlier this year. It wasn’t offensive, just slightly out of tune.

So if I’m so comfortable with all this foul language, you may be wondering why I have gone down the route of using asterisks to disguise – not very effectively – some of the words I’ve used here. My usual writing loosely follows The Guardian’s style guide – which is quite clear that no asterisks should be used.

But given that I’ve only been in this country five minutes, it’s probably best not to risk offending anyone. You never can tell what people will think. I recently told someone I have known for nearly 20 years that I thought I swore quite a lot, and they were visibly shocked – even although I am pretty sure I have never uttered anything much worse than a ‘bloody’ in front of them. So the asterisks can stay on screen; the full words are safe in my head, ready for the next time I have to deal with my mobile phone company or another crazy bit of Australian bureaucracy – what swearing was invented for.

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