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Posted by on Mar 24, 2009 in At TMV | 3 comments

‘Overloaded’ With U.S. English as the Language of Diplomacy: Izvestia, Russia

On March 6, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a button labeled ‘reset’ in English, and ‘peregruzka‘ in Russian. Unfortunately, peregruzka means ‘overloaded‘ rather than ‘reset‘, embarrassing the U.S. Secretary of State and the agency she leads on live TV.

According to Maxim Sokolov of Russia’s Izvestia newspaper, the error highlights a larger issue: that American English, ‘which is anything but an instrument that uses words with geometric precision,’ is ill-suited for being the international language of diplomacy.

In an article that quotes Tolstoy, praises Latin and French and takes a swipe at American English and Latin American Spanish, Sokolov writes in part:

“The real question, rather, is about the condition of the modern language of diplomacy, full of redundant metaphors that inevitably result in numerous interpretations. Diplomats of the past expressed themselves with much greater clarity. Initially, it was Latin (a dead language which has tried and true expressions and terms of precision – this was ideal). Later, Latin was replaced by French, about which, when this too receded into the past, a British diplomat wrote nostalgically: ‘If precision is one of the most important qualities of diplomacy, one must regret discarding one of the most precise languages ever invented by the human mind as a means of negotiation.’ … Now the American language of diplomacy reigns, which is anything but an instrument that uses words with geometric precision.”

By Maxim Sokolov

Translated by Yekaterina Blinova

March 12, 2009

Russia – Izvestia – Original Article (Russian)

The faux pas in Geneva, where Condoleeza Rice’s successor Hillary Clinton gave Foreign Minister Lavrov a symbolic button with the inscription “Overload” instead of the more appropriate word “Reset” resulted in many interpretations. In fact the Russian language is fairly complex. Russian has something called a confix, i.e., a word formed by a prefix plus a suffix, where both components necessarily exist together. For example, “re-root-ing.” Besides that, a prefix can be added to a word with a confix, which is something quite difficult for foreigners to understand. Perhaps during the preparation of the U.S. State Department’s surprise gift, a native Russian speaker couldn’t be found.

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  • Manchester2

    French has “receded into the past”? Funny, they forgot to tell that to the Canon corporation. When I bought a new digital camera yesterday, the set-up CD allowed for three languages: English, Spanish, and French. French is doing just fine, merci beaucoup.

  • Dave_Schuler

    Latin is only precise because it was made precise after the fact. Every living language is imprecise or it wouldn’t be useful as a living language.

  • DarunArcheos

    Latin is precise because it stands at the basis of many languages and of many more original expressions created for the purpose of diplomacy, the same could have been said for Greek if Latin wouldn’t have reached that level of expansion. As for French, well after all it was Talleyrand who paved the road for true diplomacy. From all the characteristics a language has, regardin French it can be easily distinguished the complex phrases created and fitted for specifical actions.

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