The creolization of international business English

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The creolization of international business English

Post by Phil White » Fri Nov 18, 2005 12:24 pm

In a piece of work I just received for proofing ("nothing special, just get rid of any spelling errors or grammatical mistakes", they said), the following paragraph made me think back to a discussion we had recently on Jamaican Creole (see here).
On top of each other assembled objectives reflect the content dependencies and deliver via the associated engineering elements along their stage of maturity their contribution to the complete strategy.
Or in the same document:
The [company name]-Substance – an excellent foundation – purposeful used, to systematic further development!
These same people hold top-level presentations in English for international audiences and draft contracts in English. I would say that Erik's contention in our previous discussion does not hold.
For instance, while it is true that the origins of creole languages are partly rooted in their original use as trading languages, you could not expect them to function equally well as such nowadays; it would be one thing to buy and sell tangible goods in a produce market, and quite another to negotiate a complex contract for the future supply, maintenance and renewal of a telecommunications network.
These guys are in the business of writing bespoke software for offer, contract and order management and negotiate their own multimillion dollar contracts.

Both texts (and the remaining 7 pages of the document) bear all the marks of creolization. The substrate language (from which the simplified grammar is taken) is German and the lexifier language (from which the lexis is taken) is English. Although I receive a fair amount from this company for translation or proofing, there is much, particularly of a contractual nature, that I do not see, and the vast majority of business correspondence does not go through the hands of a native speaker. And yet the company is successful and has made its mark in the international market.

The very strange thing about pidgins and creoles is that they are actually more difficult for a native speaker of the lexifier language to understand than they are for non-native speakers, which is one of the reasons why English (or what I am increasingly inclined to call "Business English Creole") is actually the preferred language of communication between, say, an Italian and a Swedish businesswoman, even if the Swede has a reasonable command of Italian.

Material such as the examples above is commonplace in international business, and I fail to see a substantive difference between that and a developed creole, particularly if an attempt was made to reflect the accent with which the material is delivered in the orthography used. Okay, they have adopted a few buzzwords specific to the trade, but the structure is certainly no more elegant than Jamaican Creole.
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The creolization of international business English

Post by Andrew Dalby » Fri Nov 18, 2005 1:43 pm

Continuing from what Phil says here: although the safe rule for getting a good translation is 'employ a native speaker of the target language' (who must have some other skills too of course) this rule is often set aside, even by organizations that ought to know better, when they want a translation INTO ENGLISH. Why? I guess (a) because they now have so many employees who have studied English, but also (b) because, as the international language par excellence, English is now felt to belong to everybody.

The translation of My name is red by the major (or severe) Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is practically unreadable in my view (though you can see how good it OUGHT to be) because the translator employed was Turkish. The recent translation of Snow by the same author, translated by Maureen Freely, who one might guess has English as a native language!, is very readable.

Sorry, this is getting off topic to say the least

Andrew
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The creolization of international business English

Post by Shelley » Fri Nov 18, 2005 7:38 pm

Phil White, I'm amazed. One would conclude that it is not the intention of these writers to communicate anything at all, but simply to string together a group of multisyllabic words which sound authoritative. If comprehension is achieved, it's pure accident and probably incorrect. I hope you get paid well.
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The creolization of international business English

Post by russcable » Fri Nov 18, 2005 7:46 pm

Given the oddness/complexity of the entire sentence (and how long it took me to find a verb in it), I'm now confused by "On top of each other assembled objectives reflect...." It seems to me I could read it:
On top of each, other assembled objectives reflect
(could be if there's an antecedant for each in a prior sentence)
On top of each other, assembled objectives reflect
(most likely, but is it really the right one?)
On top of each other assembled, objectives reflect
(awkward but possible misordering of "Assembled on top of each other")
On top of each other assembled objectives, reflect
(imperative, the reader should reflect)
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The creolization of international business English

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Nov 18, 2005 8:34 pm

Phil, I will go along with you to a certain extent. The examples you cited do indeed appear to be structured in accordance with how German grammar would dictate, and thus could be said to conform to the pattern of a creole. But in other respects I think the analogy of what you refer to as Business English Creole (let’s call it BEC) with creoles in general is stretching things, as I will attempt to show:

