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.

Super-duper Smart People


My whole life has been a lie — and so has yours!  Unless you’re some super-duper scientist, you’ve been living under the delusion that the Earth has only one moon — conveniently called “The Moon.”  You’re wrong.  Our planet actually has two moons, and the second one is called Cruithne.  You didn’t know that, did ya?  Well, don’t feel bad ’cause neither does anyone else outside the super-duper scientist community.  But wait: there’s more!  The reason you and I and everybody else have never heard about Cruithne is another bunch of super-duper scientists thought about it for a while and called “Bullshit!”  They say that this other moon isn’t really a moon; it’s a NEO (Near Earth Object) and, apparently, there are thousands of them flying around out there.  Nerd wars!

The truth is, it doesn’t matter if the Earth has one, two or a thousand moons.  Aside from screwing up some romantic song lyrics and making the horoscope people look like idiots, what difference does it make?  Not much!  The important thing, however, is we have a crew of super-duper smart people sitting around all day, thinking about smart stuff — like whether a space rock the size of a golf course is a moon or not.

Here’s the deal: 500 years ago (1518) if you mentioned the Earth revolved around the Sun, you’d have been burned as a heretic.  (Galileo and his buddy Copernicus barely missed getting the crispy critter treatment for saying exactly that — 25 years later.)  But you don’t have to go back that far.  Less than a hundred years ago, if you told people a moldy cantaloupe could cure everything from pneumonia to blood poisoning, they’d have found a straitjacket and put you in it.  Hell, 30 years ago we only had one moon!  My point is, who knows what absolute facts will be proven wrong 500, 100 or even 30 years from now?

Ordinary people, like me, don’t know anything about microbes or moons or any of the other billions and one things scooting through our universe.  We need super-duper smart people to think about that stuff and figure it out for the rest of us.  People like Da Vinci, Newton, Madame Curie, Einstein and good old what’s-his-name who discovered Cruithne in 1986.  These are the folks who, throughout history, changed the human race from a bunch of thugs with thumbs into the dominant species on this planet.  And if it weren’t for them, we’d still be dancing around the campfire and howling at the moon — whichever one you fancy.

BTW, it’s been generally decided that 3753 Cruithne is not a moon, but for a while there, it looked like we’d all be singing “By the light of the silvery Cruithne.”

Stuff They Should Teach In School

classroomWhen I was a kid, I loved school.  I thought it was an absolutely excellent way to spend my time. (Full disclosure — I had a little trouble as a teenager when sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll swept the neighbourhood, but for the most part, I was the guy teachers loved.)  I pursued knowledge for its own sake.  I was interested in everything from Pythagoras and that theory I don’t remember to who did what to who (whom?) in the War of the Roses.  Like some cloistered monk, I devoured  the ancient scrolls of my people, and for twelve wonderful years, I was a happy camper.  Then I left home and went to university.


Within a week, I discovered just how stupid I really was.  Yeah, yeah, yeah — my parents had taught me the basics: I wasn’t going to starve to death or give all my money to a Nigerian prince.  But there are tons of things in life everybody should know — and solving quadratic equations isn’t one of them.  Here are a few things they should actually teach you in school.

Income Tax — Everybody pays income tax; it’s totally important.  People go to jail if they mess it up.  Plus, it’s one of the most complicated things in the universe.  For example, I know for a fact most NASA scientists don’t do their own income tax.  There should be a class (every year) dedicated to filling out your income tax, and it should be mandatory.  When I was in school, we spent more time trying to figure out what Jane Austen was doing with Mr. Darcy than we did income tax.

Negotiation — Nothing happens in this life without negotiation —  nothing!  Yet the closest most schools get to teaching negotiation skills is the Debating Club — made up of kids who aren’t nerdy enough to get into the U.N. Club.

Communication — The simple art of making sense.  Teach that and most of us could at least get decent answers to our questions.

Time Management — This is one of those skills you’re supposed to learn in school by — I don’t know — osmosis, I guess.  It’s not as if anybody explains how to do it.  They just assign homework, a couple of essays, a term project and expect you figure it out for yourself.  Clearly, this method doesn’t work — or there wouldn’t be any need the famous “last minute” we’re all so fond of.

Shopping — There is a huge difference between paying too much for something and getting a shoddy product for half the price.  Schools should stop worrying about the guy who had a dollar and bought 18 oranges for 6 cents apiece and then sold 3 of them for 9 cents, 2 of them for 11 cents and 1 more for 7 cents.  Nobody cares how much money or how many oranges he has left.  We have telephones that can figure that out.  What people need to learn is how to find a good orange at a decent price.

And finally, in the same vein:

How to find a good doctor, dentist, lawyer, plumber, accountant, car mechanic, etc.
Eventually, everybody needs professional help, but good luck trying to find it without getting totally screwed.  There should be a class (or even a semester) on how to tell the shysters from the swindlers, why you should never trust the person with the lowest price and what to do when you discover the $200.00-an-hour “certified” mechanic working on your car is the same kid who delivered your pizza last night.