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What’s in a word: Culture in context.

Written by Peter Muijres –

The last blog post was about the question how the availability of words in different languages facilitates people to express things. Right now, this emphasis will shift towards the question whether a language is able to express cultural uniqueness and what implications this would have for cross-cultural communication. ‘Intranslatable’ foreign words are often quoted and explained to show there is nothing special about the culture that generated them.

The Swedish word Mångata, is popular for example, meaning: the road-like reflection of the moon on the water. Next one; the Spanish sobremesa is the leisurely time spent at the table together after people have finished eating. Easy. Next, one: utepils means enjoying a beer outside in the sun. Next one in line is the Japanese Komorebi. English language might need several words to describe the effect of sunlight filtering through leaves where the Japanese need only one, but in the end we are talking about the same thing, aren’t we?

That remains the question. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that words that exist only in one language expresses an unique experience particular to that culture, because the meaning of words determines what we are capable of thinking of. At the other hand, the structuralist approach in linguistics, proposes that the words in a language are like the holes in a fishing net. Each language group throws the fishing net in its own way over a surface, which represents reality. Although the net and the holes will always fall differently, and different words cover different aspects and dimensions, the reality underneath stays basically the same. The methaphor is used to illustrate that people all have a similar experience of reality, although the words they use to catch this reality may differ.

What does this mean to cross-cultural communication? Structuralists might argue: ‘communication between cultures is possible because people understand the words they use in the same way‘. Cultural differences are superficial and no experience is exclusive to people in one culture, the structuralist view holds. At the other hand, cultural relativists, like Sapir and Whorf, might argue that ‘communication between cultures goes wrong all the time, because people understanding the words they use in different ways’. The latter suggests that people from different cultures make sense of reality differently and should therefore be understood in their own terms.

An abilty to explain something (‘erklaeren’) and having an interpretative understanding (‘verstehen’) are two different things, Max Weber once explained. By now, you might have a notion of what utepils is. However you still have no idea what it means to live through a long, dark Scandinavian winter and the mindset, social setting and joyful expectations of spring and summer that the Norwegians tend to associate with ‘enjoying a beer in the sun’. Understanding the meaning of a word means something different than understanding that meaning in its cultural context. Let’s sink our teeth into two examples.

The German word ‘Fingerspitzengefuehl’ literally translates as ‘fingertips feeling’. The concept describes a certain strategic awareness, tact and intuition that allows for a quick responding to situational changes. The description might have drafted a picture by now, but it probably won’t include the almost geek-like joy and satisfaction that fingertips feelers may derive from observing how all particles in an incomprehensible scheme ingeniously work together to produce the tangible, hoped for result. A commitment to understand what needs to be done, why and in what way fosters a carefully cultivated mindset of punctuality, discipline and critical curiousity on a level where skills turn into art. Famous for their attention to detail, planning and punctuality, a missing cultural context would fail to make understandable why Germans were among the first to come up with a word for ‘Fingerspitzengefuehl’.

The opposite of planning is delicately caught by a word the Portuguese came up with: desenrascanço. Literally meaning “disentanglement”, desenrascanço refers to improvised, ad hoc solutions that prevent the problem from getting completely out of control and without a solution. So, that be a serious reason for concern?

Although you may have an idea of the translation of desenrascanço, developing cultural sensitivity requires a context. Desenrascanço is normally used to express an ability to solve a problem without having the knowledge or the adequate tools to do so, by use of imaginative resources or by applying knowledge to new situations. Portuguese people are said to strongly believe it to be one of their most valued virtues and a living part of their culture. There is a distinct pride and pleasure involved in the resourcefulness associated with the ability to handle unexpected situations and is not to be confused with an endorsement of amateurism, irresponsibility and lack of planning.

This brings us back to the original question: is a language able to express cultural uniqueness and what implications would that have for cross-cultural communication? The purpose of raising questions such as these is not to end up with a final answer that should be copied and applied across situations indifferently.

One post on cultureclassblog mentioned that picking up easily on new languages indicates cultural intelligence, because it shows an ability to recognize and apply subtle culture specific meanings in communication. What did the American expat, who refused to speak anything but English, communicate by stating : “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s surely good enough for me!”? That speaking in the same language is no guarantee for being on the same page.

More important than the content of words is your view of self, others, your relation to others and the world that you communicate. Relationships depend on communication and over 80% of it happens non-verbally. Attending to mind whether another person really understands and feels understood may not seem necessary at times, but may contribute something else  within a context where borders are crossed and opportunities created together. provides training in cross-cultural personal and communication skills.


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.