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Language and Thought

April 18th, 2013 by Dexter Findley

Conventional wisdom dictates that learning the language of the country you're travelling in will enhance your experience no end. This is obvious: you can talk to the locals, read public signs, get involved in local news and events, and things will generally go smoother.

But there's a deeper side to the situation, one that is occasionally overlooked. And for people interested in the culture of the place they're travelling to, it's potentially incredibly rewarding. Basically, the language of a society or culture is a unique window in its collective thought processes, attitudes, politics and world perception. So, if you understand even a bit of the language, it will give you an appreciation of cultural and social subtleties that wouldn't otherwise be accessible.

For basic examples of this, we need look no further than the names countries give themselves in their own language. Political outlooks are the easiest to spot. China, for instance, is zhongguo, which literally translates as 'centre country', or, 'country at the centre of the world'. When we turn the lens on ourselves, 'Great Britain' looks equally egocentric. 'Botswana' means 'land of the Tswana' in Setswana, thus linguistically claiming the country for the Tswana people, disenfranchising the original khoisan hunter-gatherers who call it home. 'Saudi Arabia' indicates the Saud family's royal hegemony over the country, 'Iran' is the country's name in Farsi, reclaimed from the western word 'Persia' for nationalist reasons in the 30s.

City names have similar loaded connotations. Istanbul, for example, has changed names countless times, each one reflecting the linguistic and cultural sensibilities of its current occupiers. After the ancient Greek name 'Byzantium' it became known by a variety of Roman names, including 'Sacred Antoninus' (after an Emperor's son), 'New Rome' before ending up as the Graeco-Roman 'Constantinople' until 1453, when it became the Turkish 'Istanbul' (corrupted from the Ancient Greek for 'in the city', but that's another story). To this day, Greeks still call it Constantinople, refusing to acknowledge Turkish influence.

Things get really interesting when we get to everyday words in the language itself. Somewhat topically, tutors in Ireland are called grinds (which some people would argue demonstrates the true nature of private tuition far better than the word 'tutor'), which mirrors the unpretentious nature of Irish society. Conversely, British English is full of euphemisms, reflecting the culture's (stereotypically) reserved nature. In Chinese, the word for 'food', 'meal', and even 'lunch' and 'dinner' all stem for the word fan, which means 'rice', indicating the crop's critical place in the country's history and cuisine. In Modern Greek, the word for 'good', kalos, stems from the Ancient Greek for 'beautiful', mirroring Platonic thought that still persists in element of Greek culture to this day. In Russian, the root of the word radost, meaning 'happiness' or 'joy', literally means 'sunshine': no doubt mirroring the respite it brings after the long winters.

Then there are the words that exist only in one particular language, and have no equivalents in others. In Denmark, the concept of hygge (commonly used as the adjective hyggelig) is fundamental to their culture: it roughly translates as the feeling when you're cosy, warm and intimate with friends or family. Ever spent a cold Christmas Day inside with loved ones, sitting around the tree or the fire, and felt that certain comfortable companionship, contentment and cosiness? That's hyggelig. In France, a culture that abounds with death imagery (both real and metaphorical), they have a set expression for the fleeting desire to kill oneself when in dangerous situations (ie jumping from high places): l'appel du vide, literally, 'the call of the void'.

There are many other examples, of course: and learning the entire language, with all its intricacies and structure, will give you a far deeper understanding of its culture's character than individual words. Interestingly, this relationship is reciprocal: not only does language mirror a culture's thought: thought itself can be restructured by language, as per the aim of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty Four. There is significant evidence to suggest that children's neurological pathways become set differently depending on which language you speak, and that you can expand and alter your adult neurology by immersing yourself in a different language.

So if you want to cross the line from being a tourist to being a local, begin with the language. And you'll have doubleplusgood newthink stat!

Categories: Travelling