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March 24, 2006

Lost in translation?

“I was going to say he’s a piece of work, but that might not translate too well. Is that all right, if I call you a ‘piece of work’?” - President George W. Bush to Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg, Washington, D.C., June 20, 2005.

Lexis is linguistics terminology for words - their choice and appropriateness in a text. Many would agree that George W. Bush has created his own lexicon, much to his critics’ delight.

But where do words really come from, particularly when technological advances have created so many new “things” to be named?

New words are called neologisms – usually the combination of two words put together, but when complete have a whole new meaning. For instance, “snarky” is an adjective describing a witty mannerism, personality, or behavior that is a combination of sarcasm and cynicism. It’s usually accepted as a complimentary term. Snark is sometimes mistaken for a snotty or arrogant attitude (www.urbandictionary.com).

Dennis Sixkiller and Anna Huckaby are on the Cherokee Nation Language Advisory Council, whose responsibility is to preserve the Cherokee language and make up Cherokee neologisms for newer English words like laptop, computer and dinosaur. Both are fluent in their native language: Sixkiller has his own Cherokee language radio show; Huckaby is the language coordinator for the tribe’s Cultural Resource Center, as well as being a translator and interpreter.

During a conference call, the pair explained the process of making “new” Cherokee words.

“We have put more than 9,000 words on the Cherokee Nation Web site,” said Huckaby. “Some of the new words are available there.”

Cherokee is a very descriptive language, according to Sixkiller, so many new words will have a Cherokee phrase as its meaning.

“We use a combination of the Cherokee syllabary [alphabet] and language,” said Sixkiller. “Sometimes, we have to use several Cherokee words to appropriately describe something. The English translation of the Cherokee word for pizza means ‘something on top.’”

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