I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor — this line reveals more about language habits than you care for
Stories around spoken English vs. Russian vs. Chinese vs. German vs. French vs. Tamil vs. Matses (Peru).
The title line has depth. It made me sit up and notice an ah ha about languages.
What is great about this line in English? The unspoken part, it is my choice whether I leave you hanging on the gender of my neighbor.
In French or German — the same sentence gives the gender away with voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin.
And the holiday read line that caught my attention — “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” — renowned linguist Roman Jakobson.
A nice pithy maxim. Here is why.
In English, it is my prerogative of sharing the gender of my neighbor but I have to share something about the timing of the event. Recall English grammar from dined, have been dining to will be dining.
Chinese, on the other hand, the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. There is no obligation to share the timing!
In Tamil, my mother tongue, when a person dies, the choice of word is not about death, it is about time.
“His time has ended (Kaalam aitaar)”
Native tribe of Peru , Matses, go to great lengths about time. Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages equates their language to the finickiest of lawyers.
These line made me chuckle. “you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago.”
Languages, without us realizing it, forces us to be attentive to certain details from a young age. In the obligation to evocate certain types of information, language creates habits of mind that go beyond language itself.
When asked to ascribe a descriptor for bridges — a German survey culled the word — elegant while Spanish found the common word — strong. Partial explanation — A bridge is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish.
If you asked me, I would have said — useful. English and Tamil are two languages that are gender agnostic for objects.
I always had trouble with object gender — French, Spanish or Hindi. I am still wading my way through.
Maybe, my time will come.
Until then, raising a toast to languages — for making us learn mind habits without realizing it.