Tag Archives: German English
Computer-Aided-Criticism Software and Machine-Translation Software—Problems and Potential
Understanding any text in all its subtlety is a prerequisite when translating from one language to another (and exceedingly desirable in literature appreciation). Like human translators machine translation software should have this capacity. Computer systems have proven to be very poorly suited to a refined analysis of the overwhelming complexity of language. State-of-the-art computer software used in machine translation purporting to do just that still leave much to be desired, as one can easily verify by having translations done by any of the many machine translation tools available on the internet. Since text interpretation is the common denominator, machine-translation software is similar to the one used in computer-aided-criticism, if not identical.
My arguments highlight lesser known problems encountered in computer-aided criticism and may serve to foster a better understanding of present-day machine translation capabilities and its undeniably huge potential in the future, be that in 50 years or more. Machine-translation software and related analytical software are still in their infancy and just like children, they deserve our indulgence. They are bound to become better and better over time. There are different approaches to machine-translation processing of written human language in translation software. I favour Google’s method because – be tolerant with my oversimplification – they try to replicate what the brain does by using as many human translations as possible as sample translations for their database together with other methods (algorithmic mathematical languages). In the long run, this combination of methods is likely to render better-quality translations which will then be indistinguishable from human translations. By that time, this improved software will also be able to decode and translate connotational meaning.
For the time being, it is beyond the grasp or analytic capability or interpretational power of machines, be they computer-aided-criticism software, translation machine programs, grammar correction and summarizing software, to consistently distinguish between such shades of meaning let alone connotational meaning. However, machine translations will become better in time, if not human-like. AI experts think that low-level, algorithmic mathematical languages will be succeeded by high-level modular, intelligent languages which, in turn, will finally be replaced by heuristic machines. They would be capable of learning by mistakes, through trial and error, of operating like human beings.
Although I wrote the main body of the text almost 30 years ago, it is surprisingly up-to-date due to the fact, that comparatively little progress has been made in this field. In January 1983, with only a modicum of theoretical background on computers and linguistics, I planned to write this essay as a fervent riposte the editor of the American journal Psychology Today, which had published a two-part series called, “The Imagination Extenders,” in November and December 1982. I never sent the letter and apparently no one else did, probably because computer software was only just beginning to emerge and therefore hardly anyone was capable of spotting the weak points in Mr Bennett’s arguments. Here is an excerpt from the original article from Psychology Today:
Computer-Aided Exploration of Literary Style – A tool to a better understanding of literature?
In the two articles, the question is posed whether computers will be able to extend our imagination the way telescopes and microscopes extend our vision. Philosopher Daniel C. Bennett of Tuft University (U.S.) says they will in two ways: 1) by spreading the range of our senses and 2) by enlarging the amount of our concepts. He speculates that there are hundreds of telling patterns in the number system suitable for computer analysis and suggests that computers be used to study, among other things, literary style. He says that, being a rather clanking and statistical affair, analysis of word choice and style is a delight mainly to pedants and he wonders whether the subtle, subliminal effects of rhythm and other stylistic devices – often quite beneath the conscious threshold of their authors – can perhaps be magnified and rendered visible or audible with the help of a computer. The features the computer would heighten could be abstract patterns, biases of connotations and evocations or intangible meaning – not matter.
Incredible as it may sound, Mr Bennett’s bold claims went unchallenged. Not one single letter to the editor was subsequently published. I wish to emphasize that it is not my “mission”, but my objective to contribute to the discussion about machine intelligence from a practician´s point of view with years of experience in analysing texts – in the traditional manner.
Under close Scrutiny — Computer-Aided Exploratory Analysis of Literature
Literature appreciation by just reading for pleasure is one way of gaining meaning from a piece of art – formal literature analysis is another. Owing to the works of Jung and Freud, as well as novel approaches towards language from the new fields of neuro-linguistics and psycholinguistics, literature analysis can be highly rewarding, especially if combined with the notion of contemplation. An understanding of the interaction of the many literary devices and techniques is the more academic way of finding out what a writer says and how he says it. Therefore, style, which is the object of my exploration, can be an important clue to understanding “meaning” in a piece of literature. What is style then? Style is the outward reflection of the intrinsic sum- total of everything a writer is at the moment of writing. Style flows from an author’s character in its broadest sense and from his life experience.
Not only does a writer express ideas of which he is aware but he also reveals subconscious ideas and conflicts. Very often, he has no knowledge as to why he chooses a particular word over another – a word that may arrive at the threshold of his consciousness like a shooting star from a vast cosmos of subconscious beliefs, suppressed desires, cherished ideals, primordial instincts, mechanized scripts and from the plane of archetypal symbols before it is clad in reason and logic.
How would a computer know in what way style contributes to meaning?
Style is as individual as a fingerprint. No two styles are ever the same and very often, the same word or outward shell, the same sound pattern has an entirely different meaning when used by another writer or in a different context. How then, would it be possible for a computer to analyse style? Even if it should be possible to programme a computer to enable it to recognize hundreds of literary devices and to make generalizations from particular examples, how would it recognize or process the fingerprint of an entirely different writer who uses language in a new and original way?
How can a computer extract meaning from a writer’s three-dimensional web of associative meaning created by the power of one single word, if the computer knows only the husk or dictionary definition of a word but not its contextual essence, its personal and private elements, its fugitive associations and flashing connotations lived and experienced by the author?
