May 17, 2015

The three branches of linguistics and why all good translators should know them

by brenton

The Study of Language Form

Although linguistics is a really broad field covering the study of language in all its forms, it can be essentially broken down into three parts.  The first part is the study of language form, which includes morphology—the study of words and how they are composed, syntax—the study of how these words are formed into phrases and phonology—the study of the sounds of language.

One might think that this first part, which is just the study of form, is all that a speaker or translator requires in order to translate from one language to another and, essentially, this is true.  Once you know the form of a language, you have enough information to convert words from one language into words from another.

The Study of Meanings

However, there are other parts of linguistics as well, such as the study of meanings.  A translator might assume that two words in two different languages mean the same thing.  However, we often find that there isn’t such a one-on-one correspondence between words and meanings.  Sometimes, a certain word or phrase just doesn’t have a corresponding word or phrase in another language.

For example, take the French phrases “joie de vivre” and “je ne sais quoi.”  “Joy of life” and “a certain something” are the closest translations to these phrases in English, but they don’t express exactly what the phrases mean.  “Joie de vivre” is more than just “joy of life”; it’s a philosophy of life.  It’s about living the life of a “bon vivant,” someone who enjoys the good things in life.  It’s about approaching life in a certain way and enjoying it in all its sensual aspects.

So when it comes to the study of meanings in linguistics, one might make a distinction between the denotations of words and their connotations.  Denotations are simpler to define e.g., the word “book” refers to a physical thing which has pages, a cover and writing in the middle.  Connotations are not so simple and refer to what a certain culture or group of people might mean by a certain word e.g., all the above meanings of “joie de vivre” which, simply speaking, only means “joy of life.”

Language in Context

The third part of the study of linguistics involves studying language in context.  So it might refer to studying the evolution and history of languages.  Then there’s sociolinguistics which studies language within society or culture.  Neurolinguistics studies language as a function of the brain.

Translation Services and Linguistics

A good translator needs to be aware, as far as possible, of all the three branches of linguistics.  Just knowing the words and the grammatical structures is a good start, but a study of the meanings of words takes us a little bit further towards a good translation.  And knowing the context within which a language arose or how human beings as social creatures form languages helps to capture the subtleties and nuances of language that are important in translation services.  Contact us for translation services that go beyond the basics and capture the real essence of your words.

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