What's in a Language?
Updated: Jan 23
So, translators translate. But what should we call it, when one is a relayer or of sentiment? An intention explainer? An idea get-acrosser? A confusion-absolver?
As I sit here, cappuccino and raspberry scone on table, in this cafe in a remote corner of Ireland, I am sidetracked by the proprietor and her customers conversing. I’m here visiting my grandparents, who've just recently moved here. Walking around the quaint sea-side village of Youghal gives an illusion of sameness: a false promise to all native English-speakers that readability of menus and the ability to hail a taxi are givens. But here in Youghal, I feel I am in as much need for a translator as I might be Paris.
"‘Scuse me love, is this one kept",
a pink-visored woman, shopping bags hanging from her forearm, asks me as she leans over the table next to me. The confused stare on my face did nothing to deter the poor woman, having no idea she was as incomprehensible as a Spaniard to me.
"I amn’t stayin' too long, shouldn’t be a bother to ya’, dear."
As a seasoned foreigner, I gave her my patented nod and closed-mouth “sorry-for-the-ten-second-delay-in-my-still-rather-vague-response" smile.
“Tanks a mil’, love.”
She plopped her sacks onto the floor and sat in the chair adjacent to mine. These words I knew: "thanks a million", it means. It reminds me of how Norwegians say "tusen takk", which means "a thousand thanks". (I guess the Irish are just a hundred times more generous with their gratitude than the Norwegians.)
Irish English might as well be its own language – complete with a pocket dictionary and courses for tourists.
After three months in this country, my grandparents still run into the odd trouble when trying to buy certain things at the grocery store (i.e. potatoes = taytos) or trying to ascertain deadlines for certain requests (i.e. Chus = Tues., short for Tuesday).
When they first got here, they debated hiring a language coach to help them learn expressions, or to properly buy groceries. But, how would they even find someone of a profession that doesn’t exactly exist. Because, there are no teachers of languages not classified as their own language; there is no interpreter for when one’s knowledge of a word, though technically correct, still fails them. Perhaps there should be. If there were such a thing, what would it be called?
If you ask a Norwegian what language they speak, they will never answer you with "Norwegian". To them, Norwegian is their nationality, not their tongue. When I lived in Norway, we spoke Jærsk at home, studied Nynorsk in school, and watched governmental broadcasts in Bokmål. These three languages were considered distinct from one another.
My American education had cemented for me that Norwegians spoke one language: Norwegian. After living in Norway, I now say I am a proud speaker of Jærsk.
If Norwegians give full language status to what English-speakers identify only as dialects, why can't we English speakers (335 million people [330 million more than Norwegian]) do the same for our widely varying "dialects".
Asking "is this one kept" and asking "is this seat taken" are two phrases that to this native English-speaker are as dissimilar as "apples" and "oranges".
Translators help. At our core, we aid in reaching a level of understanding otherwise hindered by oceans, political ideals, wars, poor education, etc. So why are there not translators in circumstances like these as well – why are there not interpreters of Irish English into Australian English, or Southern American English into The Rest of American English?
Who decides that these are dialects and not deserving of their own nomenclature?