How many times have we found ourselves arguing with somebody because we did not understand or mistook what they wrote to us? This happens because written language has far fewer tools than spoken language to communicate subtleties. These missing tools include emphasis, intonation and tone, as well as gaze, gesture and posture. When we try to write down what we would otherwise say orally, we may end up producing something that is interpreted as the opposite of what we really mean.
In addition to the difference between spoken and written language, another more subtle and less manageable “culprit” is connotation. Connotation is a type of meaning that is associated with a word on top of its content, or denotation. For example, the words “stench”, “smell” and “aroma” have the same denotation, but they imply different views and attitudes towards the experience: negative, neutral and positive.
Connotations are not to be confused with polysemy, or words that mean different things (e.g. “river bank” vs. “bank account” or “light green” vs. “turn the light off”). They should also not be mixed up with words that refer to different things. For example, “chips” in British English are potato sticks, while in American English they are thin slices. Also, “football” in British English refers to a game with a round ball, while in the US the game is different and the ball is oval. These are some of the first things that we learn when studying our mother tongue or a foreign language, and we become good at telling the difference quite soon.
Connotations are more problematic, as they may make the person we talk to not interpret the same thing that we have in mind. This is understandably common between two speakers speaking different languages. However, big issues arise when two people speak the same language without guessing that the other speaker may associate a different connotation with the same word. I will give three examples of different connotations attributed to the same word or sentence, depending on a native speaker’s linguistic background.
The first example I would like to give relates to words. Think of the word “homely” in this sentence: “The Simpsons looked happy in their homely dresses”. On the face of it, the word “homely” means “simple”, denoting something that you are likely to wear at home. In British English, the sentence has a positive connotation, with “homely” meaning “cosy”. In American English, however, it means “unattractive”. In this case, the difference is objective and depends on the language variation one speaks. These differences may be even harder to master if you speak English as a second language.
My second example relates to stylistics. If you say that you are not very good at doing something, you may use understatement to convey that you are good at doing that thing but also to look humble and smart enough to avoid showing off. However, you may also want to describe reality as it is and appear sincere and smart enough to avoid committing to something you may not be able to do. In this case, the difference depends on less objective factors, such as one’s social background.
My third example relates to culture. Mikhail Gorbachev is seen by some as the person who freed the Russians from dictatorship but by others as someone who lost an empire. Similarly, John Paul II is considered the saviour of Christianity by some and a misogynist political figure by others. There is a long list of people who are given a negative or a positive connotation depending on one’s beliefs, values and mindset.
All in all, we may speak the same language, but what we say might be interpreted positively or negatively, in line with or against our communicational goal, depending on varying degrees of subjective and non-linguistic factors. Considering all this when transcribing speech into written text is fundamental if we want to be sure that we are faithful to the speaker. For example, if reporters cannot be sure whether a speaker says “can” or “can’t” in the sentence “You can/can’t resist being like Woody Allen”, the problem can be solved by examining the connotation that the speaker is trying to communicate about the person – which could be anything between artistically brilliant and detestably immoral. It’s just a matter of connotation!
Carlo Eugeni is the chairman of Intersteno Scientific Committee and Tiro’s scientific advisor.