I’ve always liked the idea of semantic space at the intuitive level where human experience is a multi-dimensional topology filled with Venn diagrams on steroids. Each bubble (or blip or Mobius* strip or whatever) is a word, and very few words from language to language are exactly alike, which is to say in this topology that they do not have exactly the same shape. Often a bubble from one language doesn’t have a specific word in the next language and so a paraphrase is required.
In a lot of situations the lack of equivalence is trivial and uninteresting. But occasionally I’m struck by one that seems unexpected. The other week it was meliorative-pejorative. Today it’s coming out of some market research I’m doing for a publisher. We interview people about what books they buy, which inevitably leads to discussion about whether the books are the genuine article from the publisher or are knock-offs. Since we’re talking to students, it’s almost always the latter. But as I write up the report, I start to doubt my own English intuition. Sure, you can use genuine vs pirated, but it just doesn’t seem to quite fit as well as in Mandarin, which has the comfortable pair of opposites well-standardized in common usage:
- 正版 zhèngbǎn, meaning “genuine / legal”, character-for-character something like “true edition”
- 盗版 dàobǎn, meaning “pirated”, character-for-character something like “stolen edition” Continue…