The silent speech of metaphorical language, the body language of language (my own term, but I may be wrong there) of imagery and symbolism cannot be expressed in digital numbers or in any other form in the number system since there is an infinite number of possibilities of combining words and creating meaning in ever new groupings and juxtapositions. This problem is further aggravated by the fact that words do not mean the same to different people. Since no two contexts or situations in which words are learnt and used are ever the same, no two meanings, or in this case, interpretations, can ever be the same. One could argue that a computer would alleviate this problem in that it could be an impartial judge as to what meaning a particular word should have in all cases at all times. Yet, this solution would be unacceptable as language would be manipulated, unnatural and bland. Apart from this dumbing down of words, this would smack too much of George Orwell’s “Newspeak”. However, one does need to invoke fiction in order to fully understand the impact such action would have. ( The “bias and sensitivity guidelines” used by pressure groups in the US educational system afford a glimpse of what may be in store. Added in2006)
Mr Bennett speculates that subconscious notions expressed through the medium of style may be made visible or audible. Would this not signify that a writer’s most secret thoughts, sometimes even unknown to himself, could be projected onto a monitor? Moreover, could this rendering of a colour-coded graphic display representing conscious and unconscious thought-patterns or associative configurations be interpreted and fully understood? Would we need another expert telling the literature “expert” what the particular graphic display unveils? Who would decode the meaning encoded in the colour-graph? Who would interpret the computer’s interpretations of the, for instance, “delicate effects of sound”? The meaning to be unearthed from the colour-graphic display on the monitor would be as enigmatic and complex as literature is to many people.
In order to establish personality profiles, psychologists attempt to read a person’s subconscious mind by analysing his speech pattern, his choice of words i.e. his preferences. But it will never be possible to penetrate a person’s subconscious mind and read the pictures, the language in which the subconscious mind “thinks” or communicates. Mental, invisible images, the evocations of the conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious mind cannot be recorded. Abstract ideas, mental pictures produced by evocations and connotations flowing from the composite elements of style, or even from a single word, are not subject to the law of mathematics and cannot be caged in the number system.
Literature analysis is allegedly a delight mainly to pedants, says Daniel Bennett. Does this over-generalization not contain a number of dangerous and narrowing assumptions and suggestions? Could it not be misconstrued to mean that a more profound analysis or appreciation is tedious, done only by pedants and that anyone in his right mind should never attempt to appreciate and enjoy literature by taking a closer look at it than usual – and that an “expert” analysis should be left to the computer? Are such bold claims not preparatory to reshaping and simplifying human cognitive and intuitive abilities, leading us into a yes-or-no-response-Brave New World?
There is more to appreciating literature than counting words. It is an essential characteristic of the appreciation process that through the reading experience itself, by meeting with an author’s ideas, content and substance gain a quality they would otherwise not possess. This is because a reader brings in his own thoughts, his experience and his feelings. Marlon Brando, who started his career by playing Shakespeare on Broadway, said in an interview that unless the reader gave something to it, he would not take anything from a book or poem. One could not fully understand what a writer was writing about unless oneself had some corresponding depth, some breadth of assimilation. Computer-aided analysis of literary style may completely leave out the reactions of the reader. The responsibility would be shifted to the “expert” computer who would do all the thinking and linking. Will human and humane feelings in literature analysis be entirely discarded and computer-encoded responses become the controlled measure of all literary works?
How would a computer “communicate” with a piece of art? Admittedly, it could be fed with a few individual images and then be programmed to boil them down into generalisations which it would apply whenever it encountered a digital approximation of meaning pre-programmed or assigned to a particular word or combination of stylistic devices. If a more sophisticated programme should ever exist, it might even be able to match two or three literary devices from among the thousands of possible combinations and relate to a particular phrase, sentence, or paragraph. But how would the computer attribute sense to what it finds out? In its binary interaction with a piece of literature, the computer would compare its rigid, predetermined and static programme with the real world of natural experience and communication processes inherent in a piece of literature. How would a computer know, for instance, that a horse and its metaphorical or symbolic meaning in one piece of art might not be the same in another? In what way would a computer know why a particular word has been chosen over another and why certain words have been placed side by side to create a certain effect which may be lost if one word is exchanged for another? Not only must a great number of dictionary definitions and some of the most common examples of collocation be fed into a computer but it must also be enabled to distinguish non-compatible synonyms. However, the computer must also be able to “intuit” an author’s conceptual understanding of his private and personal usage of any word, even if his meaning varies only in very subtle degrees from common usage. Would it be sufficient to feed dictionary definitions into a computer, which are only a short abstraction of real-life usage? Would it suffice to give the computer knowledge about a sandbox-life which the computer could never relate to experiences of his own?
One has to concede that word choice is an intrinsic part of style. Still, how does the mere counting of words cast light on meaning? A key -word may be used deliberately or, sometimes, without the author’s awareness. It may be used only once and would gain significance in its context; it may be used soberly or passionately, prudently and meticulously, it may be used with missionary fervor or calculatingly only once, while another, quite insignificant word may appear frequently. This is because sometimes, even in this rich English language, there is a lack of other words that express the author’s intention adequately. How does one programme the computer to know that quantity or frequency does not equal quality or essence?
Technically, all stylistic devices of sound could be made visible on a monitor. Yet, would the computer “compute” the “right and only” meaning to them? Could it relate meaning created by specific sound patterns distributed over several pages to the main theme, to the pivotal points of that particular piece of art or could it judge them to belong to secondary ideas only? More importantly, would the computer be able to assimilate many other literary devices, such as symbolism, irony, puns, hyperbole, metonymy, oxymoron and above all, conceptual metaphors, which may all run parallel to meaningful sound-patterns, into a coherent context? Could the computer make intelligent distinctions between several possible interpretations that belong to the realm of surface meaning? More importantly, could it delve into deeper regions and soar into higher spheres by evocations and connotations created by sound patterns and other literary devices sandwiched onto sound? Would the computer be able to synthesize meaning from several layers of literary devices, from among the hundreds of composite elements of style, from the multi-level flow of sound and imagery?
