Monday, 7 March 2011

issues to consider in making Inuktitut technical glossaries

The other day I heard in the Nunavut Legislative Assembly some bemused questions surrounding the Inuktitut translation of the poverty reduction strategy because the term used in Inuktitut was "ak&uniq" ("&" stands for the lateral fricative sound) which means "destitution" and brings up images of a begger on the streets. Granted, we have pan-handlers but most Inuit wouldn't regard them as destitute (same difference as how difficult it is to consider "homelessness" in Nunavut where the freezing cold unfortunately hides the real issue and we call it "over-crowding" and "couch-surfing" here).

This example made me think of the difficulties surrounding specialized discourse in science and politics where a term in common usage is invariably different (however slight the difference) than the meanings used in specialized fields.

Before Newton, the word "gravity" in English had a specific meaning that denoted "seriousness" which is still evident in the phrase: the gravity of the matter; much of the "latinized" nomenclature for scientific concepts consist of simple compound words like "brachiopodia" which actually means "hand-foot" and I somehow doubt that had Latin been a "living" language that there wouldn't have at least been some bemusement the same kind as the above Inuktitut speakers did with the word "destitution".

Most technical terms (outside of law) aren't just about "splitting hairs" nor are they a mere matter of semantics. Agreed upon conventions of naming are so important in formalized public discourse that we need credible and accredited authorities to strike definitions for specialist terms. At the international level, most of these conventions appeal to mathematical notation and symbolism as the basis which are outside of but not beyond any one specific natural language (despite what English-speaking peoples think, scientific nomenclature is not English).

This means that there is a certain degree of freedom to name something in Inuktitut, say, to denote the symbolism. After creating a pattern for naming, for example, I played around with the naming of chemical elements for my own amusement and I named hydrogen (with the symbol, H) after the mother of the sun and the moon, Lumaajuq, and "paujuq" for carbon. Then, following the pattern I created, I was able to consider compounding "hydro-carbons" as lumaajapaujut (for CH4, for eg). The point is to try and make the naming principle as consistent as possible with forethought regardless of language used.

The best way I know of on how to introduce new uses of terms in any language in a discourse is to define (or contrast) the concept then show how to use the suggested term grammatically and meaningfully in a language. The main point is to make the specialized definition and the constructed term as logically consistent and clear as possible with the clear qualification that the suggested term may not necessarily be cognate with the term in common useage in a given language.

There is and always will be resistence to neologisms or "hijacking" of common terms for formalized discourse from laypersons but that is the nature and necessity (ie, unavoidable) of ever-evolving human languages and societies. But the main distinction we have to be mindful of is that scientific neologisms are entirely different than and not as insideous as bureaucratic euphemisms like down-sizing, collateral damage, retooling, making redundant, etc.


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