Monday, July 19, 2010

More on the Lexicon

For the distinction made here between dictionary and lexicon, see the June 30 post.
What interests us most from the translation viewpoint is how the words in the lexicons of the two languages of bilinguals – assuming each language has its own lexicon – are linked and matched. At its simplest, our translation lexicon might be formed of simple word pairings like the Ebla tablets (see June 9 post). For many common words, bilinguals can produce the ‘default’ translation instantly and as if automatically. Default translation means the most common translation in the absence of any context. There’s no doubt the Spanish default translation for house is casa, even though there are other translations in certain contexts and situations, and that’s the translation a Natural Translator is likely to give if asked. Jules Ronjat’s little boy Louis (French-speaking father, German-speaking mother) was observed at 1 year 8 months spontaneously saying word pairs like oeil/Auge (French and German for eye) and Schiff/bateau (German and French for boat; he did the pairing in both directions).
But how about meaning? All words that aren’t nonsense words have a meaning (or concept) as well as a speech form. Do we store a concept for casa and a concept for house and link the two concepts in some way, or do we have two lexicons of word forms but only one joint store of meanings? That’s a question that psycholinguists have been debating for as long as I can remember, which is over 30 years ago, when I heard Paul Kolers talk about how bilinguals represent experience. The model currently favoured is the Three-Store Hypothesis (see diagram).
It’s easy to show that the shared concept hypothesis needs to be nuanced for anything but elementary default translations. For one thing, there are the differences, according to language, between what the French call le découpage de la réalité (the way we slice up the world). Casa/house, for example, fails as soon we come to translate Me voy a casa (I’m going home), because the concept of ‘casa’ overlaps the concept of ’home’. Here’s how Michel Paradis gets around this:
Note that… ‘a common conceptual system’ does not imply that the same concept corresponds to a lexical item in Lx and its lexical equivalent in Lz, but that they share some of the conceptual features [my emphasis], though each may also (and most often does) contain features not included in the other.
It follows that the common store is not one of completely formed concepts but of component conceptual features, and that they combine differently for different languages.
Anyway, I want to come back to meanings as the link between words and their translations in the lexicon. It’s clear that word forms and meanings are separable. Even in a single language, we find synonyms with different word forms by the link of meaning. However, it’s also possible that once we've learnt that x is a translation of y, and especially if the process is repeated, we store it as a ‘ready-made’ translation and reproduce it automatically whenever we are stimulated by hearing either x or y. This applies not only to single words but also to ‘stock phrases’. Thus, if asked how to say I’m going home in Spanish, I’ll say Me voy a casa without even thinking of casa/house.
Here’s a suggestion. Introspection is looked down on in scientific circles as being too individual and subject to bias or wishful thinking. Nevertheless, it has its advantages: it can be done by anybody anywhere on one’s own and it costs nothing. Also it's the basis of the technique that's widely used in translation research and is called think-aloud protocol. So next time you’re hunting for a translation and then it comes to mind or you work it out, ask yourself how you came by it. Did it just ’pop up’? Did you have to think of the meaning of the source word, perhaps imagine what the thing it named looked like, before arriving at the translation? Or were you led by similarity of sound? – not all similar-sounding translations are ‘false friends’. Or did you maybe give up on your own lexicon and go to a dictionary to consult the collective lexicon of a whole speech community?
  • Paul A. Kolers (University of Toronto, died c1986). On the representation of experience. In D. Gerver and H. W. Sinaiko (eds.), Language Interpretation and Communication, New York and London, Plenum, 1978. pp. 243-258.
  • Michel Paradis (McGill University, Montreal). A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2004.
  • Jules Ronjat (1864-1925, University of Geneva). Le développement du langage observé chez un enfant bilingue. Paris: Champion, 1913.
From Michel Paradis' book, but he took it from a Scientific American article by Paul Kolers.

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