How can the most common of hundreds of literary devices other than those describing sound – for instance, metaphors, similes, oxymoron and symbols – be made visible on a computer’s output device, since most stylistic devices do not function through sound? Literary devices, or rather stylistic devices (since most authors could not care less what they are called) are the author’s medium of expressing their ideas. They are their musical instruments with which they make images audible and they are their palettes transposing sound into images. Their artistic reflections, observations, contemplations or speculations, after having gone through the alembic of their inner worlds, become a unified piece of art and very often, the symbolic language used by authors renders their work seemingly unintelligible, requiring technical, perhaps arcane, and sometimes-abstruse knowledge on the part of the reader. Even the most dedicated readers of literature may not be able to understand a work of art in its entirety and some may not be able to see beyond its storyline. At the most, they may notice the pleasant effects that can be created by sound. How can a computer programmer, whose forte is probably not the appreciation of literature, programme a computer “to see” beyond sound, to read between the lines, or to recognize a sustained sound-pattern and describe its effects?
Above all, how does one programme the integrating principle which distinguishes between nonsense and sensible ideas, and which may, through flashes of insight or intuition, arrive at new ideas? That integrating principle has not been found yet – that all-important assimilation and joining-device that is capable of attributing sense to an infinite number and variety of external stimuli and to the internal, invisible, silent and yet ever-changing world of thought-configurations.
COMPUTER-AIDED LITERATURE STUDIES REVISITED IN 2011
Still Begging the Question after 28 Years
After almost 28 years, there is still no progress in the field of computer-aided textual content analysis. Computer systems have proven to be very poorly suited to a refined analysis of the overwhelming complexity of language. Conclusions drawn by people working in this area are equivalent to crystal-ball-gazing. Due to the absence of any results, the future role of computer-aided criticism is often still invoked. Up until now, computer-supported analysis of texts has not yielded any important or new results which cannot be obtained by close reading. Therefore, computerized textual research has not had a significant influence on research in humanistic disciplines. Many explanations as to why there are no useful applications with regard to the subject matter sound like feeble attempts to justify the use of computers in this field at all costs. Catchphrases used to this end are “a shift in perspective needed”, “asking new questions deviating from traditional notions of reading texts”, and “the need for new interpretive strategies” or “a modified reader response”. They all refer to hitherto unknown structures not readily apparent which are hoped to contain vital elements of literary effects. If they cannot be recognized by humans, are they important at all? This would be tantamount to assuming that authors create a “subconscious” pattern over sometimes even several hundreds of pages. What are we actually missing?
Stylistics and reader response seem to be treated as two different approaches and both methods are deemed “problematic” when it comes to assessing the literary effect measured in the text itself or in its supposed impact on the reader. The author’s intent expressed in his communication with the reader and meaning are deemed more difficult to quantify than matters of phonetic patterns and grammatical structures.
Authorship studies are one area where computers can be used effectively even though very little analysis is performed by the computer itself. Very small textual particles and word clusters selected and indexed by humans are run through computers to establish an “authorial fingerprint”. Thus, complex patterns of deviations from a writer’s normal rates of word frequency are measured. There are other patterns which can be used in such authorial tests like compound words and relative clauses.
Interestingly, professional translators hardly use machines to do their translations with. I know from my experience that it is harder to edit a machine-rendered translation than translating it again from scratch. However, translators sometimes use computer-aided translation devices such as Trados or Word Fast, which contain the complete memory of all translations a translator has ever done with this tool. With such a CAT tool (Computer-Aided-Translation), one can determine the number of words to be translated and hence suggested as one goes through the translation. As to the quality of such translations, very little research has been done in this field but I surmise that the resulting style may sound “bitty” if other than technical texts are translated.
It would be interesting to see how computer-aided-criticism software and machine-translation software cope with the hundreds of “Local Englishes”, and, being one of the major subject matter of this weblog, with “German English ” or “Local English, German Version” in particular. Would this be too taxing a task as it is often for human translators when they need to waste a great deal of time guessing the meaning of idiosyncratic word coinages and very private grammar “novelties”? It must be a formidable task to write software that can handle the frequently faulty and incomprehensible English one finds in these hundreds of Local English varieties.
More Crystal Ball Gazing?
When I searched the Internet for the latest development in computer-aided exploratory textual analysis of literature, I was surprised to find that I had not been wide off the mark in my assessment 28 years ago. As to the future development, AI experts think that low-level, algorithmic mathematical languages will be succeeded by high-level modular, intelligent languages which, in turn, will finally be replaced by heuristic machines. They would be capable of learning by mistakes, through trial and error, of operating like human beings.
For more dictionary entries and a more detailed description of the terms “Local Englishes, German Version” and “German English”, please go to go to Page:
A Dictionary of “Local Englishes, German Version”
Creeping in through the back door
Hardly noticed or acquiescently accepted by native speakers of English and non- native speakers alike, the many Local English versions, and in this particular instance “German English”, are often substandard, frequently unnatural or unidiomatic and therefore hard to understand, apart from being in many cases incomprehensible balderdash. All too frequently, words have become ambiguous catch-alls which have been emptied of dictionary meaning so that they might fit any experience the speaker would not take the trouble to define. However, one must admit that the latter is probably true for all languages.
Elevating mutilated, hard-to-understand and difficult English to the ranks of Standard Englishes
Local English coinages aggravate this situation. New words that sound and look English but which aren’t English are being invented with reckless incompetence and flaunted as indelible evidence of the true standard of German English in all media.
Some may call it a mongrel language, a bastardized, distorted and degenerated version of native-speaker Standard English while others may claim that it is mankind’s next step on the evolutionary ladder. The latter group of people will find this a welcome and useful guide to “enriching” the English language. The uncritical proponents of the doctrine “anything goes” may even think that Local Englishes are the definitive aid to increasing the word power and language proficiency of learners and students at all levels.
