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It's just semantics! - in Polish or otherwise


boletus 30 | 1,366
13 Apr 2011  #1
First of all - greetings to all of you. This is my first registered post here, after lurking around for quite some time. I must say I have seen many great posts here, and unfortunately - quite a number of hateful and ridiculous messages. Nevertheless, I am taking my chances with this crowd. :-) I am not sure whether or not I would be able to contribute much to this forum, but I'll try my best.

I realize that many of you are English teachers, translators, novelists, poets. My command of written English is not even close to your standards, so please go easy on me, language-wise. I hope I can reciprocate somehow in some other respects.

For this post, I have actually prepared two related questions, prompted by a discussion I saw on this forum:
1. How would you translate to Polish the expression "It's just semantics!"
2. What does it actually mean in English?

Before you come up with some contemptuous answers I must say that I know a little bit about it, since I know how to navigate Internet, etc. :-)

But what actually bothers me is a deeper sense embedded in this expression. Some of my background is in the computer science, and I strongly think that semantics is much more important than anything else in that field - be it the grammar or the syntax. I can expand on this issue if requested.

So when I hear or see it written - Oh, it's just semantics - then I am not sure whether the person has no clue what semantics actually means, or whether the scientific and artsy worlds never intersect.
mafketis 20 | 7,177
13 Apr 2011  #2
There are always several layers of meaning.

It's just semantics!

surface meaning = it (point being discussed) is only a question of finer distinctions of meaning that are not relevant to the overall problem (ie A person was eaten by a river dwelling reptile, arguing about whether it was a yellow snouted crocodile or a red crested alligator is a minor irrelevant point for most people most of the time)

slightly deeper meaning = stop bothering me with irrelevant details and/or distinctions

even deeper meaning = I'm wrong but don't care (very often it's used to deflect an argument the person who says "I'ts only..." is losing.

I have no idea how to translate it into Polish such that it would have all those meanings. To tylko kwestia semantyki (or something similar) is close enough on the surface but verbal disagreements are handled so differently in Poland (than in the US and UK) that a full translation is basically impossible...
alexw68
13 Apr 2011  #3
So when I hear or see it written - Oh, it's just semantics - then I am not sure whether the person has no clue what semantics actually means, or whether the scientific and artsy worlds never intersect.

For sure they're not thinking about the semantic web or anything technical like that :) I think you might be overcomplicating the issue here (unless you're programming an AI to say 'it's just semantics' at the appropriate moment :)). It's a safe bet that 99% of the users of this phrase have no intention of dragging up any deeper, specialist meanings when they use it.

Using quasi-specialist words in frankly banal contexts is simply the stock-in-trade of linguistic aspiration. There are hundreds of other similar phrases in English, but permit me as an Anglo to note the two expressions in Polish that particularly jump out at me (even now, after all this time):

profilaktycznie - 'just in case' is often all that is meant here. In English, outside of medical journals, prophylactic generally means birth control.
apodyktyczny - likewise, used to mean little more than 'irritable' or 'dismissive'. But ahhhhh, that Greek etymology, proszę państwo!

Mafketis is on the money here with to kwestia semantyki, I reckon - but I don't think you need to 'translate' the deeper meanings as a) the surface one is 99% of it and b) the whole point about implied meaning is it's context-sensitive and so not verbalised.

EDIT: relax about your standard of written English. I aspire to, but fall considerably short of, that level in Polish. That aside, many, and probably most, native English speakers can't communicate at that level. Round of applause from me.
Ziemowit 12 | 3,486
13 Apr 2011  #4
I believe the word 'semantyczny', an assimilated word of foreign origin, is not that often used in Polish as are its Slavic synonyms such as 'znaczenie' or 'znaczeniowy'. "It's just semantics!" - I would translate as "... cokolwiek by to miało znaczyć" for the needs of everyday language or - in its more intellectual or sophisticated form that would be rendering precisely the sense of the English original: "To czysta semantyka!" or "To kwestia semantyki/semantyczna" as Mafketis said. 'Semantyka' is perceived as a rather specialized term in Polish. On the contrary, the term profilaktycznie has somehow slipped into general language. Unlike to its use in English, however, the word is never used in Polish in the context of birth control. People may say: profilaktycznie zażyłem dwie tabletki aspiryny [po to, aby się nie zaziębić], but they are unlikely to say: profilaktycznie biorę tabletki antykoncepcyjne.
Polonius3 1,000 | 12,448
13 Apr 2011  #5
Several layers (of meaning, motive, purpose, whatever) seem to be dealt with in Polish at times by the expression 'drugie dno', sometimes also 'trzecie, czwarte etc. dno'.

