Living Among You, Living With You!

Published August 29, 2018 by Miss Victoria B. Fendel

Language, Linguistic Systems, Idiomatic Exclamations, Misinterpretation

Victoria B. Fendel reflects upon the significance of our language(s) to societal life and, in particular, on how the process of translation can interfere with the actually intended meaning and how this can result in misunderstanding and/or conflict.

It is often said that human beings' ability to think rationally and to use complex linguistic systems, that is languages, is what sets us apart from other species. In fact, language is our most important tool as it allows us to create societies and, what may be even more important, to manage these societies effectively. We communicate, we argue, we convey meaning, we create meaning (cf. Philipps and Hardy 2002), we understand, we misunderstand – this is just the beginning of a list that could be continued endlessly. However, this very fact, the crucial importance of language in and to our societies makes language not only a tool but can also turn it into a barrier. Think, for example, of people fleeing from one and to another country, of people emigrating from one and immigrating to another country, be it for personal or work-related reasons, of students moving from one country to the next. They all try to keep up with learning the language of the host country. Yet for all of them, language is at first a barrier and only gradually evolves into a tool.

Apart from these basic practical issues, every language is an intricate system of elements. Thus, when aspects are taken out of their original context, this may result in misinterpretation because taking them in isolation is somewhat artificial. Moreover, language often also has an iconic function. However, we are usually unable to analyse every element of our first language because we acquire this language naturally with a clear focus on its functionality (cf. language acquisition vs. language learning). Thus, many expressions that seem iconic to outsiders are banal to 'insiders'.

The most interesting example in this context is idiomatic exclamations to convey a strong emotion and / or comment on a situation. Idiomatic exclamations are often rooted in the culture like many idioms and metaphors (cf. also Wood 2015, Wray 2009). Native speakers produce these as chunks, that is as unanalysable units. For instance, do we actually still recognise the originally Christian elements in the following English idioms? A blessing in disguise, a baptism of fire, the crux of the matter, going through hell and high water, and in the exclamation for God's / heaven's sake.

Idiomatic exclamations are easy to misinterpret if taken as analysable rather than as fossilised expressions nowadays. This is because they have to a certain extent grammaticalized (cf. Hopper and Traugott 2003, Bybee 2010), that is they have lost their original compositional semantics and syntax. The issue of misinterpretation is of particular relevance in the media because translations are omnipresent. Darwish in her 2010 book analyses the difficulties of producing a clear, unbiased and thus useful translation in news reports. One famous example where interpretation in news reports often fails is the exclamation ان . As with other idiomatic exclamations, a word-by-word translation into English will change the meaning intended by the speaker. Furthermore, Darwish (2010: 162–164) discusses the difficulty of rendering allah in English. Should we borrow the Arabic word into English or should we rather translate it? What may be more important than any translation may be to acknowledge the idiomatic nature of the exclamation. Any translation, which is by nature an interpretation, should start from there.

To come back to the title, if language is a barrier, we only live among others, but not with them. By contrast, once language becomes a tool that is used appropriately and effectively, we really live with others. In essence, we do not only have to learn how to handle the tool but also how to handle the tool in a specific context. Like everything else, language does not emerge from and exist in a vacuum.

This blog is written by Victoria B. Fendel, who has just finished her PhD at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford with a thesis on language contact between post-classical Greek and Coptic.


Bybee, J. (2010). Language, Usage and Cognition. Cambridge.

Darwish, A. (2010). A Journalist's Guide to Live Direct and Unbiased News Translations. Melbourne.

Hopper, P., and Traugott, E. (2003). Grammaticalization. 2nd edition. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge.

Phillips, N., and Hardy, C. (2002). Discourse Analysis: Investigating Processes of Social Construction. Thousand Oaks.

Wood, D. (2015). Fundamentals of Formulaic Language: An introduction. London.

Wray, A. (2009). 'Identifying Formulaic Language. Persistent Challenges and New Opportunities', in Corrigan, R. (ed.), Formulaic Language 1: Distribution and Historical Change. Typological Studies in Language 82. Philadelphia, 27–52.

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