Harry Potter and Linguistics: A Source of Translation, Latin Revival, and an Embedded Culture
By Chelsea Mulligan
Abstract: In this essay, I argue that the Harry Potter books are an excellent benefit to the field of linguistics. Firstly, this is exhibited by the comparison of the dozens of translations available of this series. Due to their popularity, the books have been published in over 60 languages and this allows us to compare differences and similarities, across languages from all over the world. The second section of this essay explores the rich use of Latin Rowling uses within the books with spells, names, and other wizarding terms. Linguists have been attempting to revive Latin for centuries - the widespread phenomenon Harry Potter has become is an incredible asset to this revival. The final section of this essay looks at how Rowling uses language to create a culture within the books. Language and culture are incredibly intertwined, and the use of original proverbs, Hogwarts taboo terms, and wizard-specific humour all play a part in bringing this culture to life.
Having sold a staggering 450 million copies (Pulford), the impact of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books on popular culture is undeniable. This seven-novel fantasy series tells the coming-of-age story of an English orphan who learns he is a wizard and is sent to study magic at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Along with his Hogwarts friends, Harry seeks to defend the world from Voldemort, the malevolent wizard who killed his parents. Despite claims that this series is no more than superficial entertainment (“Harry Potter Economy”), it has much to offer academically, particularly for linguists. Given Rowling’s rich background with language as a French language scholar in the University of Exeter and an English as a Second Language teacher in Portugal (“About the Author”), this is only natural. Predominantly, Harry Potter benefits the field of linguistics because it reveals implications of literary translation, contributes to the revival of Latin, and exhibits culture purposefully embedded by language.
Challenges and Lessons of Translation
Because of Harry Potter's immense worldwide popularity, it has been translated into 60 languages as of 2006 (Jackson and Mandaville 45). Literary translations fall on a continuum between 'literal,' in which faithfulness to the original is fundamental; and 'free,' in which creative liberties are taken to maintain significant concepts that might be lost across languages (46). The abundance of neologisms and British phenomena that may be incomprehensible in some cultures causes Harry Potter to be especially challenging to translate (48). Comparing translations of these challenging concepts allows linguists to discover where languages relate and differ. For example, the Remembrall, a trinket that alerts its owner when he is forgetting something (Philosopher’s Stone 108), becomes the Rapeltout in French, (L’École des sorciers 153), and the recordadora in Spanish (La piedra filosofal 124), both of which are approximately semantic equivalents. However, in Hindi, Remembrall is left in English because Hindi cannot express this concept in one word (Jackson and Mandaville 50). This observation indicates a similarity among the concepts that French, Spanish, and English vocabulary can capture, as well as a semantic difference in Hindi.
Additionally, comparing translations of Rowling’s neologisms uncovers some morphological similarities and differences between languages. “UnDursleyish” (Philosopher’s Stone 7) is a term that Harry’s stuffy relatives, the Dursleys, use “to describe Harry’s parents” (Lathey 148). Only German has a direct translation, unDursleyhaft, demonstrating morphological similarities due to its Germanic connection with English (148). In contrast, this term reveals a morphological difference between English and the Latin languages. Lathey notes that the French translation, “aussi éloignés que possible de tout ce qui faisait un Dursley” (as far as possible from everything that made a Dursley)1 (L’École des sorciers 8), sacrifices Rowling’s original humour and concision to convey the meaning of “unDursleyish” (148). Incidentally, the Spanish translation, “lo más opuesto a los Dursley que se pudiera imaginar” (the most opposite to the Dursleys that one can imagine) (La piedra filosofal 9), has the same issue. If Spanish and French had prefixes and suffixes equivalent to the English ones used in “unDursleyish,” it is reasonable to predict that the translators would have tried to incorporate them as the German translator Klaus Fritz has done.
Because culture and language are intertwined (Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel 26), the translations also reveal sociolinguistic links and disparities among cultures. In Afrikaans, for instance, the translator Janie Oosthuysen did not literally translate the expression “Good Lord” (Rowling, Order of the Phoenix 466), but replaced it with a more culturally acceptable Afrikaans exclamation: Grote genade (Bedeker and Feinauer 136). This translation reveals a clear cultural disparity between Afrikaans- and English-speakers regarding the blasphemy of religious exclamations (136). Conversely, an example of a cultural similarity the translations reveal lies in Hagrid’s2 nonstandard West Country dialect3 which identifies him as working-class (138). Most translators ignored Hagrid’s dialect and simply wrote his dialogue with standard language because the West Country English dialect is clearly only meaningful to English readers (Lathey 148). The Japanese translator Yuko Matsuoka, however, freely translated Hagrid’s dialogue into the “downtown Tokyo … working-class” (qtd. in Lathey 148) variety. Although this dialect is not linguistically related to West Country English, it “mark[s] Hagrid’s social standing as compared to that of the other protagonists” (148). Therefore, Matsuoka’s free translation shows that both English and Japanese cultures use dialect to define the working class. In brief, Harry Potter's abundance of creative word-play, combined with its wide variety of translations, allows these fascinating linguistic observations to occur on the semantic, morphological, and sociolinguistic levels.
