Linda Day: Non-equivalence in languages – how learners can benefit from thinking differently

Posted on November 28, 2017

This article is by Linda Day, the Director and founder of Signworld Learn Ltd, which provides online BSL learning, and is a supporter of this site. Find out more here.

You may recall our previous article published in September 2017 entitled ‘The best kept secret?’ In this article, we briefly mentioned the concept of ‘non-equivalence’.

‘Non-equivalence’ was coined as a term by Mona Baker, and while this theory tends to lend itself more to text-based translation, we have identified some common ground that should aid in learning and using BSL.

Baker identified 10 reasons why no direct equivalent might exist in the target language (in this case British Sign Language), one of which is that the concept, or word just does not exist.

Baker also goes on to say that languages make distinctions in meaning which are relevant to particular ‘environments’ i.e. physical, historical, political, religious, cultural, legal, technological, social etc. Therefore, to understand language, you need to understand the differences between these environments.

More generally, to really understand what you are learning or how to use a language, you must truly appreciate the real meaning of the word or sign in front of you, understanding the language or word within a specific context.

You cannot possibly study a word without understanding the whole context and the ‘environment’ in which it sits.

However, when it comes to comparing between two different languages, sometimes where a concept, word or sign might exist in one language (the source language), there is no equivalent in the other (target) language.

Baker believed that to get around the non-equivalence challenge, one would employ ‘cultural substitution’.

So, as an example:

In English: “shampoo the hair with mild Wella” becomes in Spanish (lavar el cabello con un champu suave de Wella) “wash hair with mild Wella shampoo”.

In Spanish ‘shampoo” is a noun and not a verb, so in Spanish you would “wash your hair with a shampoo”, but in English we “shampoo our hair”. The meaning here is the same, but each language uses its own different way of saying the same thing.

However, this is where learners tend to struggle because they are stuck with the concept of ‘sign for word’ i.e. “What’s the sign for that specific English word?”. However, when you apply context (i.e. the environment in which a word sits) it is possible to find a culturally appropriate substitution

For example, in British Sign Language, there is no sign for “fluid”. We use the sign for “water” as a substitution. If you look at “water” as an individual sign, it would look odd. If you look it as a substitution, there’s no issue.

As this strategy exists, and is used well and instinctively by BSL users, it gives rise to a feeling of frustration when others ‘invent’ new signs rather than using culturally appropriate substitution – a strategy that will generally always work. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

Before learners start to claim “there’s no suitable sign!”, it is worth checking if there is an appropriate substitution; if so, then use it. If there is no substitution then there are other ways and means of getting the same point across – but that’s a whole other conversation!

Therefore, it is important that you do not see British Sign Language and try to establish a ‘like for like’ in English. Sometimes, there isn’t one. It is widely accepted across the world that two languages are not always a perfect match for one another and very often there is conflict; find the cultural equivalent or substitute it with something similar.

When it comes to topics like this, I’m always reminded of a saying by Rita Mae Brown:

ʻLanguage is a road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going”




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