Prentiss Riddle: Language

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Taxonomic imperialism

I'm in the last evening of my quick conference trip to Montreal, and have been enjoying this gentlest possible exposure to French. I had intended to use this trip as an opportunity for linguistic tourism, with no illusions that I'd be speaking any French but that perhaps an afternoon's study beforehand would help me make sense of a bit of it. Alas, I never got around to preparing; I even left my Essential French Grammar at home and so couldn't cram on the plane. I do have the feeling that at this point I could start to triangulate on French from the languages I already know; Portuguese in an odd way seems to have helped a lot with making things like verbs start to seem familiar in a way that Spanish alone did not. The crucial element that I don't have a foothold on, though, is a mapping between spelling and phonology. Without it I can't connect what I see (in signage, etc.) with what I hear. Maybe on another trip.

But even the limited experience of French I've been getting has some sociolinguistic surprises. Something led me to believe that most service jobs would be occupied by francophones, but the staff at the coffee shops all seem to speak English among themselves even though they say "bon jour" to me. (Maybe that's just because I'm staying so close to McGill.) And the bus driver on the way in from the airport made a point of correcting his American passengers' pronunciation of the hotel to "Queen ElizaBET". Funny that he didn't mind leaving the word "queen" untranslated but insisted that the proper name of the English queen conform to the French pronunciation.

I received conflicting advice on the proper etiquette for non-French-speaking visitors to Montreal. One source suggested learning to say bon jour, merci and a couple of other minimal phrases and using them with French speakers as a friendly gesture. The other source said no, don't even try or they'll hate you for botching the language. The first seems like common courtesy, but the jury is still out on which one is right.

Watch my other blog for info on the confereence, the Information Architecture Summit. The pertinent bit for this blog is that there were a number of sessions on internationalization and localization, but (damn it!) I didn't get to go to any of them. Instead I'll pass on this quote blogged by another attendee:

If you realize that categorization is essentially a framing activity, a la lakoff, then taxonomy translation (as opposed to localization) is an imperialist activity.

-- Christina Wodtke
language 2005.03.07 link