The ever-changing nature of language

In advance of a new radio series next week, one of the WorldAccent team takes a personal view of the ever-changing English language.

It is odd to think that some of the words we use in our everyday lives once had completely different meanings, like ‘awful’ being used to describe things that were ‘worthy of awe’, or ‘nice’ (now the archetypal British compliment) originally meaning ‘silly, foolish or simple.’ This developing nature of language can be important in the shaping of a translation, with words constantly shifting in meaning and cultural significance as the world continues to evolve around them. The question of how language will look in ten, twenty or even a hundred years’ time, and how in turn translators will adapt to navigate around the ever-changing landscape of language, is pressing, especially in the current atmosphere of social change.

This history of words is tackled in the latest series of short BBC radio programmes starting this week, Key Words in Our Time. The author and political columnist Michael Rosen is joined by a range of guests to look at how key words and phrases in public debate shape our thinking, often in ways we do not notice. One important aspect of this is how the very meaning of these words shifts, carrying new nuance and political baggage.

Earlier episodes looked at concepts such as ‘post-fact’. If fact is a 17th century invention, how do we contend with a so-called post-fact era when most of our history actually took place in the pre-fact age? Another was the term ‘resilience’ – an all too familiar, but at times all too misleading word, used to describe both human psychology and the hardiness of metals.

Whether it is describing getting a “resilient Brexit deal”, or the “resilience of the NHS”, the phrase ‘resilience’ itself despite symbolising strength, has a certain lack-luster quality to it, ‘an empty buzzword’ as expert Farrah Jarral puts it. The word’s original use actually had nothing to do with the stiff-upper-lip reputation that it has today. Stemming from the Latin verb ‘saltare’ meaning ‘to jump’, the word was initially used by Pliny the elder in 1 AD to describe the movements of frogs and flies. From there, the word developed into ‘resile’, with a definition that’s completely opposite to our understanding of the term now, meaning to ‘recoil’ or ‘retract’. The scientific revolution of the 17th century is where our modern perception of the word seems to have emerged.  Francis Bacon’s use of it to analyse the different levels of resistance in metals and in turn their breaking point was translated into the description of the human ability to ‘bounce back’ in the 1800s; making resilient a common phrase to admire a person’s internal strength. Perhaps this transition from mechanics to human beings is what makes this word feel at times more forced than encouraging and complimentary, with the strength of a steel pole and a person having slightly different meanings. This led Jarral to conclude that the word acts now more as a corporate device than anything else – to push people to their limits.

New episodes of the series coming up will look at ‘Safe space’, ‘Patriarchy’ and ‘Sovereignty’. These words crop up time and again in political and daily discourse but what do we mean by them and where do they come from?

In the era of the #metoo movement and third wave feminism, the word ‘patriarchy’ is one we are familiar with as a term used to argue that the male dominated nature of society in turn largely excludes and devalues the voices of women. Despite its distinctly political connotations today, interestingly, the term actually stems from a more domestic root. Deriving from the Greek word πατήρ patēr (father), and hence πατριά patria meaning lineage or descent, compounded with ἄρχω arkhō (I rule), πατριάρχης patriarkhēs meant father of a race. Therefore historically the term patriarchy may not have been actively pejorative being used to refer to rule by elder males of the community or perhaps the autocratic household rule by the male head of a family. The serious politicization of the term has only come about in the last century, sparked by second wave feminism, where discussions of the ingrained nature of sexism were discussed, and patriarchy was viewed in negative terms rather than as the respected norm. When it comes to the translation of a term that carries such historical weight, bearing the history of female oppression on its shoulders and remaining an area of impassioned political debate, it is clear that a translator should tread carefully. Moreover, the fact that the word’s definition has shifted over the past century brings us to wonder how its meaning will shift in years to come: will it still have a similar resonance to today or shift into a distant term of past oppression? Only time will tell.

The question of ‘Sovereignty’ is another that is pressing in the current political sphere, with the concept often deployed by those vying for power or referenced by those who feel they lack it. This makes looking to the root of a term like this all the more revelatory. Stemming from the Old French word soverain meaning ‘highest, supreme, chief’, sovereignty dates back to the 13th or 14th century to mean ‘authority, rule, supremacy of power or rank’. This was an era of kings and queens, sovereigns, who strived to reign supreme. The sense of a sovereignty of a state or country being independent only appeared a few hundred years later. How such a concept of sovereignty is understood might well then reflect different current political and social relevance according to the country at hand.

Whatever your view on the politics or society at large, one of the challenges facing language professionals is to understand rapidly changing vocabulary so as to be sure to render an author’s intent and true meaning faithfully in another language. In such a context, this new radio series seems essential listening for all of us who think about language and its meaning day in, day out.

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