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25Sep

What is the Unit of Language?

CSA Research is preparing to release reports for pricing strategies within the localization industry. We have analyzed current translation pricing models – the structure used for quantifying work, not the amount charged for it – and examined alternatives. We then evaluated what has happened in unrelated industries where technology advances and shifts in customer expectations led to change.

One such example is the music industry. For the reasons why the business of Elvis Presley and Ed Sheeran is relevant to the localization of content, apps, products, and marketing you will have to wait for the full report. However, the comparison of song and word goes further than the structure of cost. Let’s take a closer look.

With written language, we use characters sets, scripts, and vocabularies to express concepts and emotions in different languages. Pitch, tone, rhythm, and voice differentiate and define each unique spoken dialect. Phonology – the organization of sounds within a language – and linguistic typology – the grouping of languages into families under an ancestral tongue – are subjects of intense study and analysis. Over time, words migrate from one vocabulary to another: Languages are living creatures that grow, flourish, evolve, and sometimes die out. The genealogy of communication shows strong groupings – for example, French, Italian, and Spanish – as this map of Indo-European language heritage demonstrates:
 Artboard1
Source: Indo-European Language Tree from Wikipedia Commons


When we investigate music, guess what? We find similarities: The structure, heritage, and the sharing of “words” – sounds, instruments, tonalities – as the language of melody evolves. Genres are the classification: classical, jazz, soul, rock, pop, blues, and more. The list goes on. Both written and listened-to music depends on notes, rhythm, and voice, all arranged by melody or harmony and according to the norms of the style in which it fits. Music with origins in Europe uses a scale of octaves (groups of eight primary tones), with a semi-tone as the smallest step, while the songs of the Middle East use quarter tones. Rhythms and polyrhythms are simple or complex and can sound natural or jarring depending on what the listener is accustomed to. Various instruments are evocative of specific regions around the world, for example bagpipes of Scotland or Ireland, classical guitar of Spain, sitar of India, oud of the Middle East.

Music historians track today’s multiple variants of genres and styles back to their genealogical roots. One map of heavy metal shows its origins in blues and rock, and of course blues in turn traces back to African musical traditions, spirituals, and chants. At least one rock band today features a set of bagpipes.

Like music, language too is a living, evolving being. A recent article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper discusses changes in the English language and argues that they reflect a natural progression. The article also reflects on how a person’s age influences their perception of the “correctness” of today’s usage of language. It suggests that usage of slang and altered grammar is a simple progression that has happened time and again through the centuries. Compare that to a teen’s, parent’s, and grandparent’s perception of modern music and the picture isn’t much different: What was new and exciting to a teenager is old school and dated to their grandchildren half a century later yet continues to influence and inspire new styles and vocabulary.

Turning back to the price strategy research: Both providers and buyers of language services can learn from other industries and their pricing evolutions. Watch this space for CSA Research’s “The Future of Language Services Pricing” – coming soon!

About the Author

Alison Toon

Alison Toon

Senior Analyst

Focuses on translation management systems, plus helping CSA Research’s clients gain insights into the technologies, pricing, and business processes key to executive buy-in

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