Archive | September 2014

Words on words 

Written by: Peter Muijres –

Everyone who speaks more than one language surely has experienced the feeling of being ‘lost in translation’. In one language, you may know exactly what you want to say, but the very same expression just doesn’t translate from one language into another. Those who have to translate struggle with this on a daily basis. People sometimes say a language is ‘rich’ when it has a great vocabulary to pick from, but what does ‘rich’ actually mean? How do numbers of words and their meaning enable people in a specific context to piece together a message in different languages? The next two blogs seek for answers to these questions.

Some languages may count more words than others, but cultural factors skew the interpretation of those numbers. Cultures differ in what people consider and accept as ‘official’ language. For example, to be included in an English dictionary, a word like ‘LOL’ (Laughing Out Loud) simply has to exist. Russians, however, feel that dictionaries should reflect only ‘proper’ words representative of the official language. Dictionaries are one of the main resources of people learning about a language. Not including words in a dictionary means limiting access to a number of words and their meaning and makes a language appear less voluminous or ‘rich’ than it actually is or should be.

Does a considerable amount of words with the same or a similar meaning indicate some meaningful hotspot in a given culture?Researchers supporting the hypothesis of linguistic relativity, introduced by Sapir and Whorff, say it does. The language we speak and the words that are part of it or not reflect and affect our view of the world. The many words Eskimos have for ‘snow’ is well known cliché, we owe to the work of anthropologist Franz Boas (1911). Also, the 300 Arabic words for ‘love’ are sometimes brought up to suggest that the entire group of native speakers is more inclined towards poetry and love. ­ However, one critical question is how you define a ‘word’.

Some Eskimo languages have different words and word endings to differentiate between where the snow is, how much it is or where it goes. Frans Boaz (1911) provides examples: Aput means ‘snow on the ground’; qana means ‘falling snow’, and qimiqsuq means ‘drifting snow’. Other languages simply add an adjective or few describing words to say what the snow is doing, rather than coining a different word. More differential words do not necessarily add more meaning than word combinations.

But sometimes having many words , does reflect and foster a bigger awareness of the nuances entailed in whatever that concept is. Those among us who have learned to identify and appreciate snow in all its varieties and settings, are more likely to know and use specific words to describe those differences as well, adding depth to conversation.

Consider the variations in meaning of the synonyms of the adjective ‘mean’ offered by Merriam-Webster online. ‘Mean’ suggests small-mindedness, ill temper, or cupidity <mean and petty satire>. Ignoble suggests a loss or lack of some essential high quality of mind or spirit <an ignoble scramble after material possessions>. Abject may imply degradation, debasement, or servility <abject poverty>. Sordid is stronger than all of these in stressing physical or spiritual degradation and abjectness <a sordid story of murder and revenge>. Provided your conversational partner is able to grasp the subtle meaning you are trying to convey to the same extent, the more different synonyms may help to communicate the subtle nuances of a message to others who understand too.

Having more words at your disposal does entail a psychological advantage by enabling wordplay. Wordplay lets air into messages that might otherwise become overly earnest. The English, well known for difficulties with earnestness, employ wordplay in almost every other heading in the British tabloids. A play of word also facilitates rephrasing of points of view, which is a powerful therapeutical tool to help people take a different perspective at things. Words are such powerful precision tools that it doesn’t hurt to have more of them – provided that you know how to use them and others still understand you. However, especially when words travel across cultural borders, the meaning of words is at risk. The next blog will concentrate on the impact of culture on the creation, context and export of words.

Literature: Boas, F. (1911). Handbook of American Indian languages, pp. 25-26. Whorf, B.L. (1949). “Science and Linguistics” Reprinted in Carroll 1956.