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Study Finds Universal Strategy for Keeping Conversations on Track

Huh? Who? What? These kinds of little questions that ask for clarification are so pervasive in conversations that we barely notice them. But they are asked, on average, every 84 seconds. So finds a new study by Mark Dingemanse, Nick Enfield, and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics of video-recorded informal conversation in 12 languages. The languages covered a wide range of language types, from English and Italian to Yélî Dnye (a language isolate from Melanesia) and Argentinian Sign Language. In all of the individual conversations recorded (about 48.5 hours total), after one of these little questions has been asked and answered, another such "repair sequence" took place within six minutes.

What do these repair sequences look like? Across all languages in the study, the questions that came up in repair sequences fell into three types. Let’s say you are talking to a friend, and because of background noise or a distraction you completely miss a whole phrase. In that case, you are sure what you missed, so you would use an open-ended question like Huh? (A previous study by Dingemanse found that all languages seem to have a form close to Huh? for this purpose.) If you only missed a specific word or piece or information, you would ask a more specific question like What time? And if you just want to make sure you heard a specific piece of information correctly you would ask for confirmation of what you understood as in She had a boy?

The first type of repair requires the least amount of effort on your part and the most on the part of your friend, who has to repeat the whole missed phrase. The other two types require increasingly more effort on your part and less effort for your friend. 

Over the conversations analyzed, these repair types were used in a systematic way that supports the idea that there is a universal inclination to create the least amount of work for both participants, not, selfishly, just for the one asking for clarification. When possible, the more specific questions are used, and this was true for a whole range of languages. This tendency appears to be uniquely human. While other animals do have ways of dealing with the problem of ensuring that a message gets through, they are costly, involving lots of repetition, redundancy, and energy. The study shows how our system is geared toward efficiency and cost-savings and reveals, according to Dingemanse, “the fundamentally cooperative nature of human communication.”

When it comes to sound, word structure, sentence structure, and meaning, the world’s languages differ in myriad ways. But at the level of conversational interaction, where problems are spotted, pointed out, and dealt with, there is a notable similarity between very different languages. This reveals, Dingemanse writes, “a common infrastructure for social interaction which may be the universal bedrock upon which linguistic diversity rests.”

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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