Sometimes my weird language sense borders on arcane sorcery even from my point of view. I have a long-running contract job that involves evaluating search engine results in a lot of different languages. I can usually explain why I think a result is wrong because a speaker of X language would not consider that the significant part of the name to be matching -- string matching Portuguese address queries on the basis that the most important bit is the word "Rua", for example, is a really boneheaded idea -- or because our response assumes a typo that's particularly unlikely on a QWERTY/QWERTZ/AZERTY/whatever keyboard layout that language typically uses.

Quite often I'll look at something and immediately go 'no, that's not right' and then have to go wikihopping for a bit before I can give reasons more supportable than 'because it sounds wrong'. I recently got one involving a user searching for "Ghazal" in the Roman alphabet from a device whose language setting was Arabic. The search engine spewed back some nonsense involving ancient forms of poetry, while the real answer seemed to be a road named after a particular African river. I had to click for a while before I found pages that confirmed what I suspected, that these were not originally the same word in Arabic script. They're not -- the poetic format is written غزل, ghayn-zaa-laam, while the river is named for the thing we call a gazelle in English, which is written غزال, ghayn-zaa-alif-laam. (Only long vowels are written out in Arabic script; the first word has all short vowels, whereas the last vowel in the second word is long.) Mind you, my Arabic can best be described as 'eclectic and minimalist'. That class was at 9:10 in the morning, the book had no grammar and refused to write out anything we didn't have all the letters for yet, the instructor had a Muscovite accent thick enough to stop a clock, and my classmates were rude little snots who wouldn't shut up long enough for me to hear what was going on. But I know just enough to flag things that aren't right, without necessarily knowing off-hand why they're not right.

I just had to try and explain why a German speaker searching for something something "Freiheit" would not expect a search engine to interpret that as the abbreviation of a road named "Freiheitsweg", because "Freiheit" and "Freiheits" are two different declensions of the noun and not interchangeable, as cutting the S off changes the relationship between the two parts of the compound term "Freiheitsweg". The best I could do was say it would be like an English speaker trying to find "Dancing Mountain Lane" by feeding "Dance Mt" into the search engine, and conclude that it was "cognitively off-model". I don't know if that's going to make any sense to my supervisor or not, but I'm chronically unable to explain anything without involving analogies. It gets me into trouble sometimes. Trying to explain memetics by bringing up retrovirology doesn't help if your audience doesn't know either.

A more general example: I do not speak Russian. I can transliterate things from Cyrillic, but I have no idea what the hell any of it means. Here is approximately all of my limited vocabulary, which has been gleaned mostly from restaurant menus, Heinlein novels, books about astronauts, and one of Moggie's particularly co-dependent college roommates:
  • da
  • nyet
  • danyet
  • vodka
  • pirozhki
  • privyet
  • gospodin/a
  • Baba Yaga
  • Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik
  • Laika
  • kosmonavt
  • Chernobyl
  • balalaika
  • matryoshkha
I was nosing around in a bunch of Man From UNCLE fanfic archives a while ago -- you can probably fill in the backstory to that yourselves -- and it drove me absolutely bonkers when people would try to use slapdash Russian in dialogue, especially when it involved Illya snarking condescendingly at Napoleon. They would constantly get the diminutive of 'Napoleon' wrong. There's no standard nickname, since it's not a Russian name to start with, but a Russophone would shorten that to "Polya" or possibly "Pasha". I haven't the foggiest notion how I know that, I just do. Asked to explain, I'm likely to just sort of flail around and ramble about patterns.

I took a short course about ESL tutoring at one point, and the instructor ran a demo intended to help us understand how new arrivals feel, and how best to help them work out new stuff in English. She handed us a piece of paper with a list of words that none of us -- including me -- had ever seen before, a short glossary, a paragraph that used all of them, and instructions to work out some new sentences using them in place of English. Afterwards she asked if anyone knew what language it was. Someone said 'Korean'; I immediately said 'no, Indonesian'. I speak exactly zero Indonesian. I don't even have the bits of random I have for Russian and Arabic. I was right anyway. Arcane sorcery.

Other people tend to consider me some sort of mystical black box translator gadget. I don't really blame them. There's not a lot of human communication I can't crack eventually. It's not uncommon for me to get stuff like this from friends:
David: Do you speak Greek?
Me: No.
David: (sends me a thing in Greek)
Me: (spends a couple of minutes fussing with it, reads it to him anyway)
I don't even feel especially fluent in any of the things I do admit to speaking, mostly because I'm comparing them to my English. I don't know if you've noticed, but I know an awful lot of English -- and if you're a non-native speaker forging bravely through my blog, I salute you, because my writing is voluble, technical, and notoriously idiomatic, in a language that already makes an art form out of being consistently inconsistent.

それなら, if I manage to make it all the way through an untranslated copy of Gyakuten Kenji 2 without going completely off my nut, I swear I will never complain about being functionally illiterate in Japanese again. Wish me luck.

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