The Perils of Language

If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.   – Doug Larson

1380578_10153377401325311_779322537_nThe only thing about language that one can say with any certainty is that it will eventually trip you up, particularly the English language. I have long said that English is the most nonsensical language of all. It is so complicated that the mere misplacement of a comma can change the meaning of a sentence completely.

A great example of this is the sentence – Woman without her man is nothing. This sentence was part of a famous research project. Men and women were asked to add commas to the sentence. Inevitably men would punctuate the sentence thus – Woman, without her man, is nothing. Women on the other hand would punctuate the sentence thus – Woman: Without her, man is nothing. This is a great example of the complexities of the English language. The mere placement of the comma can change the meaning of a sentence entirely.

English is full of synonyms and words that break rules . They look the same but sound different. Such words are forever tripping deaf people up, much to the mirth of others. Often reading a word is the first time a deaf person may have have encountered a word. This is because many deaf people miss out on the crucial vocabulary tool of overhearing.

When encountering a word in print for the first time people will typically try to pronounce it phonetically. This happens a lot for deaf people and often they get it horribly wrong. Who the hell thought up silent letters anyway. Without silent letters psychology would be spelt sychology. Even if it was, because we are taught to say things phonetically, many deaf people wouldn’t know if it was pronounced sickology or siekology. It is just cruel. If you want to really grasp the complexities of English consider the following poem:

When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose, dose, and lose

In recent days I have been thinking about language and how it embarrasses us constantly. This all came about because during recent and tragic NSW bushfires a sign language interpreter was photographed signing available. This was the source of much merriment to many.

For readers who do not know Australian Sign Language (AUSLAN) the sign for available is two middle fingers pointed upwards, a bit apart. It looks as if the signer is flipping the bird. But what one must also do is move the portruding fingers. One finger goes clockwise and the other goes anti-clockwise. To the untrained eye this actually makes the sign look worse because it gives the impression of flipping the bird repeatedly and to numerous people.

Of course, social-media being what it is, the photograph of the unfortunate interpreter became a national phenomenon. Said one wag, “ All this time I thought I was telling people to f#%k off and I was actually telling them that I was available.” I mean no disrespect to the interpreter in question, and particularly the victims of the bushfires, but this made me laugh. It made me laugh because translating one language to another is fraught with danger. Particularly when one is not proficient in a particular language.

Truth be known, the example of the interpreter signing available and having it misconstrued as a rude sign is not strictly translating. Really it is just people responding to their perceptions. Of course most people do not know sign language so the only perspective they have is what they know. Hence they laugh and mock the available sign because from their field of experience it is a rude gesture. Some hardliners in the Deaf community were actually upset that the general public were making fun of their language. Other nut-jobs have actually called for the sign in question to be banned.

It probably has been a good thing for the Deaf community because it has people talking about sign language. I am pretty sure that because of the photograph more than a few people will start to make some enquiries about sign language. Some of these people will end up learning sign language. Some may actually, over time, become proficient enough to become sign language interpreters. Who knows?

That said, the misunderstanding or misinterpreting of language can have tragic consequences. Consider the case where a very sick patient was being treated at a Florida hospital. The patient and his family only spoke Spanish. They were assisted by a bilingual staff member. The family members were gesticulating and saying intoxicado which the staff member translated as intoxicated. Doctors began to treat the patient as if he was drunk or had a drug overdose. The proper translation of intoxicado is poisoned. The consequence was that the mistreatment led to the patient becoming permanently paralysed. The hospital in question ended up having to payout $71 million to the unfortunate patient. Moral of the story? Always use a professional interpreter.

In today’s world we have infinite opportunities to make a mess of language. We are constantly communicating through any number of electronic devices, virtually 24 hours a day. Sometimes the autocorrect on these devices causes untold embarrassment. I am hopeless with the small keyboard of a smartphone. I am forever making mistakes. It has become so bad that I have apparently invented a new language called GARYSPEAK.


When using mobile devices like smartphones autocorrect mistakes can be hilarious. The web is fully of side splitting examples. Imagine the message to the left appearing on your phone as a text message.

Then of course we have live captioning on TV. Live captioners have the most difficult of jobs. They sometimes make mistakes. Usually this is because they sometimes phonetically present words that they hear. Once they appear on the screen there is no going back.  Live television has been host to some hilarious live captioning errors. Below is an example. This error ironically occurring during bushfires in America: (Evacuating is the correct word)


As William James once said  – Language is the most imperfect and expensive means yet discovered for communicating thought.  ~ We can do well to heed these words, because the mistakes we make with language are often unforgiving.



3 thoughts on “The Perils of Language

  1. Well said The Rebuttal! The same issues took place during the 2011 floods/cyclone when a Qld interpreter also used the same sign, much to the amusement of people illiterate in Auslan but it is good to see you take this conversation further.

  2. Great article! It helps give a fresh perspective on our language and communication in general and sends an important message to everyone, thank you for this article 🙂

    • I agree but acknowledge that some things will never be the same, lost in translation I might call it. There’s a hell of a lot of that out here in the hearing world……..hearing is taken for granted which can become ignorance.

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