Living Languages

We know all about dead languages like Latin and Sanskrit, but how do we know if a language is still living?  It’s not just about how many people speak the language; after all, Latin is spoken by scholars and scientists, in the Vatican, and even taught in schools.  So why isn’t it alive anymore?  These languages are dead because they aren’t spoken in everyday use, and also because they aren’t changing anymore.

You read that right – it’s about change.  Growth and evolution are what make languages live and breathe, literally.  Even though your teachers probably told you to say “may I” and not to shorten words like “legit” and “whatevs,” you might just have been helping our language to evolve.  Here are some words that have changed, over time, to mean something completely different.

Literally: One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone uses the word “literally” incorrectly.

“She literally slipped through the cracks.”

“I’m literally sweating bullets.”

When I hear phrases like this, my imaginative brain pictures a woman turning to a jelly substance and sliding through the cracks in between floorboards, or bullets pushing out of a person’s pores and sliding down their skin.  Alas, it’s time I get over it, because dictionaries across the English speaking world have been edited to include this new definition: “informal, used for emphasis while not being literally true.”


Awful: This one should be pretty easy to figure out… “full of awe” is what this originally meant.  And that makes sense, right? Cheerful means full of cheer, peaceful means full of peace, thoughtful, painful, successful, all mean full of the first part.  So what happened with this word?  It was originally a positive saying, meaning awe-inspiring. Egyptian pyramids are awe-full, but are they awful? Leftover Taco Bell is pretty awful, but definitely doesn’t fill us with awe and amazement. Somewhere along the way this word evolved, and now it is definitely not a compliment.

Fantastic: Harry Potter is fantastic, so are fairies and elves.  But what about goblins, witches, and dragons? Those don’t sound fantastic, but according to the original meaning that’s exactly what they were.  Fantastic creatures are from “fantasy” stories, meaning they only exist in imagination.  Today, fantastic is a compliment that has no relation to magic and mythology.

Gay: Have you ever been to a gay wedding? But aren’t all weddings “gay?”  After all, the word originally meant happy, merry, joyous, and light-hearted.  Today, the word relates to homosexuality and is sometimes used as a derogatory term.

Okay, so this is how we know our language is alive, but what does all this have to do with translation? Well, imagine giving your marketing material about rain-boots to a bilingual friend—who hasn’t been in the country for a few years—and getting back an advertisement for “rubbers” (used to mean rain-boots). 

Or how about putting your speech about prison cells into a machine-translator and seeing your audience’s confusion when you’re talking about giving prisoners bigger mobile-phones.

English is a constantly changing language.  Today, “sick” and “bad” and “dope” are good things.  And the same changes are happening in different languages all over the world.   Lionbridge onDemand has professional translators that are native speakers in your target language and fluent in the original language.  They know the current slang being used in various areas, guaranteeing that these kinds of mistakes won’t happen.  So come over to Lionbridge onDemand, and learn more about our translation and localization services.


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