Forms of Presentation and the Future of Comprehension

Social Science Terminology: problems and possibilities arising from use of several languages

Anthony Judge

1. Absence of a lingua franca

It would be optimistic to expect wide acceptance of the system if it was based on one language only. The UNISIST Study notes (pp. 72-73) that:

  • English now accounts for about 40% of the world literature, regularly yielding (as are French and German) to the rising group of "Eastern" languages, e.g. Slavic, Chinese and Japanese.
  • No one can predict what the situation will be twenty or fifty years ahead, nor does anyone possess reliable data on the present use of foreign language materials in the scientific community.
  • The position of English as a lingua franca of science is contested by some governments either to consolidate a new country via a national language or in the belief that language can be artificially maintained as a vehicle of a culture.

The chances of securing international acceptance of English as the standard language of science are, in present circumstances, very poor.

2. Language preferences

Apart from these aspects, there is the extremely serious problem that social scientists in one language group tend to either ignore foreign language material or find it "less relevant" to their particular concerns. This is particularly significant across the English, French, German divide. Concepts given in foreign languages may be difficult to comprehend if one is less than completely at home with the language in question. An unconscious hostility to concepts expressed in foreign languages may even build up.

A recent study of 1000 social science research information users in Great Britain has just been completed (52). It shows that 18% of the sample read English only, 75% read French, and 27% read German. Of those who said they were able to read a foreign language, only one-third regularly scan literature in that language. There is even a reluctance to follow up articles in another language.

It was also noted that 22% make no use of abstracts or indexes, 35% never use bibliographies, 22% do not use library catalogues, and 18% do not consult the librarian.

3. Language group incompatabilities

There is also the possibility that a concept may first be expressed or may only be expressible, in a given foreign language. It would be an advantage to be able to file it as such and worry about the translation afterwards. The author who has done much to emphasize the difficult-to-comprehend contrasts between meanings in the standard Indo-European languages and those in other language groups is Benjamin Lee Whorf (53). He suggests that language becomes a classification and organization of experience in its own right. As such each may be significantly different from the other and may structure the forms and categories by which the individual not only communicates but also analyzes nature, perceives or neglects particular phenomena or relationships, and constructs his model of the world.

A striking example of the possible differences is given by Marshall Walker in discussing the social factors which affect scientific models:

"The language of the Wintu Indians of California seems to indicate a way of thinking quite different from our own. Imagine the surface of a table with a book lying on it. The remainder of the surface is bare. in English one describes the situation by saying "The book is on the table". In Wintu one says, "The table bumps". The English phrase has already committed the speaker to an entire analytical philosophy of the situation: (1) there are two objects; (2) there is a polarity such that one object is above the other; (3) there is an implication that the book is supported by the table. None of this analysis is present in the Wintu sentence, which is purely topological .... The scientist who wishes to be as objective as possible in his study of the external world will try to free himself from the possible constraints of his own language." (54).

Such languages may not have parts of speech or separate subject and predicate. in Indian Languages such as Nootke and Hopi events as a whole are signified. Instead of "a light flashed" or "it flashed", Hopi uses a single term, "flash", to signify that a happening has occurred. There is thus no distinction between tenses, for the Hopi has no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through a present, into a past. Marshall Walker also notes (p.103-4):

"The student of science also has a vital need for comparative linguistics in order to acquire experience in the isolation of concepts from their language matrix. The usual language departments of a university are not much help for this type of study .... There is need for a course for undergraduates (not language majors) which is designed to illustrate the expression of concepts by different language families. Pending the arrival of such courses the student of science will have to do it himself as best he can."

David Bohm, a theoretical physicist interested in Piaget's and Gibson's work on the problems of perception, gives detailed arguments against permanence of "entities" and concludes (55):

"it is clear that both in common experience and in scientific investigations, the objects, entities, substances, etc., that we actually experience, perceive, or observe, have always (thus far) shown themselves to be only relatively invariant in their properties, this relative invariance having often been mistaken for absolute permanence" (p. 14)

"It is evident then that by considering entities and structures as relatively invariant, with an as-yet-unknown domain of invariance, we avoid making unnecessary and unprovable assumptions concerning their absolute invariance. Such a procedure has enormous advantages in research, because one of the main sources of difficulty in the development of new concepts - not only in physics but also in the whole of science - has been the tendency to hold onto old concepts beyond their domain of validity." (p. 121-2)

4. Problems of translation

It may astonish many people to know that contemporary linguistics has concluded that translation between languages is theoretically impossible. Chomsky notes (p.202):

"In fact, although there is much reason to believe that languages are to a significant extent cast in the same mold, there is little reason to suppose that reasonable procedures (not involving extralinguistic information) of translation are in general possible."

Georges Mounin, who notes the same conclusion, has summarized the theoretical difficulties prior to considering why, how, and within what limits the practical operation of translations is relatively possible (56). Some of the difficulties he notes argue against any attempt to force this project into a unilingual mode.

  • certain languages have highly developed terminologies in areas where there are few Indo-European equivalents (e.g. the Pyallup Indians and "salmon"; the Eskimos and "snow" (30 terms), some African languages and "palm trees", the Argentine gauchos and "horse colouring" (200). There is little value in attempting a definitive translation when no exact equivalent exists.
  • the situation becomes more complex when dealing with socio-cultural terms, e.g. how can "brother" and "sister" be translated into Maya when that language only has terms for "younger brother" or "older brother"(57). Much closer to the concerns of this project is the simple problem of translating "people's capitalism" into French (58).
  • another excellent example, noted by Colin Cherry (59) is that whilst there is no difficulty in translating the colour "red" into and from Russian, the associations in the two languages are very different. In English: blood red, red in tooth and claw, red with anger, red light district, etc. In Russian the translation of "red" is synonymous with "beautiful" and has associations equivalent to the English "golden" - hence "Red Square" and the "Red Army" should be meaningfully translated as the "Golden Square" and the "Golden Army". (How much has international tension been aggravated and reinforced by this simple error?) Similarly, in Chinese, "red" is primarily associated with "joy", "prosperity", "luck", and "happiness". Thus greeting cards, invitations, decorations, etc., are usually in red. (To what extent have the positive associations of the colour in the two cultures influenced the marked success of socialism there, compared to that in Anglo-Saxon culture, where it has more negative association?)

5. Administrative delays

If the attempt is made to translate every theoretical formulation into English, before filing, there will be a hold-up similar to that associated with the modelling activity. There is also bound to be disagreement as to the adequacy of translations. It may be preferable therefore to conceive of a Translation Phase in parallel with the filing, modelling, and term allocation phases, and to give priorities to the translation of given terms according to need.