In addition to the immense variety of languages in which Harry Potter has been published, the numerous Latin-based spells and names4 in the English versions create internal linguistic diversity. Latin’s strong presence in Harry Potter generates enthusiasm and an opportunity to learn Latin among young readers. In 2008, “[e]nrollment in Latin classes … [had] increased by nearly one-third since 2006” (Hu) in a New York middle school. Hu met several students who decided to study Latin because of Harry Potter. Numerous other grade schools have experienced the same trend.5 Even universities have seen a recent increase in Latin enrollment (Lunau). Although University of Toronto administration does not fully attribute this to Harry Potter, it admits that the books have certainly “made an impression” (Lunau). In fact, Nilsen and Nilsen prove the books’ potential for overtly teaching Latin vocabulary. One sample lesson they provide is based on the Latin roots of the disarming spell expelliarmus (129). In this lesson, as shown in Figure 1, students use English words with these roots in the context of sentences. Not only does this teach Latin, but it generates basic understanding of its influence on modern languages. Linguists, who have been trying to revive Latin for decades (Beach 94), would certainly welcome this appeal Harry Potter is stirring.
As you fill in the blanks, choose from alarm, armada, armadillos, Armistice Day, armoires, coat of arms.
1. ________, now called Veteran’s Day in the United States, originally celebrated the end of World War I when everyone agreed to “stand up” their arms.
2. European families used a ________ to identify or symbolize their families.
3. The word ________ came into English through the French word alarme and the Italian call to arms, all’arme.
4. ________, which today are large chests used mostly to hide television sets, were originally designed to store arms such as guns and swords.
5. Spanish explorers called their armored ships an ________.
6. In the New World when explorers saw animals with shells scurrying across the desert, they named them ________, Spanish for “little armored ships.”
Now write at least three original sentences that use a word based on the Latin root armus. You may reuse some of the words we have talked about or think of others. You are welcome to use your dictionaries for help.
Figure 1 “Student Worksheet: English words based on Latin armus”
Source: Nilsen and Nilsen, “Latin Revived: Source-based vocabulary lessons courtesy of Harry Potter,” 130.
Creating culture via proverbs, taboo, and humour
From a sociolinguistic perspective, Harry Potter supports and illustrates the notion that language and culture are intricately codependent (Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel 26). Rowling’s fictional wizard culture is incredibly vivid because she uses various sociolinguistic methods to embed this culture. Proverbs, which are essentially “compact treatise[s] on the values of culture” (qtd. in Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel 29), are one of these methods. According to Haas, the definition of a ‘true proverb’ is debatable; however, two main features she stresses are that they need to be “folkloric” (29) and they need to be “repeated” (36). The title pages in each of the English editions have the Latin Hogwarts motto, “Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus” (never tickle a sleeping dragon).6 This proverb corresponds to the books’ theme of adventure, while it also takes on more concrete meaning since Harry actually encounters dragons.7 Another Harry Potter proverb, “the wand chooses the wizard” (Philosopher’s Stone 65; Deathly Hallows 399), is considered by Haas to be a ‘true’ proverb because of its repetition throughout the series and its “‘occupational folklore’ that is well known by people who share a particular career” (34). Because this proverb comes from a wand-maker, it is an example of Rowling using a wizard-specific career as a basis for a proverb, in order to establish the magical culture early in the series.
Rowling also embeds culture by creating linguistic taboos for the wizard community. Jay and Janschewitz assert that “[s]ociocultural knowledge regarding swearing, rudeness, or impoliteness is acquired as a product of living in a culture and contacting different communities of practice which reward, punish, or are indifferent to offensive speech” (274). Many expressions suited to this definition exist in Hogwarts. For instance, a highly offensive term for Muggle-borns, wizards “with non-magic parents,” (Rowling, Chamber of Secrets 89) is ‘Mudblood.’ The community of Voldemort-supporters,8 who believe that Muggle-borns like Harry’s friend Hermione are inferior, use ‘Mudblood’ very much like a “racial slur” (Pulford). Demonstrating its powerful connotations, the antagonist Malfoy uses ‘Mudblood’ to insult Hermione, which prompts Harry’s friend Ron to attack him (Rowling, Chamber of Secrets 87). To relate it to Jay and Janschewitz’s definition, this offensive term serves as a linguistic marker throughout the books for which side characters belong to, because it is ‘punished’ by the main wizard community, but ‘rewarded’ by Voldemort-supporters.