Every writer who has not fully mastered English is likely to inject grammatical structures from his/her own language, leading to highly diverse results. For instance, a Frenchman would have constructed the same example sentences entirely differently. It stands to reason that BEC is much more variable in the form it takes than Jamaican Creole, also in part because the basic grasp of English varies greatly from one non-native English speaker to another. It is reasonable to suppose that a German would experience similar problems to an Englishman/woman when attempting to make sense of what the Frenchman had written, especially if they did not know any French themselves. (Russ's attempts to understand your example text demonstrate the kinds of problems and confusions involved.) How well would BEC written by an Italian be understood by a Finn? BEC is often used merely because it is the lowest common denominator medium in which it can be assumed that all parties are more or less competent, not because its merits make it inherently preferable.

The contention that a company can generate English-like output which is not normal English and still be successful is also open to question. We don’t know how much more successful it might be if it used native English speakers to produce its written output. Or it could be trading in an environment in which the ‘rules of the game’ are already implicitly understood by most of the participants, so there is little need to resort to litigation or scrutiny of the contractual fine print for companies to succeed in doing business with each other. It might in fact be that a company is successful not because of the effectiveness of its BEC, but despite its relative uselessness. After all, trading partners are more strongly motivated to make their deals work than to find reasons for being at loggerheads with each other; everything else being equal, the first approach will be more financially profitable than the second. Or it may be that what is contractually important to the parties is the personal rapport of the principals and what they recall from their face-to-face negotiations, not how the results of those negotiations are written up in quasi-English.

Altogether, it seems to me that ‘Business English Creole’ is just a label of convenience attached to a highly heterogeneous phenomenon rather than comprising a distinct entity in its own right. I think the furthest one can go in comparing it to a genuine creole language is to say that non-native speakers will tend to apply the grammar of their own language to the English they produce, while using a vocabulary that draws heavily from Standard English business jargon: if I am learning Romanian and inject English grammatical structures into my would-be Romanian output, that does not turn the way I speak or write Romanian into a creole. It is merely a reflection of my failure to discard the preconceptions I have brought with me from my mother tongue. The fact that there may be many more people like me, all with their own mother tongues and different levels of ability in Romanian, does not mean that we collectively speak a Romanian creole. It would be much more accurate just to describe our various linguistic outputs as 'broken Romanian', some of which will be more (or less) broken than the rest.
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The creolization of international business English

Post by Phil White » Fri Nov 18, 2005 8:36 pm

Russ,
As I say, it's pure creole, man. The lexis is English, the grammar is German. Being fluent in German helps to understand it. The entire "on top of each other assembled" is an adjectival phrase describing "objectives" - a very common construction in German. Something along the lines of "objectives which build on each other" is what's needed. (Whether that actually makes any logical sense is another issue entirely). Pre-qualification of a subject in German can cause considerable grief to unwary readers or listeners. Some authors carry it to extremes over several lines and there is one presenter of the local classical radio programme here who can do it on the fly. Beautiful to listen to when it's done properly and all the nested subordinations close out properly.

Shelley,
Yes, you are quite right; the intention is to obfuscate. Seriously. The real farce starts when I say that I used to do a fair amount of this for another company. In that case, it was generally reports from my customer, a medium-sized German company, to its owner (a large German multinational). The latter decided that its corporate language is English and that all meetings above a certain managerial level must be held in English, irrespective of the fact that only German native speakers are present. Also, all internal communication (above a certain level) and most external communication is to be in English. It has been known that I have received an incomprehensible set of slides to review through official channels and the original German slides directly from the author's private E-Mail address so that I could actually translate them and ignore the "English". I've since managed to persuade my customer to just let me translate them. Much less grief for all concerned.

And no, I don't get paid well. It costs me more in broken keyboards.
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The creolization of international business English

Post by Phil White » Fri Nov 18, 2005 9:04 pm

Erik,
Quite so. The first example would have been understandable only to a speaker of a Germanic language, if at all. "Germanic Business English Creole" would have been a better description. Nevertheless, it amazes me that communication takes place at all with such tools, but it manifestly does. The point I had actually intended to make (but looking back, it seems that it crept out through a glitch in the algorithm) was that the first passage in particular gives a neat insight into the genesis of pidgins and creoles, albeit with a far more advanced lexis.

What actually concerns me (entirely selfishly as a professional translator who makes a living from the real McCoy) is that this is touted as English, and not as an auxiliary language ("who needs translators when we can communicate in English such as this?").

