Les Merveilles de l’Oreille

The appeal of not understanding what is said and how to make good use of it
A few weeks ago I had the chance to interpret press interviews for German rock band Rammstein at the Forum in Los Angeles and witnessed their large-scale, fire-wielding show as well as the frenzy of their American fans. It was quite incredible to see (and hear) the audience sing along in a language they don’t actually speak. The language barrier seemed to enhance the appeal of the band much rather than diminish it. Granted, death metal is just the kind of music that lends itself to German interpretation, but the fascination that comes with foreign sounds and what they are communicating on a different level than the words we know goes far beyond the boundaries of musical styles and music itself.
Basic instinct
We tend to have a reaction to what we sense characterizes a specific language—French appears sophisticated and at the same time very sensual not only to English ears, Italian is perceived as passionate while the use of English comes across as trendy in many countries, largely because it is the leading language in popular culture but also in science and technology. Advertisers have been using this tool increasingly since the onset of globalization, but not without roadblocks. A study in Germany a few years back showed that although people responded well to ads and commercials fully or partially in English, they actually understood way less of the content than expected. In order to bring your message to market, it is crucial to know where you rely on the sheer effect of the language itself and where you need specific information to be conveyed.
The seductive power of foreign languages is beautifully demonstrated in Atom Egoyan’s 1993 film “Calendar”. The Armenian-Canadian filmmaker’s protagonist (played by Egoyan himself) invites an attractive woman of a different background for dinner each month, and invariably she gets up half way through the meal to make a personal phone call in her native language, while he listens on. Neither he nor the audience understands what is being said, but the effect is the same every time. It’s the mystery itself that creates the allure of the call.
Forms of seduction
The words need not to be spoken to unfold their alluring effect. As we know from product names, jewelry, T-shirts and even tattoos, the visuals of a foreign language can create an impression that is just as catching. Asian characters have a particular strong impact in the West, although people have become somewhat wary of the fact that slightly different designs can result in entirely different meanings and that mistranslations are common. You wouldn’t want your latest perfume to be called “Strange” when you were going for “Mysterious”. And while deliberate rephrasing or adding of accents to foreign words in the Latin alphabet can create a unique brand or product name, you want to make sure it comes across as an intentional creation and not as bad spelling and/or grammar (singer Rihanna recently took a lot of heat for a supposedly “wrong” French tattoo, but her slightly re-named fragrance escaped criticism).
Cultural affairs
Speaking of the French, it is well known that they are very protective of their culture and language and enacted their latest language protection law in the early nineties, which sets forth that the use of “Anglicism’s” in advertisements and packaging will be fined. That is definitely something to keep in mind when planning a European marketing campaign. Reversely but not less interestingly, the Germans have gone as far as making up their own English words as the popularity of the English language continues to grow. The cell phone is known as “Handy”, bullying as “Mobbing”, and “Oldtimers” is the German term for vintage cars (the classics can be found in the Mercedes museum…).
As always, know thy audience is the open sesame to any market. Tuning into the more subtle delights of a different kind of subtext as only our (actual and virtual) ears can provide, an exploration of the sounds of the unknown might yield just as many surprises as a dive into Rammstein’s dark lyrics.
Nanette Gobel, MA
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