Greetings and Beachside Linguistics   2 comments


In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard struggles to master a greeting in an alien language.  The last time it was attempted by a starship captain, he botched it, and the aliens withdrew from contact for decades.  At the end of the episode, Picard delivers it flawlessly, and the alien responds that he is honored to be greeted in his own language.

I recently observed the impact my words have on a global audience.  In the span of 24 hours, my words reached around the world, towards people whose native language I do not speak.  Yet I made it a point to try and welcome them in their own native tongue – or at least that, assisted by Google.  When possible, I try to do this in real life, too.  Why not?  Making the effort to speak even a couple of words in someone else’s language can make all the difference in friendship.  Even if you botch the attempt, you are reaching out to them…  And assuming that a greeting is not syntactically or phonetically similar to a mortal insult, you have little to lose, and the results can be quite rewarding.  My barista at Starbucks is of Russian descent.  A couple months ago, I said “спасибо” when she gave me my drink.  To see her eyes light up, and realize that someone made the connection of her accent and where she lives, was well worth it.  I really want to learn more Russian now, to see her light up like that again.

Of course, then there are the dangers of using machine translation, like I normally am forced to.  Several years ago, working a problem that had no fuctional technical solution within an acceptable timeframe, I became frustrated.  As is my occasional habit to try and vent frustration harmlessly, I pushed something like “Please go pound sand, comrade” into the Google Translate engine, selected Russian, and pasted the resulting output into my email for a humorous punchline…  hitting send without a second thought.  Big mistake.

One of my coworkers at the time spoke Russian.  He responded “You might actually have wanted to say [this],” he said, putting the actual Russian phrase in there, “because what you actually said litterally translates as ‘Please pass the pound of sand, comrade.'”  Of course, this was a moment of great hilarity in my team, and when someone on our team is asked to do something that is annoying, difficult, or technically impossible, my snark, often as not, is “Ask them to please pass the pound of sand, comrade.”

For the record, I should state that I only speak two languages fluently – English, and Bad English.  Anything else is as likely as not to be a mechanical translation, and I apologize in advance if I ask you for sixteen ounces of granulated silicon.

Posted February 28, 2012 by mec in Uncategorized

2 responses to Greetings and Beachside Linguistics

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  1. I definitely know what you mean here. I’m currently a 22-year-old student up here in Canada [you’ve got another international reader 🙂 ], but over the years have had several jobs. I’ve worked at a video game retail store, a movie rental store, a movie theatre, and deli of a local grocery store. In each of these environments I’ve run into one particular husband and wife, who are both deaf.

    The first time I met them they had their son with them, who had no problem translating everything for me when I asked his parents if they wanted the extended warranty on a video game. Over the years though, I’ve run into the same couple, but without their son. I’ve had to come up with different ways to communicate without being condescending or difficult. I managed to get things across by pointing, writing and drawing what I was trying to say, but I’m sure that wasn’t doing either of us any good.

    A few years ago I bought a house which, if you can believe it, happened to be right next door to the deaf husband and wife. At first the idea of being able to avoid awkward neighbourly conversations did hit me, but then I decided to take this opportunity and learn sign language. So I bought a book and started teaching myself, and a few weeks later was ready to talk to my neighbours when their mail had been mis-delivered.

    As with you and the Russian barista, my neighbours had been surprised when I greeted them at the door the same way they do each other, but I think they were impressed. The conversation was definitely rocky at first, but we definitely communicated better than any of our previous encounters.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and musings here. I found your blog randomly by trying random “clever” URLs a few days ago, and I think I was fortunate to find your blog in its early stages of development. I look forward to reading more in the future!

    • Hey there, Matt. A belated thanks for the reply — I promise, I hadn’t forgotten about you! I’ve had the domain for over 10 years now, and this is the first time I’ve done anything major with it. Hopefully I won’t disappoint.

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