Interpretive services

Via the STRS (State Teachers Retirement System) Ohio health care program, a message from the Express Scripts prescription company about preferred pharmacies in my area, with several pages of information about the Express Scripts “Multi-language Interpreter Services”, offering translations of their literature into any of 22 languages. I was startled to see, in the middle of this list, Pennsylvania Dutch / Deitsch:

Mir hen free Iwwersetzer Services um die Frooge zu andwatte, die du vielleicht iwwer dei Gsundheit odder Drug Blan hoscht. …

And then I wondered about the selection of languages, which strikes me as very odd. Express Scripts presumably knows who it’s serving — in particular, the communities in its customer base that use languages other than English —  but still I wonder.

Here’s the full list of languages (with English names, plus local names when those are spelled in some version of the Latin alphabet):

(X) Albanian / Shqip, Arabic, Bengali, Cambodian-Mon-Khmer, Chinese Mandarin, Chinese Cantonese, French / Française, German / Deutsch, Greek, Gujarati, French Creole / Creyole Ayisyen [Haitian Creole], Italian / Italiano, Korean, Pennsylvania Dutch / Deitsch, Polish / Język polski, Portuguese / Portuguȇs, Russian, Spanish / Español, Tagalog, Urdu, Vietnamese / Tiếng Việt, Yiddish

Here’s the full spiel for two of the languages I have some competence in:


US Census Bureau data from the 2010 census list the following languages (other than English) used by speakers in the US, in descending order:

Spanish, Chinese, languages of India, French, Tagalog, Vietnamese, German, Korean

(These are underlined in list (X) above.) The number of US speakers of Arabic seems to have been rising steadily through the decade, and that would explain its inclusion in list (X).

Romance languages. The Express Scripts customer base will include a fair number of speakers of French and a great many of Spanish, and perhaps some of Portuguese and Italian (and Haitian Creole) — but not, say, Romanian, which isn’t on list (X).

Germanic languages. On list (X), besides English, only German and the surprising Pennsylvania Dutch — not (Netherlands) Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish, despite their historical significance in the US. I wouldn’t have thought there were enough Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites in the prescription care market to merit a translation just for them, but there it is. From Wikipedia:

Pennsylvania German (Deitsch, Pennsilfaanisch-Deitsch, Pennsilfaanisch; often called Pennsylvania Dutch) is a variety of West Central German spoken by the Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites and other descendants of German immigrants in the United States and Canada, closely related to the Palatine dialects. There are possibly more than 300,000 native speakers in the United States and Canada.

… Speakers of the dialect today are primarily found in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and other Midwestern states of the United States, and in Ontario in Canada. Historically, the dialect was also spoken in several other regions where its use has either largely or entirely faded. The practice of Pennsylvania German as a street language in urban areas of Pennsylvania (such as Allentown, Reading, Lancaster, and York) was declining by the arrival of the 20th century, while in more rural areas it continued in widespread use through the World War II era. Since that time, its use has greatly declined. The exception to this decline is in the context of the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities, and presently the members of these two groups make up the majority of Pennsylvania German speakers.

Languages of India.  From the Quartz India site, the US Census Bureau data from the 2010 census:


Indic languages. Hindi and Urdu are very closely related languages, the first written in the Devanagari script and associated with Hinduism, the second written in the Arabic script and associated with Islam. Urdu is on list (X), but Hindi inexplicably is not. And Bengali is on list (X), but Punjabi is not, though that’s a close thing. More strikingly, Marathi is on list (X), but no Dravidian language is, not even Telugu and Tamil (much less Kannada or Malayalam).

Slavic languages. There are (still and again) significant Russian-speaking immigrant communities in the US; similarly, Serbian / Croatian / Bosnian communities; historically, there were substantial communities of Polish, Czech, and Slovak speakers, but probably not many speakers now; and probably not enough speakers of Ukrainian, Belorussian, Slovenian, Bulgarian, or Macedonian to merit an Express Scripts translation. In any case, only Polish makes list (X).

Other European languages. Greek and Albanian make list (X). Current communities of Armenian, Hungarian, and Finnish speakers are probably not large enough to merit an Express Scripts translation. Similarly for the Indo-European languages of Asia Persian / Farsi, Kurdish, and Pashto.

Other Asian languages. Chinese and Korean make list (X) on the numbers; Japanese-Americans are numerous, but US speakers of Japanese apparently not, so Japanese doesn’t make the list. Of the Mon-Khmer languages, there are substantial US communities of Vietnamese speakers and of speakers of languages in this family from Cambodia (especialy of the national language, Khmer), and both are on list (X). Then, there’s a huge Filipino community in the US, with a great many speakers of the national language, Tagalog / Filipino / Pilipino, which is on list (X).

Yiddish and Hebrew. The remaining language on list (X) is Yiddish; (Israeli) Hebrew is not on the list, though there would appear to be about equal numbers of speakers in the US (on the order of a quarter of a million speakers, some sources suggest). The two communities are quite different, the Yiddish speakers being mostly older American-born Jews, the Hebrew speakers being mostly younger immigrants from Israel. It might then indeed be that many more in the first group are prescription coverage clients than in the second.

And that’s the language news from Express Scripts.

4 Responses to “Interpretive services”

  1. Sim Aberson Says:

    My impression is that Yiddish is being revived as a first language by Hasid communities throughout the Americas. Given the tendency of Hasidim to have large number of children, the number of young Yiddish speakers is recently increasing in the US (and Canada).

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I too have “some competence” in German, but the word Dolmetscher (“interpreter”) is new to me.

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    It’s possible that Dutch and the Scandinavian languages aren’t included because of the (probably accurate) perception that the vast majority of native speakers of those languages residing in the US are competent in English.

  4. Bob Richmond Says:

    Perhaps someone on the Express Scripts staff is a native speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch and wanted offer the service. I would suppose that almost all speakers of the language are competent in English.

    Yesterday I read that gravitational waves from another neutron star collision event were recorded a few months ago. The Web site offered translations into several languages, one of which was Blackfoot, an Algonquian language with about 5,000 speakers in Montana and adjacent Alberta. I noticed that there were no loan-words in the text at all. How does Blackfoot come to have a word for neutron?

    I had a similar experience with Navajo a few days ago. I was reading about some very obscure organisms (onychophorans) in Wikipedia, and out of curiosity flipped over to the Diné Bizaad server, and found that several really obscure taxa have Navajo equivalents.

    Clearly for this to be happening, there must be some people out there busily creating new vocabulary in these languages. I really wonder just what role Wikipedia is playing in the maintenance of less used languages.

    … der Dolmetscher is the ordinary German word for an oral-language interpreter. The word obviously isn’t German. It’s supposed to be derived from Turkish dilmaç, possibly through Hungarian or Russian. The archaic English word ‘dragoman’ (sometimes ‘torchman’) is similar, of Semitic origin – in Jewish worship, the guy that reads the Targum (Aramaic translation of the Torah portion) is called the ‘meturgeman’.

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