If you found something wrong with the phrase ‘the red big great dog’, then congratulations – you officially know more about English grammar than your dusty old high school English teacher ever gave you credit for. But can you work out exactly what it is that’s wrong about it? That might be a bit harder.
The thing with grammar is there’s a whole lot more to it than the way you spell ‘there and their’, or whether you remember the apostrophe in ‘its’. It’s the unspoken rules in your head that dictate that ‘I have’ makes sense, while ‘I has’ makes none, and ‘the red big great dog’ is one of these things that we just know.
Great big red or red big great?
The problem with the red big great dog is that the adjectives are all in the wrong order. The correct way of describing the dog is the ‘great big red dog’, since English adjectives have a strict, defined order based on eight distinct categories:
- Quantity/ Number
- Proper Adjective
- Purpose or Qualifier
If you were going to take the example further, and use adjectives from all eight categories (which luckily is rarely done), you’d end up with a noun phrase looking something like this:
“The three great big old round red German guide dogs.”
Of course, the interesting thing about this isn’t that English has strict adjectival order; it’s that your brain instinctively understands how to do it. If you switched any of the words around, it would sound somehow wrong to a native speaker, but few people would ever really be able to understand why.
Now think about the marketing and sales material you need to translate from English into Chinese. Automated translation is getting better but there’s just no way it can accurately implement every single grammar rule like this without fail; this takes human oversight and native understanding.
This is how the famed translation fails of the internet are born. Sure we can make sense of poorly translated signs, but we don’t identify with them – we laugh at them.
To fine or not to be fine
You can find no end of examples of hilarious mistranslations online, like this example, which mixes up the present and past tense version of the verb ‘to fine’ – to disastrous effect.
If someone came up to you and asked what the passive-future-tense conjugation of ‘to fine’ is, are you likely to know the answer? Probably not – but your subconscious brain certainly knows which one to use when the situation presents itself, and it definitely knows when it’s wrong.
Translating roughly as ‘the law for the delegation of beef labelling monitoring,’ this epic construction, which only recently ceased to be the longest word in the German language, is an example of that ever famous quirk of German grammar: the compound noun.
Compounds in English don’t tend to get much more extravagant than ‘policeman’ and ‘keyboard’, but German has no such apprehensions. This particular example comprises six distinct German nouns (Rindfleisch-Etikittierung-Überwachung-Aufgaben-Übertragen-Gesetzt).
German compounds have received a fair amount of attention on the internet for being comically unwieldy, but the reality is not as entertaining; German simply tends to combine words that English would otherwise separate. The English equivalent expressed as one word, ‘Beeflabelmonitoringdelegationlaw,’ is quite easy to understand – it’s just not a thing.
The far more interesting thing to note is not that unwieldy long compounds are used in German; it’s that everyone in Germany knows how to use them, and pretty much universally understands what they mean.
The fact that this can be universally understood as ‘the law for delegation of beef label monitoring’ rather than, say, ‘the delegation of laws for beef label monitoring’ or even ‘the law for the monitoring of delegation of beef labelling’ is far more ingenious a quirk of German grammar than simply the fact that words can be stuck together in the first place.
Next time you need to translate into a German compound – try asking a native speaker; chances are they’ll know the rules without even thinking about it.
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If you’re starting to think that navigating the complexities of future tense passive verb constructions, adjectival order, and 63-letter-long compound words is a bit tricky, you are by no means alone. This is why international businesses work with language translation services providers to ensure they have native speakers and linguistic experts on hand to help them talk to their target audience overseas using words that resonate – rather than humiliate.
The professional, native translators at Bubbles are on hand to help you navigate the complex linguistic minefields that native speakers take for granted. Give us a call today to find out more.