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The Word “No”
The word No seems to have been going around a lot in conversations lately. From discussions (welfare, personal space, the right to say No) to a conversation with my local taxi driver about the use of the word “Non” as a simple statement in France, when he asked about purchasing something, and where he perceived not just the word used as a negative, but as the expression of a cultural difference. “Non” with a Gallic shrug can mean so much more than a simple “No, we don’t have any”; it reflects a lack of stress (“you can’t always get what you want and it really doesn’t matter, forget about it”) or the simplest possible explanation with zero sugar-coating: No, without any of the forced cheerfulness that you might encounter, for example, in a California store.
During January 2023, British Airways is running a series of TV ads encouraging viewers to book vacations and say No to the idea of working while on holiday. We see a determined person forcefully announce “No” into their work phone with scenes of a beach and palm trees in the background. No: it’s time for rest, recuperation, and relaxation, but not for work: No. It’s that word again. No, no, no!
But is No quite that simple? What does No actually mean? Try to translate it, out of context, and you’ll find it’s not quite as obvious as the emphatic negative response to a binary question.
Walk through an airport in the Netherlands, and you’ll see signs saying “Geen Toegang” – “No entry” when rendered in English. “Toegang” translates literally from the Dutch to “access” in English. But “geen”? Word for word, it might mean “no” but compares better with “none” or “nobody” – expressing a lack-of, a nothing-ness. Take the same phrase in French: Entrée interdite = “Entry forbidden,” the direct translation. It’s still the same concept: “No entry.” But there’s zero mapping of the word No to the French statement. It’s the combination of the action and/or place and the negative sentiment that expresses the meaning in its entirety in all these examples.
And so it goes, language by language. If you didn’t have the entire context of the concept of being disallowed from entering a specific area, you’d struggle to translate “no entry” from English correctly – you might come up with “Nay Toegang” in Dutch, or “Non entrée” in French. It’s almost something that’s easier to express through action: a uniformed person standing in front of a door with their arms folded, scowling, and you’d immediately know not to attempt going there. And of course, the simple road sign that everyone is accustomed to worldwide works much better than any combination of written words in the context of an airport with its multitude of international travellers – all having been raised in different languages – hurrying to their departure gates.
Is There a Better Way of Communicating?
I find that this kind of daydreaming-word-analysis accomplishes something essential when considering actions to take with localization: it reinforces just how necessary terminology and context are. Fluent linguists take these nuances in stride; “no entry” is not two individual words, it’s a concept, an expression of meaning, and that’s why terminology experts talk about concepts and not glossary words. Someone just beginning to learn a language – or looking up translations word-by-word in a dictionary, or even a (very) poor machine translation – may deliver something much more amusing than an experienced translator or bilingual person who must focus on the intent of the original message.
It also shows us how signs graphically express the correct meaning without any words at all. Simple, right? The fierce person blocking the door, or the friendly gesture of applause? If we all used sign language instead of vocals, maybe the entire world would communicate better?
That sounds like a great idea – a Eureka moment!
But it won’t work. Even the way we signal the concept of “No” (the emphatic, negative response) non-verbally differs around the world. English-speakers shake their heads from side to side, but in Albania or Bulgaria, for example, the exact same motion indicates “Yes!” So, “no” doesn’t always mean “No!” when it comes to body language across cultures. While road signs are today (pretty much) universal for safety reasons, not many other symbolic languages are. This is the richness of living in a multicultural, diverse world.
Physical expression and communication differ just like spoken tongues do, with equivalent accents and cultural vocabularies. Every language – and even countries sharing the same tongue – have unique sign language for deaf and hard of hearing people: the gestures and motions differ. There are estimated to be between 200 and 300 sign languages worldwide. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) is very different than British Sign Language (BSL), while Quebec Sign Language (LSQ) is not the same as that more commonly used in France.
As creators and marketers develop more and more multimedia content, is the time coming for a terminology of physical expressions and gestures to enable the translation of any concept, whether expressed verbally or through actions? And while considering accessibility – especially for multimedia and live events – do you need to evaluate engaging multiple interpreters for sign language? Is there an app for that? Is the answer “No,” or should it be “Not yet” or “Coming soon?”