On a far lighter note, this is an approximate transcript of a phone conversation I had with a customer many years ago.

Me: Hello, you sent me a file to translate a short while ago.
Customer: That's right.
Me: Well, I have a problem with it.
Customer: What's that?
Me: I think the file must be corrupt. It doesn't make sense.
Customer: What do you mean?
(I read a couple of lines)
Customer: Yes, that's the file.
Me: But it doesn't make sense. The first sentence has no verb nor, for that matter, any subject. Only an object and a relative clause. It seems as though there are bits missing right through the text.
Customer: Ah, yes. We deleted the words we can translate ourselves to save money.
Straight!
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The creolization of international business English

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Nov 18, 2005 9:17 pm

That's hysterical. On a similar note, I recall reading in Language International about an English boss who urgently needed to have some documentation translated into Swedish. So he sent a gofer out to the local bookshop to buy a bunch of English-Swedish dictionaries, distributed them to his monoglot English employees, and told them to translate the documents over the weekend.
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The creolization of international business English

Post by haro » Fri Nov 18, 2005 11:08 pm

Phil, especially the first example sounds to me like a translation produced by a computer program, much more sophisticated than Babelfish and other joke programs but without human interference. I have no experience with such programs, but I imagine a German text being translated by a fairly sophisticated translation program could yield such a result. If my assumption is correct, that means guys like you won't be replaced by computers any time soon.
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The creolization of international business English

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Nov 18, 2005 11:29 pm

That assertion of Hans Joerg's impelled me to see what Babelfish (http://www.babelfish.altavista.com) would make of an English text based on German grammar if it was asked to turn it into German. So I input Phil's example sentence:

"On top of each other assembled objectives reflect the content dependencies and deliver via the associated engineering elements along their stage of maturity their contribution to the complete strategy."

and obtained the following result:

"Auf einander baute Zielsetzungen reflektieren die zufriedenen Abhängigkeiten und liefern über die verbundenen Technikelemente entlang ihrem Stadium von Reife ihren Beitrag zur kompletten Strategie zusammen."

The outcome is not too wonderful (e.g. it has translated 'content' in this context as though it means 'satisfied' rather than 'constituent matter'), but it is not too terrible either. It did a reasonable job of getting the grammar right.

On previous occasions when I have used the same program to assist with the translation of short texts into and out of German, I have been struck by how much better Babelfish is at translating from English into German than vice versa. The principal caveat regarding that assertion is that it is impossible to force Babelfish to generate familiar-form pronouns in German (e.g. 'du' instead of 'Sie') when they are appropriate to the context. Instead, apart from a few locutions such as 'I love you' ('Ich liebe dir' in German rather than the improbably polite 'Ich liebe Sie'), which I suppose have been explicitly coded in such a way as to force the familiar form of 'you' to be generated, Babelfish invariably uses the polite form.

The Babelfish programmers have been either too unimaginative or too lazy to permit the obvious solution of allowing the now-obsolete/regional/dialectal 'thou', 'thee', 'thy' and 'thine' familiar-form pronouns to replace 'you'/'your'/'yours' in the source English text as a way of remedying this deficiency; the program simply does not understand these pronouns, and reproduces them unchanged in the target text. This is very irritating, and also very stupid.
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The creolization of international business English

Post by Phil White » Sat Nov 19, 2005 2:46 pm

For me, it doesn't bear the marks of machine translation, but perhaps you're right.

The reason why Babelfish works better into some languages (and across some language pairs) lies primarily in the syntax of the languages concerned. Because German has retained a relatively complex case system, word order is not such a vital syntactical element as it is in English. English word order is normal in simple sentences in German (as are large swathes of the syntactical constructions used in English) and generally acceptable, if not necessarily normal, in complex sentences. The reverse is not true with complex sentences. German can use structures comparable to English structures in complex sentences, but in practice only does so perhaps 30% of the time (off the top of my head). The more complex a sentence becomes, the more the constructions and word order differ from what we would see in English. The upshot is that if you substitute the correct words in an English sentence and by and large adapt the grammar correctly, the result will be something broadly comprehensible in German. The reverse process produces something barely comprehensible in English.

