Language and thought

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a student. The clock in my classroom has been rubbish for several months. The battery was replaced at the beginning of the year, but it soon ran slow again. Eventually, after it became a hindrance to the smooth flow of classes rather than a mild distraction, I took it down. This necessitated the purchase of a watch.

I remember discovering the idea that language reveals the way a society thinks at university. If there isn’t a word for something, it’s because it’s a concept that culture never needs to describe, analyse or discuss. Al revez, if a culture has a lot of words to define different aspects of one thing (like the famed Eskimo communities with their myriad words for snow), it indicates the importance of the concept.

The discussion that brought this back to me was around my watch, which I wear with the face on the inside of my wrist, so that when I clasp my hands together or gesticulate to explain something in class, I can easily sneak a peak at the time and keep on top of my time management. A student asked why I wear my ‘clock’ the wrong way round. I corrected him and pointed out the difference between a wristwatch or ‘watch’ and a clock. He acknowledged the mistake grudgingly and objected:

“But it’s stupid to have two words for the same thing.”

The Spanish ‘reloj’ is used for all time-telling devices, without discrimination as to whether they are on the face of Elizabeth Tower (commonly referred to as Big Ben, even though that is in fact the name of the bell rather than the tower or indeed, the clock) or whether they are a tiny, decorative wristwatch. And of course, they all do the same thing, which is to communicate the time to us through a designated system of symbols that we are taught to interpret as parts of the day. Imagine how complicated this discussion could get if you were a member of the Amondawa tribe – a people with no concept of time at all, let alone a way to monitor it.

This got me to thinking of all the differences that languages show us. For years it was my ambition to be able to speak a second language, and learning one has been as rich an experience as I had hoped it would be. Some of my favourite examples of the richness of how people express ideas through language, or how language can shape our ideas occur in literal translations of things like dar a luz. This means to give birth, but literally translated it means give to the light. Conversely, the Spanish for ‘pregnant’ is a term that makes me feel uncomfortable because it suggests Eve-like blame for immoral behaviour – embarazada, suspiciously close to ’embarrassed’. This leads to hilarious conversations for people just learning Spanish who try to say they are embarrassed about something, but end up announcing that they’re pregnant, but I can never really shake the feeling that this concept was framed in the language of a fairly misogynistic society.

English, although not a romance language, has close ties to Spanish, and the number of false cognates similar to ’embarazada / embarrassed’ are illuminating. I regularly receive stories with the adjective ‘rare’ to describe something that is weird, strange or unusual, but not rare. This comes from use of the Spanish word raro which looks like it should be rare, but in fact means weird, strange or unusual. You can certainly see the connection in a roundabout way. It also took me a long time to realise that if someone said they had ‘assisted’ at a meeting, they hadn’t been helping out, they had just attended the meeting (asistir – to attend). And I never understood why my friend’s ‘discussions’ with his girlfriend were so heated, until I discovered that in Spanish ‘discutir’ indicates an argument, rather than a cordial exchange of views. The big confusion for English speakers – and probably Spanish speakers too, in reverse – is the verb ‘invitar’. This looks like invite, right? Right. Only in Spanish, the concept of inviting someone to something means it’s on you. So while it was puzzling but pleasant on the occasions when I went out for a coffee with my Spanish friend in Manchester and at the counter she bustled my purse back into my bag saying ‘No, no – I invited you’, it wasn’t until I met people who’d found themselves paying for large meals, or a night on the town because they’d made the mistake of ‘inviting’ their friends out, that I realised how dangerous language could be.

Finally there’s just funny stuff that lightens my day. One of the very small children on my bus can’t yet pronounce the rolled Spanish ‘rrrr’ (it’s good to know that’s a skill that Spanish speakers have to learn, too) so he substitutes an ‘l’ instead. This makes ‘pero’ (dog) ‘pelo’ (hair) and other such hilariousnesses. And it’s fun to be able to listen to advertising jingles that can rhyme things we would never be able to put together in English such as the jingle for ‘radio La Karibeña – sí, suena’ which is along the lines of ‘radio Karibeña, cool tunes’.

Que mundo lindo y bonito, eh amigos?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. catrionaiscrazy
    Jul 09, 2013 @ 00:03:53

    Hey! I’ve nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger award. 🙂



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