Different Thoughts?


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.

Lazy Words For Journalists


English is an exact and beautiful language, rich with words that do so much more than just modify, identify or describe.  Unfortunately, it’s also full of tired old words that lazy people use because — well — uh — they’re probably journalists.  Honestly, journalists love lazy the way French pigs love truffles.  They’ll go out of their way to dig up the most hackneyed crap and spill it out onto the page.  Here are a few of these overworked gems.  When you find one of these little puppies — and you will — just walk away.  If journalism is a dying profession, these are the nails in the coffin

Bureaucracy — Coined in the early 19th century, by a Frenchman who didn’t like government (he also gave us laissez-faire) in the 21st century, bureaucracy means bad — full stop.  It’s like wearing a black hat in a 1950s Western.  The problem is journalists use “bureaucracy” the way rednecks use duct tape.  It’s an all purpose fix-it for whatever ails ya.  According to the media, government bureaucracy is the cause of all our problems– from the extra-long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles to the fat kid sitting on your sofa, playing video games.

Cyber-Anything — This is a double barreled word that journalists use to sound techno-savvy.  In actual fact, most journalists limit their digital experience to Google, Facebook and whatever’s trending on Twitter that day.  However, they believe that if they slap a suffix on “cyber,” it sounds as if they’re on the cutting edge of cool.  No!  Mostly, they just sound like cyber-dicks.

Anything-Gate — Another double-barreled word, this one is used to make mountains out of molehills.  Watergate was (and still is) the Holy Grail of media excellence, and journalists have been trying to reproduce it ever since.  Typing “gate” at the end of something gives journalists the idea that people will think they’re serious about their profession.  Here’s a news flash: not every mistake, misstep or misappropriation is the smoking gun that’s going to lead to a conspiracy worthy of Richard Nixon’s White House.  And, more importantly, most people realize if you were a serious journalist, you’d know the difference.

And speaking of evil:

Hitler — This word isn’t really about the guy with the funny moustache anymore.  It has become a measurement for politicians who disagree with The New York Times.  For example, Donald Trump was compared to Hitler before he ever got nominated, whereas George W. Bush had to actually get elected to make the grade.  Meanwhile, Barack Obama was well into his second term before he got hit with the H-word, but it didn’t matter because most of his fan club didn’t know who Hitler was, anyway.  In the future, all politicos will be rated by how long it takes New York journalists to make the comparison.

And finally, my favourite:

Politically Correct — These are the weirdest phrase in the English language.  First of all, to any thinking person, this is literally the worst term possible for a dumbass.  Politically correct people are so narrow minded they can look through a keyhole with both eyes.  However, because of that, no one ever admits to being politically correct.  Ask anybody:  politically correct is always somebody else’s fault.  Yet, even though the faith has no followers, there are tons of journalistic apologists out there, and they’re swearing on every holy book they don’t believe in  that they are not now — nor have they ever been — politically correct.  Personally, I think that’s why this particular brand of ignorance is still alive and thriving in our world.

Lost In Translation

conversationI am hopelessly in love with language.  I love the way it moves, the way it sounds, the way it feels, the way it thinks.  Hell, just being in the company of language turns me on!  If language were a woman, I’d never get out of bed.  Luckily, even though I’ve dabbled in French, Spanish and now Dutch, English will always be my monogamous choice.  You see, I have this feeling that being completely bilingual (or multilingual, or whatever) is like having two girlfriends, mistresses or wives.  It’s probably totally cool in theory, but the reality has got to be super- difficult and uber-confusing.  So, if you speak more than one language, I have a few questions.

1 — My electronics are all set for English.  However, if you’re emailing and texting people in more than one language, do you have to constantly change settings, or do you just pray autocorrect won’t suddenly have a total logic meltdown and fry your phone like in a bad Sci-Fi movie?

2 — What happens when you’re speaking one language and there’s a more descriptive word for what you’re saying in a different language?  Do you tell your brain to quit being such a smart ass and carry on, or do you use the foreign word and hope people don’t think you’re a pompous jerk?

3 — In general, jokes don’t translate, so are people who speak more than on language so confused they don’t really laugh at anything? Or do they wander around all day, giggling like idiots, because everything is so damn funny?

5 — Idioms and slang usually don’t translate either, so when you get really angry or excited, do you swear at people in the wrong language?

6 — How do you play Words With Friends?  Do you settle on one language or just use them all?

7 — How do you know which language you think in — like, for really?

But the thing I really want to know is this:

8 — After awhile, do you start speaking French with an American accent, German with an Italian accent, English with a Spanish accent and on and on — until even you don’t remember which is which, and you sound like your original language was Klingon?