Language focus | 21.04.2010

Chinese Whispers. How does gossip translate?

In a society seemingly obsessed with gossip and propaganda, we were curious to see how far this phenomenon stretches. Stephanie, Account Manager in our Manchester office investigates:

“The word gossip dates back to 16th Century Old English and the verb seems to have been brought to life by our literary hero William Shakespeare. It’s fair to say it isn’t without its negative connotations and is something I personally tend to associate (either fairly or unfairly) to the UK and the USA.

I have memories of my school days and my wonderful French teacher scorning us for entertaining gossip and taking such an interest in it. ‘The French are not interested in gossip, it is distasteful. The French press would not get away with publishing half of the nonsense that they get away with here.’

Now this comment was made some time ago, but it got me thinking about whether there is any truth in this statement.

Prior to the French Revolution of 1789, France was a country where many different variances of the French language were used. France was noted for its political prowess rather than its linguistic abilities. However, during the Revolution, and in a bid to efficiently spread propaganda, a common language was imposed and the various dialects spoken in different provinces were forcefully abandoned. It goes without saying that language has long been utilised to influence and indeed manipulate the masses. Whilst propaganda is not gossip, it certainly shares many of its characteristics.

Back to 2010, the recent press interest in the Sarkozy-Bruni relationship further made me question if France was such an innocent party in this terribly guilty pastime. Whilst the British press were inevitably all over the story, it originated on Twitter and reputable French news sources ran with it the very next day.

Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton offers a machine translation tool which allows users to translate ‘Celebrity Juice, Not From Concentrate’ into a vast number of languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish. I wonder if this is merely a novelty, or whether the hunger for an insight into the lives of the rich and famous really does carry such a wide global appeal? I suspect that technological advancements enabling people to upload snippets of information and images literally at the click of a button has also facilitated gossip to transcend into many diverse cultures and countries. Although the negative implications do still seem to be stalwartly upheld by the majority of our European neighbours, the craving for pictures of usually glamorous starlets without their makeup and putting the bin out, or the jaw dropping revelations about extra marital affairs does seem to greatly outweigh the desire to do the right thing and mind our own business. Whilst we don’t necessarily possess a common language, it seems that is has still managed to translate, creep and sneak its way around the world and into many different tongues and cultures. Whilst I have struggled to find a word that is older than our English expression, it looks like our foreign counterparts are certainly making up for lost time.”

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