WD Fyfe

A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society

Different Thoughts?

language

Recently, a lot of very smart people have been quietly studying the next impossible question: which came first, language or culture?  Like the chicken and the egg conundrum – Uh, good luck solving that riddle — it does bring up an interesting concept.  Does language affect the way we look at the world?  Or, more precisely, do people who speak different languages think differently?

Wow!  This is a huge question that scholars are going to be pondering for years, but the simple answer is … yes.  Let me try to explain without sounding like some kind of philological fascist.

Every language has words that simply do not translate because every culture has concepts that don’t.  For example, the Hawaiian language has no word for “weather*.”  Why?  When your weather is consistently Paradise 2.0, you just don’t need an uncountable noun to describe it.  Meanwhile, in all Inuit languages, there are dozens of different words for snow.  They describe every variant imaginable in a world where survival depends on what kind of white stuff Mother Nature is throwing at you.  Both these linguistic imperatives make sense in their own neighbourhood, but they don’t to each other.  Hawaiians and the Inuit have totally different concepts of weather, and their language reflects that.

Likewise, every time I go to France, it takes me a couple of days to realize I’m not getting bad service in restaurants.  The problem is my concept of lunch is completely different from the French dejeuner.  The words mean exactly the same thing but … they aren’t.  In North America, we treat lunch as a necessary nuisance that’s done and gone, but in France it’s an important cultural ritual that can take a couple of hours.  Even though the words translate perfectly– one to one– they mean wildly different things.

But it’s not just cultural differences that influence language.

English has a ton of prepositions, but let’s just use “in” and “on.”  In Spanish, “in” and “on” are the same word: “en.”  Spanish speakers don’t differentiate.  They don’t think that way.

The Russians have a word “toska” which is kinda/ sorta,/maybe religious longing, but not really – uh — so much as a feeling of loss without knowing what is lost.  But you kinda have experience it to know what it feels like.

Hygge, fernweh and forelsket are also words that simply don’t translate into English.  It’s not that English speakers don’t have the same feelings as Danes, Germans or Norwegians; it’s just that we don’t think that way.

I don’t believe culture precedes language, but I do believe that, as a culture evolves, people simultaneously adapt their language to accommodate it.  Once that happens, the actual words tend to veer away from their objective meaning.  They get loaded up with information that’s specific to the speaker.  Words are the tools we use to express our thoughts, and sometimes those thoughts are incomprehensible to an outsider.  That’s why anybody who knows anything about language will tell you that to learn a language properly, you must first understand the culture.

 

*In contemporary usage, Hawaiians have borrow the Chinese word “huan” which loosely translates as change.

6 comments on “Different Thoughts?

  1. Joe
    October 30, 2019

    Language and culture are two fascinating subjects. My daughter recently got her degree in linguistics. I can listen to her talk about the origins and idiosyncrasies of language for hours. Now, if she could only get a job.

    • wdfyfe
      October 30, 2019

      Good for her but there’s always something!

  2. Christi
    October 31, 2019

    Fascinating subject.
    Not sure if this relates, but my Spanish prof said you’ll know you reached fluency in a language if you start to dream in it. He said his Spanish dreams were always better than his English dreams, but his best dreams by far were those in Portuguese.
    I always thought it would be cool to dream in another language!

    • wdfyfe
      October 31, 2019

      I have dreamed in Spanish but that was years ago.

  3. Claudette
    November 3, 2019

    Interesting thoughts.
    I have dreamed in gobbledegook – but I don’t think that helps much in the real world 🙂

    • wdfyfe
      November 3, 2019

      Sometimes I think that way — no big deal

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This entry was posted on October 29, 2019 by in Culture, Writing & Books and tagged , , , , .
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