A university lecturer once wrote in her description for her “Varieties of English” university course. “It is not wrong English. It is just different…” Palliating, extenuating and explaining away the deficiencies of Pidgin-English-like Local Englishes is the easy way of dealing with this problem, thus elevating Pidgin English to the ranks of Standard Englishes. Conversely, the majority of native speakers are in all likelihood completely unaware of this downgrading of their tongue.
A sort of barely elevated Pidgin which sounds like incompetent patchwork
I began my humble collection of “different”, yet often hilarious English words about 10 years ago. That was about at the time when you would still find people criticizing openly the sort of English spoken in Germany. Today, you will be hard put to find realistic assessments like the following, made by Klaus Reichert the president of the “Deutsche Akadamie für Sprache und Dichtung” (Society for Language and Poetry) in a newspaper interview almost ten years ago: “What we take for English is often only a sort of barely elevated Pidgin which sounds like incompetent patchwork.” Mr Reichert`s noble intention to stem the “foreign infiltration” of the German language has, unfortunately, failed completely for reasons beyond his control.
All entries in this mock-dictionary are fully documented by either downloads, print-outs, screen-shots, newspaper clippings or copies of original fliers, brochures, etc.
If you happen to see a taxi cruising any of the streets in Germany with a notice up in one of the windows saying „Reservated“, it will be no use hailing this particular taxi. Yet, many a social-worker-type-teacher of English may be inclined to say that it is “close enough” to the intended “Reserved”. According to the native-speaker radio presenter reporting this item of news, it was not correct English, but good enough for a German. Come to think of it, the expression “good enough” is sometimes seen on websites regarding the performance of a particular software, meaning that a particular software is not as good as it should or could be but good enough for a certain segment of the market.
The “brain-up” initiative was launched in Germany in 2004 in search of Germany´s top universities. This overzealous drive at establishing new standards of excellence for Germany’s elitist universities has led to this award-winning Denglish coinage. To all those who expected a power booster pill wrapped in blue sugar-coating to help people sustain the peak of cerebral passion, it must have been vastly disappointing.
Announcements on Hannover’s trams are now made in impeccable English. But this was not always the case. More than 20 years ago, it was quite different when the then novel system of automated announcement was introduced. When reaching the last stop, passengers were asked to “get out”. Admittedly, you could expect to find a terse expression of this sort in Germany but this one was over the top. The effect was hilarious, caused quite a stir and was reportedly widely in local newspapers. When the culprit was asked about his word choice, the German translator said apologetically that it said so in a dictionary.
“…a few steps and you are in the green”
This word for word translation from German could be found on a website describing the location of a hotel. It was situated adjacent to a city-park on one side and a large city forest on the other. It only proves that such monstrous examples of German English are no longer confined to teachers` lounges and translators` offices but can be shared globally. In the meantime, the hotel in question has a website that was completely revised by a native speaker.
“…and follow the restrictions of the HACCP”
What a nasty nuisance these limitations are! I found this bit on a website when translating another. This example confirms the axiom than non-native speaker English all too often lacks the subtlety necessary to express issues that are of great concern. The HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) is an internationally recognised scheme of food safety standards. Here are some suggestions for a more responsible translation:
“…and abide by the rules and regulations laid down in the HACCP directives.”
“ …and we meet the demands laid down in the HACCP regulation.”
“… and our procedures are in compliance with the food and safety requirements of the HACCP regulation.”
„Please check your coats and bags“ (notice in a library)
Do not panic when you read something to this effect in Germany. You are not expected to check your grooming. Neither are you required to have a quick glance to see whether your bag’s body has a lovely sheen and is otherwise spotlessly clean.
In German English, this is used for „check in your coats and bags“.
“Please put out the television”
Again, no need to be alarmed. No need to go looking for a fire blanket or fire extinguisher. In all probability, your host’s television set is not on fire. In German English, it simply means “Switch off the telly.”
More highlights of “Local Englishes“
In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter. ( Vienna)
Please leave your values at the front desk. (Paris)
Customers who find the waitresses rude ought to see the manager. (Kenia)
Patrons are requested not to have children in the bar. (Norway)
The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable. (Bucharest, Romania)
You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid. (Japan)
All the above highlights are taken from:
Please to try the tarts. They are ready for you on the trolley.
This is from a flyer enclosed with the menu in a luxury hotel in Egypt.
(The Book of Mistaikes, Gyles Brandeth, First Futura edition 1982 (UK),
Copyright©) Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd and Victorama Ltd.
Pending the outcome of nationwide discussion:
“She’s got a knuckle in her eye” (from the original song lyrics)
“Knuckle” is the bone of contention here. An extensive internet search with about 10 search engines did not yield one single collocation with “got a knuckle in * eye”. All results found are from the Local English domain “de” and refer to the song in question. It would be easy to dismiss this coinage as easily classifiable as local gibberish. There are, however, two problems. The song writer is American but the term in question doesn’t seem to be native-speaker English. Apart from that, many Germans had problems with this passage as the transcripts of the lyrics discussed in internet forums show. Before he official song lyrics had been published,
fans had replaced “knuckles” with “luck” and thus changed the meaning: “She’s got luck all in her eye”.
The official version goes like this: “She’s got a knuckle in her eye”. It appears that to those fans who had preferred “luck”, “knuckles” did not make much sense.
If there was some cock-up when the song was recorded, then we will never learn. Who would confess to being a bungling bunch of beta-performers? If it was really meant to be “She’s got a knuckle in her eye”, then the Local English in Germany will be enriched by a “meaningful and important” coinage.
