Language and context

One of my Nuance pals (Liz) and I were roped into giving a 2-minute presentation at The Hub Zürich before Christmas. Loosely based on the Ignite concept, the brief was: your project – 2 minutes – be creative. About 15 of us presented on the night.

Our project? Hmm. Seeing as Liz and I each have rather a lot of projects in various stages of development on the go at any one time, we realised this was going to require a truly creative response.

Our goal was not to present literally the kinds of work we do as Nuance Words (that would take months), but rather to present a scenario in which context matters. Because context is one of the universals in the world of words, whether you’re a writer, editor, translator, or branding and language strategist. It’s something Liz and Jill and I all think about a lot.

What I love about Switzerland is that it has four official languages, with English often used as a default. This makes understanding context an imperative – because with every language comes a whole raft of cultural connotations and, er, nuances.

Often, the English I speak on a day-to-day basis is much simplified. Indeed, Partner in Crime complains that his vocabulary has reduced since we moved here, through lack of use – I guess that’s one of the down-sides of working in a multicultural environment. But the other part of this is that speaking to non-native English speakers forces me to be clear about what I’m going to say. I have to think before I speak and make sure the words I choose can’t be misinterpreted. You’d be surprised how tricky that can be. It’s a bit of a challenge for me because I love my friends Colloquialism and Metaphor. Now, usually, I leave them at home.

Even within the Nuance team we have to be on Yellow Alert, because we come from three different English-speaking countries: Australia, the UK and the USA. When we write ‘organization/organisation’, for example, we quibble about ‘z’ or ‘s’. (In Switzerland, ‘z’ is most often used, by the way, even though most other spellings tend to be UK-English.)

So how does context matter for Charlotte? When Charlotte and Lyla needed to have a few languages up their sleeves, I opted for the obvious German (they live in the German-speaking part of the country), French (kids often start learning French in 4th Class), and a bit of Italian, even though the language they use with each other is English. (Got it?!)

[Spoiler alert: Byron happens to be fluent in French because he lived in Geneva, but Charlotte and Lyla haven’t disovered this yet.]

I have yet to see how this will be received by readers other than Ms12. She lives and breathes this multi-lingual environment, but that’s not everyone’s experience. I guess the trick is going to be to try not to interrupt the flow of the narrative with ‘foreign’ words that might jog the reader out of the otherwise smooth reading experience. I also don’t want Ms12 to tune out when she comes across an English word (and there are many) that she doesn’t know.

On the other hand, I love language and so does Ms12, and I’m sure there’s a way to make having tastes of several languages – as well as encountering some stonkingly good English words – an integral part of the Charlotte Aimes reading journey.

And that’s the great thing about literature. Every time you plunge into a book you discover a different context in which ideas are played out or explored. So where the ideas themselves might not be new, the context probably is.

Building a convincing context, however… Well, that’s the challenge!

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