How does language reflect a culture?
Does our native language lead us to think or behave in a certain way? And if so, how can that be possible?
Many people, indeed linguistics experts and researchers, would say that language actually determines how we see the world! One famous theory on this topic is called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which basically states that “language predetermines what we see in the world around us.” (Oneill, 2006).
But what does that even MEAN? How does language theory apply to the way we speak today?
One easy way we can look at examples of this is through the expressions and vocabulary of different languages. In fact, it is widely known that there are dozens of words in many languages that simply do not exist in another language. When we read these single words, which are translated through entire English sentences, the beauty lies in the surprise. We immediatly understand the use of such a word, yet had never thought of it as something that could be described so succintly.
Maybe this is because these words are so particular to certain cultures, that no natural equivalent evolved in other languages (i.e. other cultures or locations).
Let’s have a look at 5 words that are said to be “untranslatable” into English :
verschlimmbessern (German, verb): to make something worse when trying to improve it (babble.com) Culturally speaking, this is a funny one coming from the Germans, who have a global reputation for quality manufacturing and innovation. Perhaps only the Germans, in fact, could have invented such a word, in their quest over generations for improved engineering designs. Then again, we do have an expression in American English to counter this point: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The implication here is that if you tinker with something that isn’t broken, you just might make it worse or even break it! Hmmm…do you think these two expressions could be linked?
sobremesa (Spanish, noun): a long conversation around the table following lunch (babble.com) Anyone who has been to Spain knows that they don’t operate on the same hours of business as most of the Western world. In Spain, it is common to spend anywhere from two to four hours eating and napping in the middle of the day before returning to work. This type of lifestyle is foreign to many anglosaxons, who are used to eating a sandwich at their desk or even in the car. The fact that this word exists in Spanish shows how commonplace this activity is in that particular culture, and instills in natives that it is a part of their daily life. On the other end of the spectrum, marketing for anglosaxon restaurants at midday might include words like “Stop N Go” or “Fast Free Delivery” , which suggests a culture in which meals are eaten quickly, and alone.
tingo (Pascuense, verb): to gradually steal all of the possession’s from a neighbor’s house by borrowing them and never returning them (matador.com) The Pascuense language is not well known because it is the language spoken on Easter Island. I can imagine that living on an island must be similar to living in a small town, in which all the residents would soon know each other very intimately. Perhaps so intimately, that it is common to borrow and lend personal possessions often…and sometimes never return them, as this single verb would suggest. I can’t image this practice being popular in a place like London–where it may simply be called STEALING!
litost (Czech, noun): the agony or torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery (matador.com) The Czech author Milan Kundera is quoted as saying that he cannot imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without this word. Maybe that’s because the history of the Czech people is a long, difficult one, in which entire generations suffered very much through wars, and then Communism. Perhaps this downtrodden past of poverty and oppression created a situation in which many felt “down and out” or were disgusted at their own place in life. It is difficult to imagine this same word existing in an equal and just society, which may explain in part why it isn’t translatable into English. Do you think this is true?
(photo: Bryce Chisolm)
pochemuchka (Russian, noun): someone who asks too many quesitons (matador.com) Coming from the Russian language, here is a word that suggests that people don’t take too kindly to those who are curious or ask a lot of questions. This seems to differ from the English word “nosy” in the fact that the person isn’t asking the wrong questions, but just too many of them. A very interesting difference that could mean that personal privacy is a highly regarded principle in that culture.
- Can you translate these words into your native language?
- Do you see how these words could illustrate something unique about the culture?
Of course many of these words, especially if they are Latin-based, may have equivalents in European languages. In fact, in my research for this article, I came across some words that were said to be part of this list, i.e. not easy to translate into English, but I must disagree! Just look at the Italian word “gattara” meaning an old woman who takes care of stray cats (boredpanda.com). Or, the Japanese word “kyoiumama” which refers to a mother who pushes her children into academic acheivements (boredpanda.com). With today’s ever-evolving English language, including slang, there may be more options for translation than you think! Do you know the words for these in English? (hint: answers at the bottom!)
The subject of the relationship between language and culture is a very interesting one, and there is a lot of information available on this topic.
If you have been studying English, can you think of any examples of words that are particular to the English language, that could also reflect something about the culture?
We love to hear your insight into learning English as a second language!
*(gattara: “crazy cat lady” or just “cat lady”; kyoiumama: “tiger mom”)