At TTP we’ve previously discussed the challenges of transcription and proofreading, but to fully understand these, it’s useful to examine the origins and evolution of the English language itself!
The English language originates from three Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who invaded Britain in the 5th century AD. These tribes arrived from modern day Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. English belongs to the West Germanic and Anglo-Frisian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The closest current relatives of English are Scots and Frisian, with Frisian being spoken by over 600,000 people in the Dutch province of Friesland, in neighbouring parts of Germany and on a few islands in the North Sea.
The history of the English language has traditionally been divided into three main periods: Old English (450-1100 AD), Middle English (1100-circa 1500 AD) and Modern English (since 1500). Over the centuries, the English language has evolved and incorporated new words from several other languages including Latin, Greek, Norse, French, Indian, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and even native Australian Aboriginal (including words such as ‘kangaroo’ and ‘boomerang’), just to name a few! These diverse roots and cultural influences provide clues as to why our modern language is so complex and broad, and such complexities translate directly into transcription challenges (or headaches)! For instance, because English is not a completely phonetic language, there is often no direct relationship between the spelling of a word and its sound. Some words have the same spelling but a different pronunciation: e.g. through, though and tough.
To make matters more difficult, English has an enormous vocabulary, with the number of words being estimated as over one million by the Global Language Monitor in January 2014. Of course this number is almost impossible to verify as it depends on what actually counts as a word.
Other aspects that make English language use tricky include the many exceptions to the spelling rules, e.g. ‘I before E except after C’, and unusual plurals, e.g. bacterium/bacteria, cactus/cacti, cul-de-sac/culs-de-sac and die/dice. English is also full of idioms and local slang, e.g. arvos (afternoons) and avos (avocados), bitzer (mongrel dog) and bizzo (business), cooee (a shout in the bush to attract attention) and cozzie (swimming costume).
To add to these challenges there are various nuances and subtleties of the language, where a single letter accent can change the entire meaning of a word, e.g. expose vs exposé. There are also homonyms: words that have the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings, e.g. type: he can type over 100 words per minute/that dress is really not her type; homophones: words that have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings, e.g. pale/pail, ate/eight, alter/altar, canon/cannon, course/coarse, genes/jeans, maize/maze, rain/reign and veil/vale; and homographs: words that are spelt the same but have different pronunciations and meanings, e.g. minute: that is only a minute problem/wait a minute; learned: the class learned that information last week/he is a very learned individual; sewer: the rats crept through the sewer/she is a fine sewer.
Thus far we have not mentioned silent letters, e.g. ‘b’ in climb, ‘k’ in knight, ‘l’ in salmon and ‘s’ in island; the stress placed on particular syllables in words; or the effect that punctuation can make in changing the meaning of a sentence, e.g. “Let’s eat grandpa” versus “Let’s eat, grandpa”.
Taking just these challenges into account, and adding poor audio quality, mumbling, foreign accents, et cetera, to the sound recording, it’s clear to see that transcriptionists are very skilled technicians, if not actual language magicians!