25 October 2010

Words Words Words and Commas

In certain wonk-heavy circles in DC, when more weighty topics are lacking, there is a heated debate over whether acronyms are to be pronounced as words or simply spelled aloud. For example, is it U-S-A-I-D or youse-aid? I-P-O-A (now ISOA) or eye-poe-ah? I once had an employer actually yell at me for saying you-sip, rather than U-S-I-P. The military has apparently fallen squarely on the side of words rather than letters. Their almost comical over-abundance of acronyms are frequently forced to behave like real denizens of the Queen’s English, consonant clusters be damned. ACOR, CSTC-A, MANPAD, INSCOM, VBIED, FOB, DOMEX – all of these so-called nouns demand oral contortions to spit out with any fluency.

Beyond blithely making up new words, the military is also prone to coining their own idioms. As an insular community, this practice isn’t altogether surprising and they are entitled to engage in it. However, as an outsider, I don’t always appreciate it when I am treated like a moron for being confused when someone exclaims that he has eyes on the day his replacements rip in so he can pop smoke.

Combine that with the idiosyncratic way most Americans already speak, and it’s no wonder the linguists struggle. I realize that I have written about this topic before, but it seems to be worth revisiting. One of the better language testers we have was stumped after being called ‘cranky’ today. When asked for a synonym he might know, my office-mates kept tossing out technically correct but largely vernacular words – crusty, ornery, crabby, grouchy, tetchy, cantankerous. It was language lessons via an irascible version of the Seven Dwarfs. After clarifying that they were all subtle riffs on angry, the linguist shook his head, sighing over ‘white Ebonics’. I’ve never really equated ‘cantankerous’ to AAVE, but to each his own, I suppose.

The majority of language confusion in the office stems not from slang, however, but from homophones and near homophones. The linguists use a nifty (more white Ebonics for you) computer-based translation program that vocalizes the English word. Unfortunately, the sound quality is frequently less than perfect. Some of my favorite mix-ups included mistake versus mystic, forgery versus orgy (I corrected them on that one with greater alacrity than normal), and Gyllenhaal versus genital. Okay, so that last was actually from an older American staff member, although I rather liked the confusion. I imagine that’s the screen name of the lead actor in the pornographic version of Proof.

My recurrent role as go-between for US and Afghan staff has earned me the unofficial title of ‘terp whisper’. Generally, translating for the linguists is just a matter of tenacity and context. For example, if you watch the Doctor for long enough, you come to realize that when he wants to emphasize something, he alters the word order. Once, an American colleague, complaining about the Afghan preference for subtle green tea, opined that he needed some ‘punch in the face’ coffee. The next day, Doc obliged with some extra-strong ‘face in the punch’ coffee. His inversion proved appropriate; anyone who drank it walked right into that beating. That said, often the context of my colleagues’ language snafus is established in Pashtu and then no amount of tenacity will help. The other morning for instance, my local co-work starting chanting To-ga! To-ga! seemingly out of the blue. I really didn’t know what to make of that, so I just went back to work.

Linguist writings are another matter entirely. In the (usually typed) word, they reach almost Dadaist levels of abstraction, particularly with regard to punctuation. In a post-interview email, one linguist was compelled to re-introduce himself. Afghans have a lovely and rather time-consuming tradition of greeting, asking after one another’s health, family, and activities. What the custom lost in warmth I think it gained in entertainment value when delivered over the interwebs:
hElLo gOod MorNiNg hOw arE yOu. hope you are doing well and happy with all hobbies in here. wHat isssss goInG On? im sure still you dont know me.... last week came to there and had interviews with interepreters.

The Afghans at least have some excuse for their abstractly-worded missives (the random capitalization, though, not so much). The Americas whose writing descends to Afghan levels, however, have only apathy and T9 to blame. Whether professional or personal, emails and tests that may have originated as English seldom reach me as such. The iPhone-blessed among my friends are particularly prone to sending indecipherable communiqués. I rather suspect that eventually, the study of texting will join the ranks of other venerable linguistics categories like decoding hieroglyphs or paleography.
I'm sorry I missed this Koenig totally slipped my mind. I had to ante sexua pig duct work but no one told menu tip 830pm. I just go
Sent from my iPhone
*got home. Sorry I didn't mean to send that just yet. When can we reschedule?

Translation: my friend missed our planned Skype date that morning because she had to cover an extra shift at work, and no one told her until 2030. I had to use the T9 on my own cell phone to make sense of some of that. Being a rather wretched speller myself, I’m sympathetic to those whose messages are, shall we say, non-conformist. That said, spelling and grammar checks are automatic on almost everything these days (except Skype – what’s with that?) so that even the laziest and most dyslexic among us have no excuse.

I know that I’ve shared a number of examples today, but please indulge me with one more. The worst offender for written discombobulation I’ve yet met, among all nationalities and linguist preferences, is one of my yogis. For some unspecified reason, most mornings he sends me summaries of his dreams. Apparently in addition to whispering the terps, I’m also supposed to be the camp soothsayer. I have to say this isn’t my favourite development in life recently, but there it is. However, I firmly refuse to even contemplate a faux analysis unless the dream in question is correctly described.

I had a weird dream yesterday afternoon...
I, a Night, was in a horse drawn carriage when the Damsel started
screaming as a Dragon was picking the carriage up and flying away....
The my phone range and Lt was asking about Yoga class. I haven't
remember dreams lately, not I can't forget this one.

Were you a knight or a night? Horse-drawn or horse drawn? I have to admit that I rather like the Dalí-level surrealism inherent in the dream as written. I was also intrigued by the article “the”. This isn’t just any damsel we’re talking about, but THE DAMSEL. This is the stuff made-for-television SciFi movies are made of. I sense a secondary income source…