And for good measure another bone of contention a bit further down in the song lyrics:
“He drops a pause”
An internet search did not yield any results at all on native-speaker domains. Nonetheless, in this case one could argue that the song writer has used his “artistic” licence. Incidentally, there was a similarly heated discussion going on on the German domain “de”. The point of this discussion was, again a novelty again due to devoted fans trying to transcribe the song before the lyrics had officially been published. The alternative to “He drops a pause” was “He drops a puss”, again due to bad pronunciation on the part of the singer.
For more dictionary entries go to Page:
A Dictionary of “Local Englishes, German Version”
Local Englishes – A sort of local linguistic inbreeding?
Are we sleepwalking into a world of incomprehensibility? Are current trends in language development a retrograde evolutionary step? Will “local language needs” develop into some 200 different Local Englishes and replace Standard English? It seems that “local needs” have already done so in as many countries as there are official languages as any objective analysis would reveal.
Why should the English Language, in its course of evolution or perhaps devolution, also need “to take account of local language needs” in all countries all over the world, leaving us with some 200 varieties of Local Englishes? Is Standard English not good enough?
Dorothy L. Sayers, the famous crime-story authoress wrote in 1936 the following about the advantages of the English language: “The birthright of the English is the richest, noblest, most flexible and sensitive language ever written or spoken since the age of Pericles. […]. The English language has a deceptive air of simplicity: so have some little frocks; but they are not the kind that any fool can run up in half an hour with a machine.
Compared with such highly inflected languages as Greek, Latin, Russian and German, English appears to present no grammatical difficulties at all; but it would be truer to say that nothing in English is easy but the accidence. It is rich, noble, flexible and sensitive because it combines an enormous vocabulary of mixed origin with a superlatively civilised and almost wholly analytical syntax. This means that we have not merely to learn a great number of words with their subtle distinctions of meaning and association, but put them together in an order determined only by a logical process of thought.”
With regard to more complex language, it is my experience that seemingly convoluted, circumlocutory, or verbose language – although it does occur – is very often a compact chain of thoughts with logically ordered ideas. Conciseness requires a different functional vocabulary and different grammatical structures and intelligible language cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator. This would be tantamount to using ambiguous catch-alls devoid of their established dictionary meaning when precision and accuracy are called for.
A short introduction to the concept of “Local Englishes”
On the website of one of the most distinguished publishers of academic books and dictionaries, Oxford University Press, there used to be an interesting section on the development of the Englishes with an interesting prediction. It purported that the number of non-native speakers of English would soon outnumber native speakers of English with significant consequences. In the course of being assimilated by other nations and societies, “[…] English develops to take account of local language needs, giving rise not just to new vocabulary but also to new forms of grammar and pronunciation”. To compound matters, it was predicted that “At the same time, however, standardized ‘global’ English is spread by the media and the Internet.”
Unfortunately, the author or authors of this text do not specify what the elusive “local needs” may be and what their justification might be, thus leaving ample room for speculation. Besides, this poses the legitimate question if there is an essential need at all for the about 180 to 200 potential local variants or “Local Englishes”, ranging from Amhavic and Balochi English and Kyrgyz to Zulu English. And one is left to wonder if Standard English is not good enough and needs to be improved by non-native speakers.
They all look like English, they sound like English, but they are not Standard English. Being the outlandish varieties of Standard English, they are often ambiguous and frequently tend to resemble verbal puzzles. In many instances, not even native speakers understand these sorts of English. They are often unnatural, substandard, incomprehensible and so deficient that no responsible parents would ever expose their offspring to it if it were their native tongue. They are marked by artificial non-native constructs (grammar and collocations), fancy new words no one can understand, and a novel approach to pronunciation. Thus, they become an obstacle to communicating effectively in both written and spoken English. Guessing the meaning of what is being said becomes the main skill needed to communicate after a fashion.
The process of generously taking account of “local language needs” has been going on for decades. In 1982, a harsh letter to the editor by a conference interpreter was published in the International Herald Tribune. In his letter, the writer states that in his daily work he sees close-up the English language disintegrating into unintelligibility at an alarming pace. He also says that he is often asked to render an interpretation of the “English” spoken by delegates who thought that a few years` secondary school qualified them to cope with the most disarmingly subtle language in Europe. He bemoans the absence of any protest by native speakers at the gibberish he is often subjected to. The French, on the other hand, hold the exact opposite view in this respect, maintaining that language is difficult, verges constantly on treacherous ambiguity and, for that reason, requires study. Whereas the English have always given the world the impression that any fool can speak English – and any fool now does. Please note that these are conference interpreter’s words, not mine.
Is there a need “to take account of local needs” ?
Over-simplified Local Englishes with mutilated grammar, weird new words which no speaker of Standard English can understand, and a novel approach to pronunciation, are developing fast. They are confusing to even speakers of Standard English. Not only are they an obstacle to communicating effectively in written English but also in speech.
Often, one is forced to ask the speaker what he actually means if one is interested in what is being said. However, this kills a conversation and in many cases, some people just nod their approval or say “yes” in the right places while trying to guess what is being said. In doing so, one reduces a meaningful conversation to a social function where the gap between intended and interpreted meaning becomes unimportant. More often than not, this sort of English is too broad and ambiguous, leaves too much room for guessing, and asks for a high degree of patience and goodwill. In the same manner, it may put a high strain on the listener, is marked by frequent backtracking and asking for additional information in many cases. I dare say that the faster the new variants of English develop, the more acute this problem will become.
My dictionary of “Local English, German Version”, although being partly written with tongue in cheek, is the first attempt at documenting the nascent state of the hitherto hard to define and hard to pin down “Local English, German version” or “German English”. Examples used to be confined to teachers` lounges, faculty rooms and “high-security” translators` offices but thanks to the internet, the fun can now be shared uninhibitedly across the globe.
