Happy Birthday, History. Happy Birthday, Science.

Happy Birthday, History. Happy Birthday, Science.

When headlines tell us that a particularly sultry summer day is “the hottest on record” or that constant rainfall has made a month “the wettest since records began”, it begs the question “So when did records begin?”.

The answer is that they began on this day, 2,606 years ago. On May 28th, 585 BC a war in Anatolia, now Turkey, was halted by a Solar Eclipse. Soldiers of the Medes, the ancestors of modern day Iranians, and the Lydians, natives of Anatolia, were so awe-struck by the eclipse that they took it as a sign from the gods, laid down their arms and declared a truce. Because astronomers can calculate the dates of historical eclipses, we’re able to pinpoint this day, making it the first historical event whose date is known. This is where records began. It’s often been described as the birth of history and the birth of science.   

Twenty six centuries later, we remember our history and we’re still in awe of the power and potential of science. It’s artificial intelligence that drives us forward now, and we’re proud of the contribution it makes to the language service industry. Because linguists can stop wars too.

Language can be a weapon of division or a tool of reconciliation. It’s up to the users to decide. In recent years, Korean language scholars have worked on a project to compile a unified Korean dictionary. Decades of separation of North and South following the war of 1950-53 has inevitably created a language divide. Some common words now have radically different meanings. In South Korea “agassi” is the word for a young lady. In the North it translates as “slave of the feudal society”. And linguists believe the adoption of words from different sources presents an even bigger issue. North Korean now includes many Russian “loan words” while speakers in the South use many words borrowed from English. Negotiations for the unified dictionary have been painstaking. The countries share the most heavily militarised border in the world, and the tension that runs across all 160 miles has often threatened to ignite into open war.

Attempts to rebuild a common Korean language could have important consequences for all of us. History teaches us not to underestimate the impact of a few well-chosen or poorly-chosen words.

In July 1870 two countries went to war over a handful of ambiguous phrases. A harmless message from the King of Prussia about a meeting with the French Ambassador was edited, mistranslated and twisted into a provocation that led France to declare war. Within weeks, France was beaten and Prussia used the victory as a platform to form a united German empire. Many historians have argued that the first and second world wars were a direct result of these events. And they acknowledge that it all started with a language misunderstanding.

If poor choices of language can lead us down the path to conflict, then good choices can draw us back to something better.

With the Middle East a perpetual powder keg, some people are working tirelessly in the cause of peace. The Hand in Hand educational project brings together Jewish and Arabic students in a network of bilingual integrated schools and communities around Israel.

It creates opportunities for children, parents and teachers to learn each other’s languages and cultures. Students are educated in both Hebrew and Arabic and all significant religious and cultural events for Judaism and Islam are celebrated equally. The motto of the Hand in Hand project is simple. “There is another way”.

Not every language choice starts or stops a war, of course, but every language choice has consequences. Brands can be damaged and reputations quickly lost. In 2015 fashion juggernaut Zara alienated the lucrative German market overnight with one poorly chosen word. By mistranslating a new brand of sandals as “Sklavensandalen” (slaves) Zara went viral for all the wrong reasons. To their credit, they corrected the error and apologised, but the damage was done. And just a year later Dolce & Gabbana made exactly the same mistake. We know the fashion industry is famously trend-led, but we’re sure brands in this space don’t want this particular trend to catch on. 

Which words have made something significant happen for you? Maybe a few well chosen words have helped you break down a barrier and take the first steps towards a lasting relationship? Or maybe the wrong turn of phrase has started you off on the wrong foot? We all have our stories to share. 

Today’s story began 2,606 years ago. Accurately recordable history began when two armies at war were so filled with wonder by a scientific phenomenon that they stopped fighting. That makes today a good day and an inspiring day. There is another way. And appreciation of language and culture will continue to light the path.

Happy birthday, history. Happy birthday, science.