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In the beginning was the word … and in the middle … and at the end

Letters flying out
In the beginning was the word … and in the middle … and at the end
on February, 28 2014
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The world is composed of a myriad of occupations that involve human beings working with the key elements of their trade or craft. Regardless of whether one is a translator, an interpreter, an editor, a proofreader, a writer, a project manager, or all of these, it is the properties of words that are fundamental to every breathing second of the work we do. Additionally, words are seemingly boundless in the challenges they can present. One word may consist of multiple meanings - the meanings of words can change entirely over time (did you know that “awful” and “awesome” were once used interchangeably?), or the connotation of the same word differs depending on the individual reading or hearing it.

Of course, words are the building blocks of languages and languages are central to the world’s different cultures - playing a large role in the grappling that language professionals continually engage in, as we incorporate understandings of factors such as context and implication.

Deb Roy, an Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explored words in the context of a family home, in which he was a parent of a newborn son. He eventually recorded around 250,000 hours of data over three years that included over seven million transcribed words. A key area of examination was “language acquisition,” as Roy recorded the 503 words that his son learned by the time of his second birthday, as well as what circumstances he learned those words under - for example, the word “water” was most often spoken in the kitchen. Roy states that the research has relevance on both universal and personal scales, as he applied it to the revelation of communication structures in the media, as well as using it as a record for his children to appreciate.

However, words along with their corresponding histories and characteristics—can also facilitate the end of life, with more disastrous consequences. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell presents “Hofstede’s Dimensions,” from Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, and the dimension called “Power Distance Index” (PDI). A culture’s attitudes towards hierarchical human relations and the extent to which the culture values authority are represented in its PDI rating. The high respect for authority measured in South Korean culture (a high PDI), evident in the culture’s linguistic rules, is identified in Gladwell’s book as an underpinning factor in a serious airplane crash. If the airplane’s first officer had been able to speak in a frank manner to the captain, the incident would have most likely been avoided. A different use of language could have saved lives in this instance.

The last thing I wish to do, though, is to leave you with a grim association to words. So, to return to the life-affirming implications of Roy’s pioneering research, I also need to share with you the current pioneering research that is being undertaken by RMIT, Monash, and Bucknell Universities. In the team’s research of the honeyeater bird and its impact upon the color evolution of the flowers it pollinates, the researchers discovered the existence of a language that has developed between the plant life and the avian life. It appears that many flowering species “talk” to birds using “a very particular set of color ‘words’”, whereby the red receptors of the bird’s eyes are strongly stimulated.

As you can see, the world of words and the manner in which communication occurs is truly fascinating. Language service providers (LSPs) fit into just one area of this world and are comprised of people who are fueled by such fascination.

AUTHOR
Day Translations Team

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