By a similar token, entire languages and language groups translate more or less well into other languages. If the translators involved are equally skilled, a translation of, say, Tolstoy, into German will generally be closer to the flavour of the original than a translation into French or English, because there is a greater degree of overlap in terms of the structure of the languages. The translator can concentrate on an entirely different set of problems than how to reconstruct complex linguistic interrelationships in a language which does not permit the same interrelationships.

The reduction of the meaning carried by purely structural elements of a language (yes, that does make sense - structure does carry meaning) into a form which is independent of the language used to express the utterance is something that has eluded computational scientists for the past 50 years, despite Chomsky's valiant efforts. Although many approaches (and Chomsky has had at least three fundamentally different ones) provide fascinating insights into the way a language works, I have yet to see anything that comes close to forming a tenable basis for that holy grail of computational linguists, machine translation. To put it bluntly, we don't really have a watertight method of describing the way that a single language works, let alone a method which can be applied to all languages, even those from remote families.
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The creolization of international business English

Post by T. Golden » Thu Nov 24, 2005 2:00 am

Phil and Erik,

I'm trying to fully understand all the points you've both raised here. But I don't know what the definition of "creole" really is. Could you both give your own explanation for exactly what a creole language is and why it's created?

Thank you.
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The creolization of international business English

Post by Phil White » Thu Nov 24, 2005 10:15 am

Thelma,

The boundaries between what are regarded as pidgins, creoles and established languages are fluid.

Stated as simply as possible, the distinction generally drawn is that a pidgin is a form of communication which arises when people of different linguistic backgrounds have to communicate with each other (often for the purposes of trading) and is not spoken natively, whereas a creole usually develops from a pidgin into a native language for a community. Generally, pidgins are crude systems, having little recognizable grammar and where the lexis (vocabulary) is often taken from several of the contributing languages and is limited in its coverage. Pidgins are restricted in use (ie they are used only in specific contexts) and, importantly, are spoken by nobody as a native language. They can be short-lived, such as the English-based pidgin that developed in Saigon during the Vietnam war, or can have a longer life and become more sophisticated. In particular, if children of the various contributing communities grow up together and have no common language of communication than the pidgin, the grammar can become fixed and the vocabulary considerably expanded. The language then becomes a creole. This process is known as creolization. (My use of the term in the title of this thread is a reversal of the normal usage.)

In most cases, creoles take the majority of their lexis from a high-prestige language (often the language of the relevant colonial power), but the grammar is generally taken from the other contributory languages. The language(s) from which the grammar is taken is usually called the substrate language, and the language from which the lexis is taken is called the superstrate or lexifier language. If significant contact is maintained with the prestige language from which the creole arose, a process of decreolization often sets in, where the creole shifts towards the prestige language, often leaving in its wake a creole continuum from very conservative versions of the creole (the basilect) through a series of mesolects up to the standard prestige language (the acrolect). This is very much the situation with Jamaican Creole in the UK, for instance, although in Jamaica itself, the creole is largely intact. Critically, a creole is a fully functioning language and is spoken by a community as a native language. It is only in its historical evolution from two or more contributory languages and a certain simplification of grammar that a creole can be usefully distinguished from other established languages.

Against that background, it is interesting to view English itself as a sort of creole with Anglo-Saxon as the substrate language and French (or more accurately, Norman) as the primary lexifier. The analogy does not survive extensive investigation, but there are parallels in the simplification of the grammar of the substrate language and the wholesale adoption of the lexis of the prestige language. Unlike most creoles, however, considerable amounts of the core lexis come from the substrate language. It is, of course, also possible to view Anglo-Saxon itself as a creole drawn from a number of Low German and Scandinavian sources.

You'll find excellent, in-depth treatment of creoles and pidgins in Suzanne Romaine's "Language in Society", and Crystal's article in the "Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language" is a useful wee introduction.

The study of creoles has provided considerable insights into the nature of language acquisition, but has also spawned considerable heated debate about several issues. In particular, it has been observed that, irrespective of the superstrate and substrate languages involved, the grammatical structures of virtually all creoles bear a striking resemblance to each other. Some have argued that this is evidence for a common historical root for all creoles, with the parent creole then being disseminated along the trade routes. The opposite camp argues that creoles provide evidence of an innate awareness of grammar and structure common to all peoples and their languages. This latter hypothesis underpins much of the work on universal grammar associated in particular with Noam Chomsky.
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