Thursday, June 10, 2004

When Words Attack

NelsonAs children, we are quickly taught that while sticks and stones may cause grievous corporal damage, our small, innocent bodies still remain impervious to name-calling. Of course, this is a well-intentioned fallacy that parents propagate as way to defend their offspring from the stinging, usually ill-formed verbal attacks from schoolyard bullies.

The fact is that broken bones tend to heal more quickly than the mental injuries inflicted from the poisoned barbs of the spoken word. Heck, as we grow older we learn a contradictory maxim that says the pen is mightier than the sword. So which is it!? Sticks are more powerful than words, but swords aren't? Let me set the record straight - words hurt and so do swords, pointed sticks, etc.

okay, it's a word, but what does it mean??However, words have the ability to physically maim as well - and I'm not talking about uttering 'fire' in a crowded building or to a firing squad. Consider the recent story of the spelling bee contestant fainting upon hearing the word "alopecoid." A seemingly innocent word, - especially since I have no idea what it means - yet it quickly prostrated little Akshay Buddiga. Luckily, he was okay and even spelled the word correctly after regaining consciousness, but his parents might be right to get him interested in a safer hobby, like football.

Say what you want about words, but they're handy little critters, whether they're used for good or evil. In terms of sheer volume of words, English speakers have a distinct advantage over many of their foreign-tongued counterparts. Unlike other languages that try to get the most value and use out of every word without creating new ones, English constantly expands its vocabulary with stupid, unnecessary words. Take "euro-creep" and "info-dump" for example, which were recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary. For a second, I'm inclined to think that the French aren't so off-base in how far they go to protect their language. Just for a second, though.

The one advantage to our superfluous language is in the area of signage. Upon observing signs, clothing tags, etc. that are written in multiple languages, I have noticed that other languages often require at least 30 percent more words to say the same thing in English. I'm sure that if an over-ambitious researcher were to figure out the business impact in terms of costs associated with printing real estate, ink, typesetting, etc, there would be a serious outcry for an increase in foreign vocabulary counts. In case you think I digress, hold on, I'm coming back around.

In order to combat this linguistic disproportion, some signs severely truncate the original message when it's translated into a foreign tongue. Most of the time, this isn't a big deal. Maybe the shampoo container doesn't tell the non-English speaker to rinse and repeat, but the user will probably be able to figure it out or else go around with soapy hair. Not exactly a travesty. However, I noticed a warning sign the other day that perked my attention.

Icky-MartUpon visiting the neighborhood "icky-mart," there was a warning sign posted on the adjacent fence housing a high voltage substation. The sign communicated its message in English, Spanish and graphic icon - the latter looking like Shazam losing a tug-of-war competition. The English text stated the following, "Danger, Hazardous Voltage Inside, Can Cause Injury Or Death, Keep Out!" The Spanish translation simply said "Danger, High Voltage, Do Not Enter."

Sign DiscriminationAt first, I felt the sign was being "linguist," that is to say discriminatory towards those unable to speak the dominant tongue. Why should Spanish speakers not be given the full warning? Are they less citizens? Then I realized, that maybe it's because they're smarter and less litigious. Spanish speakers understand that the high voltage is inside and not on the fence, and that the specified voltage can cause injury or death.

English speakers on the other hand have to be told. Otherwise, you would have people suing the power companies saying, "Yeah, it said 'high voltage' and not to enter, but it didn't say anything about it causing injury or death!" It makes me long for the days when a simple "keep out" would serve as a warning and not an invitation. Coincidentally, I found it fitting that the Icky-Mart attendant couldn't be bothered to hang up the phone to utter two simple words of thanks for the purchased milk, but let the 'Thank You' emblazed bag speak for itself. Thanks for nothing