I sheepishly admit to getting a little side-tracked, but my grandma told me to always finish what you start. Part 1 was all about the surprising diversity of nonsense, the difference between non-language, pseudo-language and lies; we encountered the idea that many if not most language utterances are riddled with invisible implications that even users of the same language have to unpack and infer from without even noticing (we call this pragmatic competence); and that in order to reformulate a concept from one language to another, we have to be able to understand it in languageless terms in the middle, to “see” it internally, to connect it deeply to knowledge. Part 2 was about ambiguity, failure, intentions, co-production and, for some reason, sophisticated mouse civilisations. Sorry about that.
The term “oinoglossia” derives from the Greek for “wine talk” – think not talking under the influence of wine but the language of wine connoisseurs. Consider this clipping:
I put on this woodsy, lemony, spicy-pine number and that delightfully cheesy new toaster strudel commercial by Pillsbury – the one with all the yodelling and an entire German or Austrian village, frolicking across green, lush land, sprinkled with wildflowers (edelweiss, perhaps?!) under blue, sunny skies – immediately rushes through my head. It is brisk, like fresh, mountain air but amazingly unlike floor cleaner or overwhelmed by any one of the usually loud, competing notes of pine and citrus. “4711” smells like a true, apothecary fougère; all smooth ferns, greens and sweet, distilled citrus and sage, sprinkled with spice, woodsy, as if cured in an oak cask. “4711” manages to smell warm and cool, at the same time, like a bracing rush of mountain air mixed with warm, radiating embers in a fireplace.
This is classic wine talk, but it isn’t about wine – it’s a description of an eau de cologne that I lifted from an online customer review and added some necessary punctuation and French accents because I am a deeply anally retentive person. Now, I am not sophisticated in the domain of perfume. My partner resignedly employs a “perfume register” pitched for the use of pitiable barbarians when he wants to drop a hint before we go out: “Do you want to ‘smell nice’?” If my answer is anything other than “NO!”, he will select something which I think that he thinks must be “nice”, and sprays me with it while I make a big scene pretending not to like it. That’s my pitiful level of access to the co-constructed virtual universe of commercial perfumes. I get a lot of impressions from this paragraph but I still have no good idea what the stuff is supposed to smell like: to me, it’s almost gibberish.
As an interpreter in education, though, someone could utter something like the above at almost any moment, and they have done so, in several fields. I have handled it with wildly varying levels of success, from hot-damn fist bumping to throw-yourself-out-the-window misery. You might argue that the quote above is a cherry-picked example and people don’t really talk like that, but if interpreting has taught me anything it’s this: people will say anything that crosses their minds. Art, in particular, seems to be all about personal responses, hunches, gut feelings, associations, memories: me grunting or shrugging isn’t going to be an adequate interpretation no matter how much I might wish it were. (I’m fine with art, but I think I would be absolutely fine if people didn’t talk about it.)
There is all kinds of stuff going on up there for an interpreter. There’s an unusually high ratio of adjectives – not itself surprising in a descriptive account of perceptions, but the sheer number of them suggests that the author is hunting for something which captures a very subjective, personal experience, that none of them alone come anywhere close, and any one of the terms might present issues of equivalence (is “like trees” a good enough BSL rendition of “woodsy”?) – and indeed, perhaps none of them are literally meant but intended to conjure associations. There’s some startling specificity – this smell is not simply unlike floor cleaner but amazingly unlike floor cleaner, ie. the extent to which this brisk, fresh mountain air smell is not like floor cleaner is in itself amazing – we can assume this has some pragmatic relevance, a presumption on the part of the author of shared knowledge (pine scents and mountain air may be associated with floor cleaners in certain cultures/socio-economic classes, and the interlocutor is trying very hard to steer us away from an association which might otherwise have been made, perhaps given shared knowledge about the price of the perfume). There’s some metonymy – the “loud, competing notes” are not musical notes but component scents, and being unconscious minerals, they do not “compete” in a literal sense. There’s other kinds of metaphor, mostly about food and the maturing of alcoholic drinks, both sensual in their own way. There’s unfamiliar technolect – I had to look up fougère and now know that it’s a taxonomy of perfumes, organised by the main “notes” or ingredients. There’s also an unfamiliar proper noun in what I’m guessing is a pop culture reference – Pillsbury is clearly a commercial entity and not a person or place, which activates a vague association in my mind with something American called the “Pillsbury dough boy”, but that’s hardly adequate and another British English speaker might easily be completely oblivious to it. Suffice to say, I would refuse point blank to produce this in BSL unprepared, unless I were in a very safe space indeed.
Oinoglossia can intrude into an interpreter’s headspace even if, like me, they try at all costs to avoid setting foot in an artistic arena. In more mundane settings, we will quickly encounter professional sociolect, which is on the same page as oinoglossia if not the same paragraph. In my brief career as a freelancing interpreter, the two best examples were “social worker talk” (see this excellent article about the language of care and its effect on carers and the cared-for), and “third sector talk”, a short step down and to the left of managerspeak, noted for its “pots of money” (funding for a specific project) and “going forward” (from now on) and “outcomes” (completed and billable work).
Why do professionals do this? It’s often simply speaker economy. Despite the proven existence of mothers-in-law and certain robotic bloggers who type faster than their brain works, people generally tend towards not saying more than they have to. If your professional tribe can bundle a more complex idea into a short phrase, why not save the tongue leather? That’s what language is good at. Social workers’ “daily living activities” (dressing, washing, laundry, food shopping and preparation etc.) or third sector chief execs’ “stakeholders” (people who give a toss) might come under this category, but beware: it’s a short hop from here to the danger zone of euphemism and alienation. This might well be done on purpose, to maintain superiority – there’s a reason why posh country villages’ names defy orthography even more than English is usually prone to.
A kinder motivation for sociolect and/or euphemism might simply be to save face. How important that is depends on your background culture, but in more class-driven societies such as Britain, India, China and Inner London Local Authorities, referring to things too directly can cause offence (cf. “issues” versus “problems”), which brings us back to the interpreter staple of being biculturally competent when rendering target language. Words don’t mean: people, plural, mean. And sometimes a culture can be the size of an office.
The last type of nonsense, arguably the bastard child of wine talk, is bullshit. The moment you have a secret tribal language, fraudsters and charlatans can imitate it and pretend they are “in the know”, convince others from outside the magic circle to lap it up: the Emperor’s New Dictionary. Which poses interesting ethical questions for an interpreter: if we detect that something is nonsense because it’s intended to deceive, to hoodwink, to sell snake oil, do we “faithfully” preserve that intention? If we find ourselves facilitating a con-artist, whom do we empower, with whom do we align? Invoking “impartiality” won’t help, I’m afraid – ask any Taoist about inaction.
Thus nonsense can be insulator, security blanket, masterpiece, paean, a goodnight kiss from your mother, a snide put-down from your enemy or the long moonlit cries of a fool. Because language is fabulous and infinite and thus contains vast universes of insanity, and that is why we love it so much. Or so the voices tell me.