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Saturday, February 29, 2020

Behind the languages you speak, a complex link to who you are

Describing somebody as an owl (‘ullu’) will have very different implications in Hindi and English: the same person will be thought to be wise and bookish in English and a fool in Hindi.

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi | Updated: March 24, 2018 7:38:26 pm
language placards in space Language is perhaps the most powerful training tool (though not the only one) that cultures have at their disposal to carry and inculcate their worldviews.

There are expressions in all languages that are deeply evocative and often untranslatable. Immersing into a foreign language learning is not simple translation but in part to experience a different way of looking at the world. It almost always entails encountering words and expressions with meanings and concepts that take effort to grasp and comprehend, eventually opening a window to an entirely new idea or a specific connotation for which the learner previously lacked a packaged expression. The common Japanese phrase “Mendokusai”, for example, is one such convenient expression that foreigners pick up quickly. “It is this phrase that describes something between ‘I can’t be bothered,’ or ‘I don’t want to do it,’ or ‘I recognise the incredible efforts that goes into something even though it shouldn’t be so much of an effort,’” a former American exchange student in Japan explained on NPR’s Hidden Brain radio show. Such as on a rainy day when one is cosily indoors and can’t be bothered to walk over to the corner shop even to buy their craved comfort food. 

Human beings are brought up in a certain culture, which shapes their innermost realm, their world view. Language is perhaps the most powerful training tool (though not the only one) that cultures have at their disposal in inculcating these world views. Many modern linguists therefore acknowledge the existence of a weak form of linguistic relativity. In other words, they believe that the languages we use influence (but do not determine) our view of the world and our truths.

“The worldview of the language emanates from the unconscious use of language rather than conscious,” says eminent linguist Ganesh Devy, “In terms of the innermost personalities, we still retain the family structure and the social bondage differently and we worship God differently and our very secret fears, nightmares and dreams are culture-specific. The roots of a language lie there, and not so much in the realm of the material culture.”

“Language organises and categorises the world and thus enables us to navigate through it; different cultures do this differently. In English, for instance, there are certain things you cannot say which are perfectly within reach in Hindi,” says Dr Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Professor of Linguistics and English at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, adding, “Almost all of us who live in a world of translation know that we are engaged in a form of weak cultural relativism.” She gives the example of describing somebody as an owl (‘ullu’) will have very different implications in Hindi and English: the same person will be thought to be wise and bookish in English and a fool in Hindi.

Could you pass me the fork to your south-west?

One fascinating extreme is of the Kuuk Thaayorre language spoken in an aboriginal community in northern Queensland, Australia, which differs from English in one specific way: it does not use directional and spatial terms such as left, right, in front of or behind. Rather, the speakers of this aboriginal language, talk solely in terms of cardinal directions like north, south, east, west, north-west etc. English speakers generally employ these directions are only in large spatial areas, where often a compass comes in handy.

Dr Lera Boroditsky, professor of cognitive science at University of California, San Diego, has written about initiating an exercise all over the world in rooms and auditoriums full of scholars: She asks them to close eyes, raise a hand and point to the North. No matter which megapolis of the world, she inevitably witnesses hands flying in all possible directions. And why shouldn’t humans be bad at this — who unlike many birds and animals, have no biological navigational aids built into them, be it a strong sense of smell, sensitivity to earth’s magnetic fields or mental mapping of landscapes. Researchers, however, found that speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre do exceptionally well at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are even in unfamiliar landscapes and inside unfamiliar buildings — much better than what researchers previously thought humans could. As Boroditsky explained on NPR, “Turns out that human can stay oriented really, really well, provided their language and culture requires them to keep track of this information.”

Relativism galore: Food, Color, Kinship

To be fluent in two to four languages is a common state of being for a majority of Indians and so it is common to reach out for terms and expressions in one language while talking in another — especially between English and Indian languages. We are instinctively aware of some of these contradictions. Color, kinship and food are three areas where cultural worldviews vary extensively, according to Nair.

Food is a domain rife with cultural variations because it is fundamental to both physical survival as well as to the cultural notions of what you can eat to survive. “For instance,” says Nair, “in India we have invented the term ‘non-veg,’ which is an addition to the English language with a direct view of what food is”. While ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ are specific English terms, ‘non-vegetarian,’ is an Indianism, i.e., it is a word specific to Indian English. “People would be confused if you went to a restaurant in England or the US and said ‘I am non-veg,’ she explains, “Vegetarianism is so central a concept in the perception of this culture, that ‘non-vegetarian’ was created to denote the non-part or the opposite part of it. That’s a cultural difference which is linguistically reflected”. On the contrary, consider the Man Booker International prize winning novella, ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang, which narrates a dark and disturbing tale of a Korean woman who decides to give up on eating meat and in the course of the story is thought to have become mentally deranged and incompatible with normal life. The Korean term for ‘vegetarian’, which is the novel’s original Korean title, takes on an odd connotation due to the fact that in traditional Korean food, meat is considered central and nearly indispensable to the diet, traditionally does not have the concept of vegetarianism at all. Requesting a chef in Korea to cook something without egg, fish, chicken or meat, for instance, may still leave a gap in instruction and result in them cooking the dish with shrimp.

One of the common variations in color differentiation in languages is the confusion between green and blue — whether they are treated as different colors or different shades of the same color. English linguists refer to this mixed territory as “grue”. In Vietnamese, for instance, the common word for grue (“xanh”) is used to refer to both the colors, which are distinguished as differing shades, leaf grue and ocean grue. And while English speakers are used to denoting light blue and dark blue as different shades of the same color, Russian has two distinct color words for the two.

“Language is a dynamic phenomena. Every utterance of a word is a fresh phenomenon,” says Devy, “There is nothing like a preexisting permanent meaning — the meaning gets generated within the context of every event of use of a word”. The notion of the worldview is also constantly transformed in a country like India where people are constantly switching between worldviews. Traditional English kinship words like “uncle” and “aunty” for instance, have long been imported into Indian urbanspeak as a form of reverence — yet their original connotation is modified in the Indian context; while still relational, they are not confused to imply kin or blood relation.

“India complicates the problem of linguistic relativism in a very interesting way, according to me,” says Nair, “where the worldview can be shared but expressed differently in different languages”. Indian languages share many common features that indicate a shared world view which is expressed differently in each. Disgust or ghrina is one such emotional worldview that seems to have a parallel in all Indian languages — a feature that Nair refers to as a ‘pollution complex’ with various connotations around words like ‘chhi chhi’ and ‘ganda’ (dirty). Similarly, a Hindi word like ‘jootha’ (literally, food already tasted by someone / someone’s leftovers) has no easy translation for someone from outside the Indian subcontinent. Yet, there is a specific term for it in most Indian languages.

At the same time, language hardly works in isolation. The environment is teeming with unsaid visual and sensory information too, which informs us on how to organise the world and function within the society.  “Language is certainly the most powerful organisational tool we have, but not the only one. The phenomenon is a complex one but there is no doubt that they direct us — not in isolation but in conjunction with a lot of other cultural cues,” says Nair.

Most importantly, human beings are capable of stretching their perspective by learning new languages, making inroads into a different culture and thereby opening new vantage points to the world. As Nair puts it, “That is what makes us human — that we are not meant to be stuck inside one worldview”.

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