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Language That Can’t Be Written

February 25, 2022

I’m a writer. I don’t like the idea that things cannot be written. Oh sure, some stuff can’t be written. The sound of a violin, for example. You can write,

the violin concerto was divine.

But, it’s impossible to write so that someone could tell the difference between a violin and a viola.

But, words? Yeah, words should be writeable. And yet, there are sentences that can be spoken without ambiguity and cannot accurately be written.

Read the following sentences out loud.

You can spell two three different ways.

You can spell too three different ways.

You can spell to three different ways.

You said the exact same sentence three times and every one of the sentences I typed was incorrect in it’s written form.

Of course we could do the same with any homophones.

  • Right/Write
  • Ring/wring
  • Rain/rein/reign
  • Road/Rode

And there are even more if you use words that start with letters other than ‘R.’

Likewise there are words that can be written but not spoken.

I read a lot of great books.

Exactly how do you pronounce that second word? Like reed or like red?

I’m fluent in American Sign Language. Someone once developed a written form of ASL, but it wasn’t really effective. I did a lot of translating sign language. We don’t really call translate sign language. It’s called interpreting. I’m not sure why ASL is the only language we “interpret” instead of translating.

ASL is a combination of signs, body language and expression. I was a really good interpreter. But, there are signs that have no accurate word to describe them. For example, there’s a sign that you make by using two fingers and flicking the end of your nose and then forming the sign of a zero with your hand. The most literal translation would be “funny-zero.” Or “funny-no.” It mostly means “That’s not funny.” But, it’s more than that. It can be annoyed. It can be dismissive. It can be stern. It all depends on your expression.

How do you interpret that?

Some things don’t translate well.

Do you read the Bible? You’ve probably heard of Jacob and Esau. Or, maybe not. They were brothers. Esau was the older brother and heir. Jacob got him to sell his birthright for a bowl of pottage. It’s recorded in Genesis Chapter 25 verse 30

30And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom.

Edom means red, by the way.

But, that’s not really what the verse says. Here’s a picture of the verse from a copy of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.

Notice anything different about the picture from the typed text? The words pottage and am are italicized. If you are not a regular reader of the Bible, you may not have noticed. Even if you do regularly read the Bible, you may not have ever noticed.

When King James hired translators to translate the Bible into English, they were very careful. Not everything in Greek translated perfectly to English. But, they were writing the Word of God. They couldn’t add to it. But, they also needed to make it understandable. So, they added words, but put them in italics.

In verse 30, the original Greek didn’t have pottage or am. Instead it was,

30And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red; for I faint: therefore was his named called Edom.

Language is a funny thing. You’d think after thousands of years we’d be better at using it.

Stay safe

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. Order Miscellany II, an anthology including his latest short story, “The Mercy System” here

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  1. Ryan permalink

    FYI, the distinction between interpretation and translation is that interpretation is spoken and translation is written. Hence, you have interpreters at the UN rendering the speaker’s address in their languages, but you hire a translator to render a written document in those same languages. So ASL is only interpreted because it’s not written.

    • I’m sure you are probably right. But, when a non-English speaker needs someone in court, seems they typically provide a “translator.” (Unless it’s a deaf person when they provide an interpreter.)

      News stories out of Iraq generally mixed interpreter and translator terms in their stories.

      And even with ASL, technically it’s not a spoken language.

      Still, I appreciate your pointing out the distinction. . .Even if there are lots of examples that don’t follow it.

      • Ryan permalink

        Well, I’m certainly not an expert, just a bit pedantic. I will say a quick Google search for “court translator” popped up a lot of results about “court interpreter” and none about “court translator”, so I think the distinction probably exists in the legal space.

        I’m not sure I’d trust journalists to be very careful about how they use the terms either, especially since it can often be the same set of people that are doing both interpretation and translation. So a writer working on a deadline who may or may not really care about the distinction probably isn’t going to hold up their process to make sure they use the right word.

        And sure, ASL is technically not spoken, but I would argue that what you’re doing when you act as an ASL interpreter is ASL’s version of speaking. Is that not how the ASL community sees it?

      • Ryan permalink

        Oh, and lest I seem combative – I really enjoy this blog and I’ve been reading for years. Your response (or lack thereof, if you want) to my pedantry isn’t going to make me stop reading. 🙂

      • Ryan permalink

        Not sure this posted the first time – I don’t mean to seem at all combative. I really enjoy the blog and I’ve been reading for years. Your response (or lack thereof, if you want) won’t stop me from continuing to read, either. 🙂

  2. Ryan, thanks for being a long time reader. *I* made a post about translate vs interpret and you’re worried I might not like pendantry? 🙂

    Not to worry.

    As for ASL, yes, even though it’s unspoken, most people view ASL as the equivalent of someone using a spoken language. And an interpreter is responsible for both signing what the hearing person is saying as well as speaking, or voicing what the deaf person is signing. So, for at least half of the “conversation” they are speaking.

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