Humour is a third key linguistic tool Rowling uses to embed the magical culture. Humour helps build culture because it “characterize[s] the group to its members and can … be used to identify the group” (Fine and de Soucey 2). Harry Potter contains a great deal of wizard-specific humour, often through Ron’s dialogue. One feature in a joking culture is “set[ting] boundaries in contrast to those who are defined as external to the group” (6). Ron does just this when he teases Hermione about her family ski trip (a hobby unknown to wizards) and describes it as “Muggles strapping narrow strips of wood on to their feet to slide down mountains” (Order of the Phoenix 399). This joke emphasizes Ron’s inexperience with this ‘external’ group’s hobby, thus reinforcing his membership in the wizard culture. Another feature of humour is that “the references … are known by at least some members of the group [emphasis in the original]” (Fine and de Soucey 5). This is shown when Ron’s brother discusses his dull government report about cauldron9 thickness standards, and Ron sarcastically interjects, “[t]hat’ll change the world …. Front page of the Daily Prophet, I expect, cauldron leaks” (Rowling, Goblet of Fire 53). This joke’s reference to cauldrons draws on the characters’ common membership in the wizard culture. In sum, these sociolinguistic methods prove that Harry Potter's popularity is not a matter of luck – it is a result of Rowling’s linguistic crafting that brings its culture to life. Also, linguists can use the books as an accessible way to observe how language builds culture.
A thorough analysis of Harry Potter uncovers its academic integrity for linguistics. The abundance of languages into which it has been translated (Jackson and Mandaville 45) provides invaluable opportunities for comparisons on various linguistic levels. Given that there are 450 million copies in circulation (Pulford) and that they are full of Latin-based terminology, the books greatly assist linguists’ ongoing attempts to revive Latin (Beach 94). Furthermore, Rowling superbly “uses language in her books to enhance the other-worldliness of her theme” (Pulford) with proverbs, taboo, and humour. Many languages such as Native American ones could widen the scope of the analysis; however, they are left unexplored because no translations have yet been made. Additionally, an investigation on the effectiveness of Nilsen and Nilsen’s proposed Latin vocabulary lessons could add further credibility to the books. Moreover, it would be beneficial to investigate whether reading translations of Harry Potter can facilitate second language-learning. The books have been translated into Latin (O’Donnell and Robinson), so if the answer is positive, the Latin translations could further assist linguists with Latin revival. Nevertheless, Harry Potter offers a wealth of linguistic knowledge, which establishes the books as much more than a trivial fantasy series. In fact, this essay’s existence proves the depth of linguistic analysis and potential research directions that can be taken with Harry Potter.
1 This translation provided by Gillian Lathey (148).
2 Hagrid is a central character throughout the books, who is a dear friend of Harry’s.
3 Some of the linguistic features of Hagrid’s nonstandard dialect Lathey mentions are “the loss of the final consonant (‘flyin’ for ‘flying,’ ‘an’ for ‘and’), and nonstandard grammar (‘we was’ instead of ‘we were’)” (148).
4 There are countless examples of Latin-based names and spell incantations in Harry Potter – for instance, Professor Lupin who is a werewolf (Prisoner of Azkaban 253) has a name resembling the Latin term for wolf, lupus. The “Summoning” spell is pronounced accio (Goblet of Fire 303), which is derived from the Latin term accieo, meaning ‘summon.’ Wingardium Leviosa (Philosopher’s Stone 127), the levitation spell, resembles levo, which means ‘lift.’
5 For more articles on students enthused over Latin in Harry Potter, see Poole, Somaiya, and Elkin.
6 This translation provided by Heather A. Haas (51).
7 In Philosopher’s Stone, Harry meets Hagrid’s pet dragon (170). In Goblet of Fire, Harry competes in a wizard tournament that requires him to steal an egg protected by a dragon (286). In Deathly Hallows, Harry actually wakes a sleeping dragon that guards the wizard bank, in order to escape the bank’s dungeon (432).
8 Voldemort is the wizard who killed Harry’s parents (Harry’s mother was Muggle-born too).
9 A cauldron is a pot that wizards use to brew potions.