Localizing an operating system for a language with no high-tech vocabulary


But isn’t that something every language has to deal with? We don’t really have any "high-tech’ languages spoken anywhere — they all have to make-do with the words they have, and re-purpose them.
After all, “mouse”, or “windows”, or even “cache”, aren’t particularly high-tech words even in English.


True. But a lot of languages just either just borrow the English terms (Italian calling a computer mouse “mouse” even though that’s not an Italian word) or use direct translations of them, which is kind of boring (French calling a computer mouse “souris”, etc). It’s always interesting to see languages where more creative terms get used – Icelandic has some interesting ones like monitors being called “skjár” which is what Norsemen called windows made out of translucent animal skin.


It’s one thing to start with words you have & apply them to various functions in a new medium created within your native tongue using native concepts.

Quite another to start with the finished work where many of the terms share no analogue in the language the work is being adapted to.

The examples provided demonstrate that pretty well. They could try and leave it as is, but then the user is facing a wall of gibberish to such an extent that even translated definitions make no sense, let alone relate to the function.


Reminds me of that repurposing of existing words in Navajo language during the WW2. Iron Fish for a submarine, etc…


When new technology is developed, new language is often needed to describe it. When those terms cross borders, they may or may not change - even if the countries share similar source concepts. When a concept is unique to the tech, it’s more likely to get wholly new terms. A good example of an existing concept entering broad use is the “at sign” - @ - which historically meant “for a given amount per” and so wasn’t used often enough to be a part of standard communication needing named reference, but more used in retail and by accountants.

With the development of the internet and email addressing, people needed to be able to call that symbol a thing. In many countries, the name given to the symbol is often fanciful and typically reflects the shape of it. Here’s an article that discusses some of them.

Another interesting thing about the language of technology is how it changes as the new concept becomes independent from the source ideas. A “cab” might still be called a “taxi” or a “taxicab”, but you would never think about the source words used to describe the vehicle: “taximeter cabriolet”. A taxicab is neither of those independent concepts, and most people wouldn’t even know those words are the source for the vehicle’s name.


One might think that this is as evidenced by one of the earliest technological derivatives; the ‘fireplace’, to signify- uhh - the place where the (newly harnessed technology) fire is…(I’d’ve linked to an audioboo snip from an old SGU podcast at this point but there’s something very weird happening with audioboo.fm at the moment.)

But this word is a relative newcomer, being this upstart means of expression called ‘English’. Perhaps, had Christianity not interfered, we’d’ve been living in an Anglo-Saxon technocracy (though we don’t do counterfactuals here). And Old English (for ‘fireplace’) is still thousands of years younger than the tech it plays with.

The ‘naming of things’ isn’t limited to technology. It applies to everything. The German coinage fernsehen could - instead of being applied to TV - just as easily have ended up as a term for some non tech woo-woo psychic ability which we’re now forced to call ‘remote viewing’.because the other guy got there first.

And I’m also reminded of the BBC interviewer who somewhat patronisingly asked a Gaelic speaker what the Gaelic for Spaghetti Bolognese was, only to be countered by the question “What’s the English for …” [one, two, three…]. Though in this case - yes - OK, Spaghetti Bolognese is technology.

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This, so this. I mean, when our Common Germanic/Norse ancestors build their huts and made holes in the walls to see through, they needed an abstraction and called it wind-eye. Nothing particularly surprising here.

I just wonder what metaphor they choose to describe the copyright infringements. piracy or robbery?


Interesting that Mozilla is targeting even languages where most speakers are illiterate, in the hopes that when their speakers do get online, they will be able to do so in their own language. It’s something that’s hard to do, and may not pay off financially, but that’s not something that has stopped Mozilla before (and I mean that in a good way since it is a non-profit and bridging digital divides is part of its mandate). I wish them luck.


I really love this. We are facing this problem all the time in translating a home health manual into Bambara, which is spoken alongside Fula in the same part of West Africa, and has about 14 million speakers. Our translators are faced with a lot of choices similar to the ones described in the article.


Maybe worth pointing out that one of the best organized campaigns for making sure a language works to describe contemporary reality is the Québecois:

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This is true; though there is one arguable difference: In English, probably among a few others, the vocabulary was developed alongside the technology, by a specialist class of tech types, well before it was economically viable for widespread use.

It had to be invented; but it was invented largely in parallel with the technology it described by people more or less close to the technology being described.

In a case like this, more or less full-fledged technology, now backed by some hundreds to thousands of jargon terms, is becoming available all in a lump. Certainly saves them a lot of R&D; but makes the linguistic aquisition process rather more dramatic.


I don’t understand why y’all don’t just use 1 & 0


No matter what I’m adding “hookii” to my vocabulary.


I’m not convinced this is a great idea. Mali is a pretty cosmopolitan, polyglot place. There are going to be lots of people who speak other languages (such as French) where these technical terms already exist, and many will already be familiar with them. Computer-using speakers of Bambara already have ways to communicate these concepts—likely through loan words—so I’m not sure why there is a need to invent localized terms that may actually create linguistic divides between those who are experienced and those who are not, as well as between common local languages.

I think that there are good reasons why so many cultures and languages naturally adopt loan words to represent new technical concepts, and I’m not sure why creating localized tortured metaphors to replace foreign tortured metaphors is a more efficient/better solution. Maybe it makes some sense in cultures where linguistic purity and integrity is of high social importance (as in Quebec or Iceland), but outside of those contexts I’m not sure it does.

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I’m adding wind-eye to mine.


“My mother in law fell from the stairs tonite, what a hookii!”

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With language, ‘organization’ seems to be a double-edged sword. Like a heart/lung machine, such organizations are quite aggressive about maintaining life functions; but, like a heart/lung machine, they suggest that there may be some underlying issues with the patient’s viability…


You can ruthlessly trim your alphabet; but you cannot save yourself from coding theory, an area that is a bit of a morass even before you consider the natural language being bodged on top of it…


Yup. I think that is arguable. Let’s go :slight_smile:

I can imagine some Ancient Egyptian saying the exact same thing to his chum as he (it would probably be a he) whips his troupe of pyramid builders into post-prandial activity.

So, if we’re both right then we just include ‘Ancient Egyptian’ in the list. But doesn’t that list just keep growing?

I suspect - but can’t imagine a test one could [have] do[ne] which would conclusively demonstrate - that anybody at any time in the past, in their own language, could have made such a statement. Doesn’t everything which qualifies itself as a culture think it’s the bees-knees when it comes to invention - either technical or lexical?

Perhaps I wasn’t clear: when I said ‘the technology’ I meant software of the sort being discussed, not absolutely any technology whatsoever. It is likely true that essentially any language has at least some areas where it is on the cutting edge of domain specific jargon; but in this case we are talking about software, specifically a web browser.

In this specific case, English is the language that developed the jargon in sync with developing the technology, leading to a somewhat more organic accumulation of jargon, rather than a large chunk of several decades worth of (often interlocking) vocabulary to be borrowed or localized at once.

If we were talking about some other subject, some other language might be in that position; but not in this case.