School English, Denglish, Basic Global English and Globish – all deviants of Standard English – are likely to continue to merge into one unified system of organised balderdash, with large parts of the English language as you know it, changed beyond recognition. Dominant contributing factors are unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity -, which are passed off as Standard English but in fact they are written by non-native speakers of English often in substandard, mutilated, and therefore difficult English. I have often wondered if translation source texts written by non-native speakers of English may not be an insult to any court if these documents would have to be submitted in the course of any legal proceedings.
Non-native-speaker-teachers — among the blind, the one-eyeds are kings?
A Local English version or the German sort of English has been around for quite some time. It is considered “incorrect” English at school and becomes perfectly acceptable once formal schooling ends. There is ample proof of this to be found in all media and on the internet and can be documented, that is, downloaded, screen-shot, video-stream-taped and printed from many sources. New coinages, bastardized and corrupted words or phrases and other hard-to-understand snippets of Local English – all due to incompetence – are often used with child-like innocence and frequently give rise to great hilarity. Preliminary findings seem to suggest that the causes for “a local need” for substandard English can be traced to too low standards and the German speakers` unwillingness to learn English up to the level that can actually be achieved. Apart from that, willing learners are discouraged to learn or train English to the level that is actually achievable because there is no real incentive to become fully professional at it since the poor status quo is considered to be the benchmark and no pecuniary rewards are offered to those striving for more.
The noddie syndrome in foreign language education
Benign and permissive teaching methods are often aimed at over-simplifying Standard English and concern themselves rather with the social function of a language than with the precise and effective conveyance of information. Previous standards of competence which used to be required of those teaching have given way to a social-worker-style pedagogy which relies on nodding vigorously in agreement to all gibberish-like verbal outpourings and studiously glossing over all kinds of substandard written material. Implicit or open acceptance of inadequate language and varnishing low standards in all areas where English is used prevail. And generally, there is a conspicuous absence of any encouragement and incentive to do work or study on one’s own. Error-swapping in any kind of group work and even a refined sort of condescending encouragement of verbal balderdash on the part of those imparting English is a major contributing factor, too.
Perhaps learners are the victims of a society pandering to those unwilling or too lazy to learn Standard English, or society has, for various reasons, tacitly consented to succumbing to widespread incompetence. One could, however, call this neglect to take corrective action aiding and abetting this unrelenting language engineering process. Many people working in education and the language business and native speaker friends as well tell me that what I am doing here in my web log must be done. However, they cannot afford to argue against this process openly because they are dependent on the status quo situation. In the meantime, they continue to suffer in silence.
Could anyone take an active part in the devolution of Standard English, and in the evolution of his or her Local English version? Would it, for instance, be possible for anyone to decide that he or she has changed Standard English Grammar as it was done a few years ago in the song lyrics during a European Song Contest. The song writer could invoke the proclamation published on askoxford.com as an authority and lay claims to inventing new forms of grammar necessitated by local, or even, when asserting oneself boldly, individual “needs”, because it would be too troublesome to apply the established Standard English code of communication? Millions of spectators were silently singing along the lines:
“…just can’t wait until tonight baby for being with you”. This is only one example out of thousands.
Millions of new forms of grammatical structures and words could thus be created, but I think that these approximately 200 local deviations intercrossing with one another may turn the English language into an indefinable, unnatural, substandard, and incomprehensible mass. Alternatively, would the local variants be implemented worldwide by the mere stroke of a pen on a set day – hokum spokum nonsensicum? Probably not. They are allowed unchallenged to creep in through the backdoor. They are developing right now under our very eyes and people working in the language sector are taking the brunt, yet they are obliged to turn a blind eye.
Does Denglish represent a linguistic evolutionary step or is it just a passing folly; a pseudo-proficiency in English or just a means of showing off one’s language incompetence? Denglish is a strange mixture of English and German words or phrases. This sort of Continental neo-pidgin English is ubiquitous and most striking when put bravely into print. English words are adapted in keeping with the rules of German grammar and mixed freely and haphazardly with German, often lending a hilarious touch to the resulting muddle. However, it is when new English words coined by Germans or misapplications of otherwise correct English are thrown in that the effect becomes utterly uproarious. And to top it all, when Germans start to invent new applications for English words or even entirely new English-sounding words which no native speaker would understand, native speaker of English are in dire need of guidance through the Continental version of their mother tongue.
Not surprisingly, many of the Denglish coinages have made it into my dictionary “Local Englishes, German version” or “German English”.
Basic Global English – The lowest common denominator?
Basic Global English or BGE is a method to facilitate learning some sort of Neo-Pidgin English. It borrows from Standard English a basic vocabulary of some 750 words to which an individual bespoke vocabulary of 250 words is added to cover a learner’s interests and hobbies he or she can use to explain their world with. A maimed and mutilated grammatical system consisting of 20 rules replaces those structures of Standard English considered unmanageable by foreign minds. It also encourages the use of a sort of sign language and is not recommended for usage with native speakers of English. The most prominent propounders and popularizers of this deviant of Standard English are non-native speakers of English. With missionary zeal and great conviction, they are keen to create an artificial sort of minimalist official global language – a kind of Simplified-Simple-Speak even simpler than Globish. And it is considered suitable to serve as a lingua franca at the highest level among politicians, business persons and other decision makers since Basic Global English also caters for the business and banker market. A business Basic Global English version is also available. However, the one advantage of BGE is that even children and adults with special needs should be able to learn this runty form of pseudo-English.
