Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Language Pollution And Le Mot Juste

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 24 October 2012


Some time ago, some linguistic Paul Revere came riding out of a foggy night, lantern in hand, yelling, "The Britishisms are here!"

Apparently, some common British terms are creeping into American English, thanks in part to British-made entertainment drifting from the other side of the pond.

I'd like to think the New York Times article was written with some tongue in the writer's cheek, but in case it isn't, here's the irascible and oft-quotable John Scalzi's classic response to it. Yeah, "silly, silly article."

Creeping foreign influences on language, I guess, is everybody's issue. Especially when one's country happens to be an important crossroads along key trade routes, part of or originator of an empire, or some combination of the afore-mentioned. The need to invent words in one's native language for some foreign object or concept can be seen as one attempt to keep things "local".

As it becomes easier for the world to creep (or barge) in, that gets harder.

During Japan's Meiji era, the country adopted the best of the West: banking, industry, defence and so on, a practice that continued well into the present day and made them a world economic power.

The case for borrowing and incorporating foreign words to speed up the enrichment of a language to make it more global, therefore, seems solid, especially when a bureaucracy is stretched beyond its limits by other needs to invent new words in a "native" language that convey exactly what an object, idea or concept is ― or come close to doing so.

Some nationalistic elements, however, claim this type of borrowing dilutes rather than enriches the "native: culture and identity. In Malaysia, for instance, these elements appear wilfully ignorant that certain words in the vocabulary have origins in Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese and Sanskrit, among others.


From the photo, it's tempting to assume that Gustave Flaubert's
(1821-1880) receding hairline is due to the pressures of finding
le mots justes. How stressful was it to write books such as
Madame Bovary?


To some extent, language is malleable, and the way some societies shape words and ideas to communicate better and more concisely is not too different from how our ancestors shaped stone and bone to hunt and fish. But there's always the urge to brand the tools and tool-making technique as one's own, fuelled by the need to forge a unique identity.

What got me thinking ― not too deeply, though ― about this was, for one, the complexity in editing several cookbooks. Some ingredients, such as "asam Gelugor", lack what I feel are more concise English translations or equivalents and, as such, one can only fall back on the Latin-based (ha) naming conventions invented by Carl Linnaeus.

I had a harder time when I wrote a piece on herbal teas. For instance, some sources can't agree on whether "beizicao" ― or "bukcheechou" in Cantonese ― should be written as 北子草 ("northerner grass" ― kinda) or 北紫草 ("northern purple grass"), or if the herb is known as such in mainland China.

More recently, a colleague had some trouble translating "tingle" into Malay. The given Malay equivalent in a bilingual dictionary is "(rasa) gelenyar", though I have no idea when it got in there. We settled on "gelenyar", more because there doesn't seem to be anything else.

While some may argue or lament that certain quarters are unnecessarily borrowing foreign words or substituting local words with imports, those processes shouldn't be seriously curtailed or stopped entirely for the sake of protecting the purity of one's mother tongue or national language.

As the feisty Erna Mahyuni stated in The Malaysian Insider, "You don't "protect" [the national language] by discouraging the mastery of other languages." She was commenting mainly on the state of Malay-to-English translation, but I feel that mastery of languages is also crucial in developing one's lexicon.

Many of us may not be as anal-retentive as Gustave Flaubert when it comes to the quest for the right word. However, a wordsmith's bag of tricks can never have too many items.

If the word fits, use it.

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