Bridging the common language gap

Churchill quipped that the US and the UK were two countries divided by a common language. Despite a two-way stream of mass media products and mutual exchanges, this divide is still a constant operational issue for readers, writers and translators. It involves such simple to grasp yet pervasive components as lexical items, phraseology, spelling and punctuation. Many a European based translator into English ritually checks with a client to know whether they want US, UK or just plain “international English”, which is usually the translator’s natural idiom beefed up with ‘z’ spellings for words like organization or recognize. But nowhere does the growing population of online media readers help than in the realm of slang: witness this comment from a US reader of a UK IT news publication that likes to sling the latest Brit slang around for maximum effect.

Rapid and ubiquitous web publication has naturally exacerbated the problems that come from thrusting US and UK noses into each others’ linguistic troughs. And sure enough, there are web solutions now offering a growing range of look-up solutions to this common language problem for US-UK slang. Transatlantic partners are not alone. Even Oztralian familiar from sitcoms and nomadic media-smart Aussies poses a problem to many viewers and readers. Most of these online services look decidedly laddish (a Briticism you can check here) but the tsunami of blogs, where ‘natural’ idiom is a defining feature, is driving fairly reliable if incomplete dictionary services everyone’s way. Everyone?

The great oceanic divide is in fact just one easy to see version of a million micro barriers in a global media nexus. Readers, film and TV viewers also have to negotiate the shoals of accents and dialects inside each country. Local speech usage will be a permanent headache to understanding until we get real-time close captioning/subtitling for the less known lingos.

However, some bright spark has decided to provide an automatic ‘dialect translator’ for localizing your standard English into Geordie or Cockney variants and vice versa. You could easily extend this sort of tool to cover the U.S. and a dozen or so varieties/dialects/accents or whatever you call them spanning Canada, the U.S., the UK, New Zealand, South Africa, India and the rest of the Commonwealth. And so on and on through every language family and its rebellious offspring.

Yet the “countries divided by a common tongue” theme is not merely anecdotal. English in a variety of mutually understandable forms underpins much of global communication today, yet no single speaker of English as a 2nd language will learn in depth both US and UK (or other) local versions of every dialect or jargon, from slang and the highway code to legalese and pillow talk. So there will always be a need for tools that extract and manage appropriate glossaries on all these linguistic differences, and make them easily available to the casual or concerned user.

The range is growing: SMS messaging translators (from code to plaintext) will presumably be the next major case for treatment, as text messaging gradually takes over from voice mails as the preferred mode of asynchronous communication, at least among the now gen in Korea. If proved true, then messages in all languages will eventually require the full panoply of intelligent search, translation and other solutions so that message databases can play a role in the great digital conversation.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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