Translators suffer in silence
As mentioned briefly before, unedited documents and other kinds of publications and websites, frequently of international validity, are written by non-native speakers of English and passed off as Standard English. Translators translating from non-native speaker English texts suffer in silence since the subject of mutilated, difficult, or hard to follow English is still a taboo subject. Having been made to believe that their English is better than it is, non-native- speaker-writers of such inadequate texts have no idea what problems they are causing.
I know from a reliable source that more than 50% of source documents to be translated into German have been written by non-native speakers of English. These unnatural local varieties of English look and sound like English, but they are not Standard English. They are often ambiguous and frequently resemble verbal puzzles and are extremely time-consuming. In many cases, they are undecodable with the author being the only person to know what his “innovations” or “coinages” or conundrums are supposed to mean.
Another striking feature is the fact that specialised languages seem to be on the retreat. I have seen too many source texts in non-technical fields, also by native speakers of English, when the authors tried to “use their own words” to describe complex processes for the lack of what used to be considered indispensable knowledge and I still remember the mental pain when trying to make sense of those mostly inept and cumbersome descriptions.
I have also seen translations by non-professional “Local English speaker” when literal, word by word translations were used. Or, when writing in a foreign language, the writers thought that the mere juxtaposition of words renders comprehensible bits of texts while no native speaker would ever use such artificial and “difficult” constructions.
Machine translations creeping in on the sly?
Apart from using hard to follow, difficult, substandard and mutilated English which is in most cases devoid of accuracy and subtleties, most non-native speakers lack the language competence to distinguish between Standard English and hard-to-understand and ludicrous machine-generated “novel” English. I have seen bits of machine translated text used in academic papers which did not make any sense at all. In other papers written by members pertaining to the same linguistic “Local English” group, I came across the sweeping statement that machine translation services will reduce translation costs for governments, a service that would be used by the “young and dynamic”. I feel inclined to add: and by the incompetent and gullible.
Machine-translated websites will continue to be a contributing factor to the often grossly negligent, sometimes deliberately ignored, or even calculated corruption of the English language. These translations are sometimes not even declared as such, and more often than not, one has no option but to read them if they are, for instance, support sites. Not only are they an imposition on the reader, but also a danger to all those non-native speakers of English whose knowledge of the English language is limited. They may take these excrescences for Standard English and pick up, wittingly or unwittingly, vocabulary, grammatical constructions and “stylistic refinements” they think worthy of emulating. Responsible parents may even consider blocking machine–translated websites on child protection software programs to shield their offspring from the adverse influence of bad language just as they may do with websites showing adult content.
Besides, the uncritical belief in the authority of blinkered specialists and blind faith in the new authority of the computer may be another crucial factor contributing to the unsuspecting acceptance of substandard English one comes up against on websites. Incidentally, Google itself seems to be aware of the problems involved in machine translation software. For instance, it asks users in their translation section, “Also, in order to improve quality, we need large amounts of bilingual text. If you have large amounts of bilingual or multilingual texts you’d like to contribute, please let us know”. Google’s approach to machine translations is likely to pay off in the long run, since trying to emulate the human brain is likely to render better-quality machine translations.
Would a test seal for texts edited by native speakers be helpful?
For about two years, I maintained a blog at Yahoo’s 360 site before Yahoo gave it up. True to fashion, I posted a kind of warning with the caption “This blog is not written in native-speaker English but in Local English, German Version (or German English). Picking up of any errors is entirely at your own risk”. Soon I gathered from feed-back that this message was in fact counterproductive in that non-native speakers of English thought I was promoting Global English or the German sort of “Local Englishes”. Nothing could have been further from the truth and I realised that I must have failed wretchedly to express the mild sarcasm intended.
So I reckon it would not be a good idea to repeat this mistake but I have been wondering ever since whether some kind of test seal should be used to mark non-native speaker texts when they have been edited by native speakers of English. During the past 6 months, I have seen only two documents out of several hundreds that were actually marked: “Edited by + native speaker name”.
Languages have always been subject to change and have evolved naturally over time, the emphasis being on “naturally”. However, never before has this process been artificially accelerated and manipulated by a number of factors which have largely been ignored so far.
It is surprising that such an important development in the English language leading to a uniform system of organised balderdash goes largely unnoticed and undisputed. For the absence of a suitable term, I have taken the liberty of dubbing this process “neo-pidginicity”. Native speakers of English are probably unaware that a kind of linguistic genetic engineering is going on right now, especially on the web. If they are aware of this they may underestimate the impact this may have on Standard English, while others may even aid and abet this engineering process or condone it with their silence.
Raising awareness – among native as well as non-native speakers of English, of how language is helped to develop by tacit acceptance of present poor standards, poor non-native speaker translations of websites and documents of international validity, and inadequate translation software, may help contain the advance of incomprehensible and ambiguous non-native speaker English. However, this may be wishful thinking. It can be assumed that the development of “local Englishes”, with its likely 180 or so local deviations and indiscriminate acceptance as separate variants in non-native English-speaking countries is allowed to persist unchallenged.
What are the alternatives then to introducing local global English variants? Although the notion of being truly competent in English is an agreeable one, there are a number of reasons why it is not possible to impose higher standards, particularly not globally; the major obstacle being the absence of any incentive to become more proficient in English since the poor status quo is considered to be the yardstick. Furthermore, this would require study – a word which seems to be, together with others like “grammar”, “study”, and “homework”, out of bounds. Taking the other stance, that is, deliberately encouraging and perpetuating the status quo and thus, premeditatedly influencing the future development of the English language in an adverse manner by using deliberately sloppy language is not a solution either and smacks too much of cynicism.
Stigmatizing substandard language seems futile, yet I have chosen to do so in the hope of raising awareness among native speakers of English, most of whom have no idea that their tongue is being tampered with by non-native speakers. Perhaps I should emphasize that this is my objective, not my “mission”.