Isn't bossy a good equivalent for apodykytczny (taki/taka, co nie znosi sprzeciwu i wszystko musi być po jego/jej myśli)?
alexw68
13 Apr 2011  #6
Isn't bossy a good equivalent for apodykytczny (taki/taka, co nie znosi sprzeciwu i wszystko musi być po jego/jej myśli)?

Yep, better than either of mine ;)
OP boletus 30 | 1,366
13 Apr 2011  #7
A person was eaten by a river dwelling reptile, arguing about whether it was a yellow snouted crocodile or a red crested alligator

I liked your layered explanation but did you really mean the part I (mis)quoted? :-)

I like Ziemowit's ".. cokolwiek by to miało znaczyć". It is not dismissive and opens the door to possible future clarification of details. On the other hand, a carbon copy translation of the phrase in question: "kwestia semantyki czy czysta semantyka" sounds to me unnatural, quite pompous actually, in Polish.

Semantic web? That was a good one, alexw68!, I am sure many semantic web scientists or designers must hear that phrase quite often, as a joke.

But playing a devil's advocate for a while… I am often tempted to say, "It's all about semantics!", or "It's just syntax!" instead of "It's just semantics!".

When I design a piece of software I am very deeply concerned about its meaning. I have to decide what is its purpose, what it should deliver and what is its interface to a user. The rest is superficial. Once I decided on the meaning of the procedure I have designed I can then take one of the gazillion programming languages - all having different syntax - and implement the idea. Of course, the beauty of the program is mostly based on the syntax of a programming language one uses (so called programming language wars are mostly about syntax), but the usefulness of the program is in its semantics.
Ziemowit 12 | 3,486
13 Apr 2011  #8
On the other hand, a carbon copy translation of the phrase in question: "kwestia semantyki czy czysta semantyka" sounds to me unnatural, quite pompous actually, in Polish.

Indeed, in Polish it is a somewhat 'posh' word, only bloody intellectuals or real linguists use it when talking about something on TV; the rest of the audience is probably dismayed. Another of the kind is 'leksyka/leksykalny', and it is even worse than 'semantyka/semantyczny'. On the other hand 'logistyka/logistyczny' has made quite a career; but doesn't it mean anything more than the "simplistic" planowanie?
alexw68
13 Apr 2011  #9
Put simply then: human language != computer language (whether on a syntactic or semantic level). Human life != a computer program, not even close.

Wrong metaphor.

(Unless, of course, you mean a hopelessly written lump of perl with duplication all over the place which somehow, god knows how, still works...)

PS 'semantic web' has a slightly better reputation than being a buzzword for gits in Hoxton with ridiculous facial hair to throw around. But not much :)
gumishu 11 | 5,012
13 Apr 2011  #10
On the other hand 'logistyka/logistyczny' has made quite a career; but doesn't it mean anything more than the "simplistic" planowanie?

logistyka doesn't have an exact counterpart in Polish (it combines a couple of concepts easily worded in Polish) - still I think it tends to be overused due to people/businesses wanting to seem modern and international
alexw68
13 Apr 2011  #11
On the other hand, a carbon copy translation of the phrase in question: "kwestia semantyki czy czysta semantyka" sounds to me unnatural, quite pompous actually, in Polish.

It does in English too - whence its felicity.
OP boletus 30 | 1,366
13 Apr 2011  #12
Put simply then: human language != computer language (whether on a syntactic or semantic level). Human life != a computer program, not even close.

I am not going to debate this, because those two statements represent tautology.:-)

Now, this could be a good reason to start some heated debate unless I have first explained to you that I meant the "tautology" as the "universally unconditional truth", not as something with a negative connotation, such as in "you are repeating yourself, sir". So I still claim that semantics matters very much in real life, not just in programming.

Oh, and I agree that some foreign concepts has been adopted to Polish with wrong semantics. I wonder why? My classic is "awantura".
Ziemowit 12 | 3,486
13 Apr 2011  #13
Oh, and I agree that some foreign concepts has been adopted to Polish with wrong semantics. I wonder why? My classic is "awantura".

I think its Polish meaning arises from the foreign meaning "exciting and unusual experience". In Polish the word describes an event at its utmost possible unpleasant sense: awantura is usually extremely exciting [it excites people engaged in it to their extremes] and very unusual [it's not what they expect every day or every week or every month]. The outcome of it is risky, emotionally or even physically, just as if in the result of an unpleasant adventure.
Magdalena 3 | 1,837
13 Apr 2011  #14
My classic is "awantura".

Meanings shift with time. In the past, "awanturnik" meant adventurer, not someone who picks quarrels with everybody ;-)
mafketis 20 | 7,177
13 Apr 2011  #15
In Spanish aventurero is a guy who sleeps around......


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