Thursday, 12 July 2007

Cunning Linguists

One of my great pleasures in life is to read about the world's languages; it's always been a regret of mine that I never studied linguistics - it certainly would have been more worthwhile than the hours I spent in lectures on Romanticism and critical theory, listening to a wanker from New Zealand drone on about Coleridge - so I have to become an expert in my own time.

My favourite book is The Dictionary of Languages, a reference work to four hundred of the world's official languages, as well as historically important extinct ones and all of the world's language families. (Of course, there are some five thousand languages spoken in the world today, so many are left out - but they often get a passing mention in other entries.) I've spent countless hours (a lot of them on the toilet) flipping through its pages, murmuring "hmm" and "ahh" occasionally and soaking up interesting (and probably useless) bits of trivia like a sponge.

Quite near the beginning of his introduction to the book, Dalby notes that "every language is a unique and uniquely important way to make sense of the world" - a fact that it is very easy to forget as an English speaker, given as we are to unspoken assumptions about our own culture's importance. Even the languages that we tend to learn in schools - French, German, Spanish - are similar enough to our own that we tend not to grasp just how unique and different a conduit a foreign language can be.

When I first arrived in Japan and started learning Japanese, for example, I was struck by the fact that, while "to like" and "to love" are always verbs in English, in Japanese they usually find expression as adjectives: a concept completely alien to a speaker of English. In fact, in Japanese, verbs are remarkably thin on the ground when compared to English; nouns and adjectives make up a considerably larger percentage of the vocabulary of everyday life. Hihan suru ('to criticise') translates into English as "to do criticism"; honyaku suru ('to translate') is "to do translation" - there are no Japanese verbs for such concepts. Why this should be, I'm not sure, but it certainly confirms that language filters human perception in a considerably broader way than is often recognised.

Navajo is the opposite of Japanese; it is verb-heavy, with what English speakers would usually recognise as nouns being given action-words. A famous example,
náʼoolkiłí ('clock') means "it is turned slowly in a circle"; chʼéʼétiin ('exit, doorway') means "something has a path horizontally out"; the wind-talkers used this to considerable effect when fighting for the US Marine Corps against the Japanese: chidí naaʼnaʼí beeʼeldǫǫhtsoh bikááʼ dah naaznilígíí ('tank', or "a caterpillar tractor crawls about") must have had code-breakers scratching their heads for months.

What accidents of culture twisted Navajo, Japanese and English in these ways is something I'd dearly love to write a book about some day; "The interplay between language and culture and its impact on human thought and behaviour" is too unwieldy a title, but once I've thought of a good one is when I'll start.


zero_zero_one said...

Is one of the fundamental problems with English-speakers' worldviews on other languages the fact that we just think everyone else should make more of an effort and learn English?

noisms said...

Probably. Foreigners are so inconsiderate, aren't they?