Sunday, June 8, 2014

People watching


The Travelled Monkey - Heads
Window decorations in Mechelen, Belgium  Photo by John Weaver

Walking down the street, you sometimes get a glimpse into people's lives through their windows. I don't usually stop and stare, but this house made me pause…

Language is like a window through which we see the world. That's why it’s interesting how different languages shape different world views. I don’t mean that people that speak different languages can’t ever understand each other 100%. In fact, there’s usually a 1 to 1 translation in most languages for the vast majority of words, ideas and feelings we want to communicate. 

But there are a lot of small differences between languages that I’m sure (or at least I sense) must give the speaker of that language a slightly different outlook on things. 

And of course the more languages you know, the more of these little differences you’ll see. What I think is interesting, though, is how you can not only navigate within your own language, but also draw on things you’ve picked up on from another language and try to use it in your own. For me, this goes beyond translation because it’s no longer just about words. It’s about seeing the limits of words in one language, and using a different set of limits from another language to expand the limits of the first. 

Let's expand our world views together! If there are any small (or big!) differences between languages that have caught your attention, add it in the comments.


  1. One thing that's always struck me is the fact that Dutch-speakers use the same word for cousin (neef) and nephew (neef). Or if the cousin is a girl (nicht), then it’s the same as niece (nicht). So if someone is talking about their neef, you have to try and figure out from the context if they mean their cousin or their nephew. Small thing, but as an English-speaker it’s always seemed funny to me.

  2. Here’s another classic example of how language impacts our world view.

    In a study of German and Spanish speakers, which both attribute gender to nouns, each were asked to describe various everyday objects. The German-speakers more often described a bridge (Brücke), which is a feminine noun, using words like 'beautiful', 'elegant', 'fragile', 'peaceful', 'pretty', and 'slender.' The Spanish-speakers, on the other had, described a bridge (puente), which is masculine, as 'big', 'dangerous', 'long', 'strong', 'sturdy', and 'towering'.

  3. Your first comment is about how the same word is used for both cousin and nephew in Dutch, how about the fact that cousin is used for both a make cousin and a female cousin. So when someone speaks about their cousin you don't know if it is a boy or a girl cousin.

    1. True, cousins seem to be a tricky one to translate for some reason. In general, I think adding a gender to nouns definitely influences how you understand that thing (see my second comment).

  4. Another example pointed out to me by a Greek friend: "Why do you say in English that someone is 'falling' in love? Why not 'flying' or another verb?" I've not thought of it before, but it's true that many languages just have one word for "falling in love," without expressing it in terms of "falling." In English it has a more descriptive meaning about how it feels to be captured by Cupid.