In the meantime, a rigorous analysis of what is going on at the receiving end in the teaching process at all levels, for instance, recording and analysing classroom activities, may assist in reassessing the status quo. Less reliance on the spoken word in unnatural settings, when people learn English, may help too. It follows that it is best that we continue to abide by the role model standards set by native speakers of English.
I wonder why people always want the best software for their computers while they upload, more often than not, substandard learning techniques into their brains
Never before has it been easier to learn a language up to a “true” near-native level. One is left to wonder why, in the age of multi-media, easy access to reasonably-priced self-teaching textbooks and English courses, an array of online dictionaries and hardcopy or CD versions, and a few tried and tested comprehensive grammar books with many exercises, the “Local Englishes” in general, and German English in particular, are as outlandish as they are. What follows now may seem like oversimplified and often heard pieces of advice of yesteryear. Nevertheless, the fact that the principles underlying them have been known for hundreds of years speaks for itself.
Online-hardcover dictionaries and grammar exercise books
One of the most expert and prolific text book authors for Spanish text books, Wolfgang Halm, said in one of his books that for those wanting to acquire a comprehensive knowledge [of any given foreign language], there cannot be enough exercises. This statement coincides with my experience. The kind of mental gymnastics difficult exercises provide is essential to improving one’s language capabilities in all aspects. Contextual vocabulary work is crucial to acquiring a large functional vocabulary. Use as many dictionaries as possible. All too often, entries differ widely. There are more than fifteen monolingual and bilingual online dictionaries available that are based in the UK. Some people prefer hard-cover dictionaries including monolingual dictionaries apart from online versions. One-click translations are a poor substitute and work only with very easy texts. Those interested may want to go treasure hunting for 50 year old grammar bestsellers that offer many more exercises than those currently used in Germany. Interestingly, they were all published about 1960 — 20 years before the communicative teaching method came into full swing with its devastating impact on standards. Surprisingly, they are still available and if your local bookstore does not store them, try amazon.co.uk or amazon.de.
Using internet search engines for homework, essay-writing and more
Research with internet search engines has a great, hitherto untapped potential. You can edit any kind of text, check collocations, do contextual vocabulary work, get rid of pet peeves by copying and pasting into a word processing document as many examples as you need. Even grammatical constructions can be checked, exercises can be compiled. There is nothing better to get a good grasp of the language – much better than swapping errors in group discussions with your fellow students. You can do as many revisions as you like, adding ever more examples and word definitions you come across. Dictionary entries can be copied and pasted as well, even from those dictionaries installed on your computer.
And for good measure, you can fine-tune your techniques by preparing (again by copying and pasting) those fragments you want a voice reading software to read to you, even on your mp3 player. The free-ware software Balabolka is a good start to check out this kind of software. A better-quality software “Voice Reader Home” is available at
and costs € 50.00.
You will, however, need to get used to working with “meaningful” fragments. This depends on your general knowledge and language ability. Bear in mind that the quality of sources is, initially at least, important. The URLs shown in the list of search results usually give you some idea.
Use the advanced search function because you would ideally need the domain box when you want results only from native speaker domains, the major domains being uk, ie, nz, au, ca, us. Yahoo offers you the option to search for more than one domain at a time. Using domains will save you a lot of work going through documents written by non-native speakers whose documents are published on native-speaker- domains. If you prefer documents that are at least edited by native speakers of English, you need to open search results, especially on edu and uni domains, where foreign students publish their documents. As to the search technique, always use the box “the exact phrase” (yahoo) or “the exact wording or phrase”.
Shifting or switching round words, omitting or adding words, using the wild card may help you find what you are looking for. If this does not help, try changing the domains or search the entire internet by leaving the domain box blank. Then you will get domains like net, com etc which do, however, not show you whether they are from a native speaker domain. In this case, you would need to open the search results you find interesting to find out, if the document is on a native speaker domain. Should the need arise that you have to defend yourself against the accusation that you are biased against non-native speaker English (Local Englishes), you may wish to use my stock reply: “Without best input, poor output”.
Reading is not the fashionable thing to do but without reading texts that are not “easy” there will be no mastery of any foreign language. Avoid easy readers or magazines written in simplified or Germanised English.
Do not be afraid of specialist vocabulary. After systematically going through the first 100 pages of any given specialist book, you will have covered a lot of ground and then work will progress much faster.
About this posting
This posting is the last of a series dedicated to topics dealing with various aspects of the English language which usually get short shrift on the internet and in other publications. It is, in a wider sense, concerned with the English language crumbling into incomprehensibility at alarming speed and how society is influenced by it. How do schools and universities react and in what way is literature affected by all this? Furthermore, how do people working in education and linguistics cope with this avalanche of “Local English neologisms”?
What often sounds like modern Pidgin English can generally be put down to neo-pidginicity. It is an artificially accelerated and manipulated process – or rather linguistic genetic engineering – of attempting to oversimplify Standard English, the result of which is in all cases some sort of Neo Pidgin English or Simplified-Simple-Speak. Four major fields of contact contribute to the gradual encroachment on Standard English: Basic Global English, as advocated by Dr. Joachim Grzega, machine translations of any kind, unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity – being passed off as standard English but in fact written by non-native speakers of English, the acceptance of “Local English” and non-native speakers of English teaching their version of “Local English”. The result of the English “produced” in all these areas of contact is often, at best, a barely elevated Pidgin English.
And to compound matters, Globish appears to become a composite haphazard mixture of all about 180 Local Englishes and may for that very reason not be as easy as some people think once it has evolved into a sub-language of Standard English.
A Dictionary of GERMAN ENGLISH or LOCAL ENGLISHES, German version
Why native speakers of English are in dire need of guidance through the Local English (German Version) of their mother tongue