Wednesday, 20 April 2016

At Dr Johnson's House

Pic of cat statue

Terminologists are at the forefront of language change. As languages evolve in response to changes in society, lexicographers have to decide how to represent these changes in dictionary definitions and examples.

The ITI's Terminology Network gathered recently in the garret of Dr Johnson's House. We discussed new approaches to gender in languages today. Neither Dr Johnson pictured in his garret nor his bluestocking friend Elizabeth Carter downstairs could have imagined some of the challenges faced by terminologists, lexicographers and translators today.

Dr Johnson's House hidden behind Fleet Street

Eyvor Fogarty introduced our three speakers:
  • Professor Emerita Margaret Rogers, University of Surrey - Introduction to the topic: Gender and Language
  • Professor Peter Sherwood - Gender and Lexicography: Setting an Example? Notes on gender imbalance
  • John Ayto, writer and lexicographer - Janet and John in Dictionaryland 

Gender-neutral English
Margaret Rogers drew our attention to some of the difficulties that today's gender-neutral, politically correct language can get us into today. Pages 54-6 of the very recent March 2016 version of the European Commission's English Style Guide gives guidance on gender-neutral language. Existing legislation often uses "he" to include women. "He/she" is now regarded as "cumbersome" and "excessively formal". 

The lack of grammatical gender in English can make a translator's life difficult. We have just have the one term "translator" for the marked Übersetzer and Übersetzerin in German. English no longer refers to air hostesses, preferring the gender-neutral flight attendants today. Yet, we end up not knowing whether a doctor is a man or a woman. This results in the question: "Would you like to see a lady doctor?"

Peter Sherwood contrasted the situation in Hungarian. A PhD study has shown that dictionary examples of usage appear to have gone in an opposite direction to our expectation. Post-communist Hungarian is more likely to attribute success to male gender. It is important that a lexicographer exercises judgement in choosing authentic examples. Google's frequency of use is not a good guide. The extraordinary paradox is that the Hungarian dictionary concerned had a female editor and team. Does it suggest that sexual equality has gone backwards in Hungary?

In the subsequent discussions, issues from other languages were given. The Luxembourgish word for girl is neuter. It confuses English students to have to refer to a "she" as "it". This is further complicated by referring to a female family member as "it" and other women more formally as "she".

French and English
French seems to avoid all these issues. It continues to use the impersonal "on", while "one" is now considered very old-fashioned in English. We avoid referring to a child as "it" too now. It seems offensive. We now tend to use "they" to get around such issues: e.g. Someone's left their umbrella.

Modern Cultural Dilemmas
Isabelle gave some particularly interesting modern examples of issues. Census forms now need to deal with the issue of transgender and cisgender. Working between cultures changing at different rates can present particular problems to translators and terminologists. Isabelle illustrated this with an entry in the UN's glossary for the Indian English term eve teasing for sexual harassment. There was an outcry regarding the initial description as a euphemism. A revision gave more precise geography on its usage. 

Luxembourg once had to pulp a complete dictionary edition due to anti-semitic examples.

Great care and consideration are still required by today's terminologists and lexicographers even if the internet has completely transformed their roles.

After the talk, we all took some time to explore Dr Johnson's House. His famous dictionary was on display in a case.

We all paused to admire the statue of Dr Johnson's beloved cat Hodge:

"A very fine cat indeed".

Pic of the small statue Dr Johnson's cat in the street opposite his home
Statue of Hodge, Dr Johnson's Cat

Karen Andrews runs
Anglicity Ltd. As a 
professional translator
she recognises the
importance of thoroughly
researching her clients'
terminology as part of the
translation process.

She also offers copywriting
and transcreation services.

For further information see Anglicity's website