Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's The Word?

Bilingual road signs in Corsica with
the French names crossed out and
the Corsu names showing beneath them.
UNESCO classifies Corsu as a potentially
endangered language. (Photo by skender)
Did you know the plural for “wife” in Spanish is esposas, which also happens to mean handcuffs? Or that in Korea, the word for “sweetheart” is the same as the one for “self” (chagi). What do these examples say about the cultures they hail from, or do they mean anything at all?

I love learning word trivia, particularly when it makes me think about cultural roots, histories, psychology, and etymology. There’s a term for this in the linguistics field, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which basically says your language affects your world view.

Consider what some of these vignettes might say about their cultures:

  • Pirahã is an ancient language spoken by an indigenous people who live along a tributary, the Maici River, along the Amazon. Pirahãs themselves number only between 250 and 380 speakers, and it’s believed they’re monolingual. As well, theirs is a “language isolate,” which means it has no known connection to any other living languages.
What’s fascinating is how simple Pirahãs keep things. They have the fewest words to describe kinship than any other culture. The word baíxi represents both mother and father (essentially meaning parent), and they don’t have words to represent any other relatives beyond their immediate siblings. (Talk about a nuclear family!) They use the same word for the numbers one and two, distinguished only by the tone in which the word is spoken; all other numbers are represented as either a few or many. Pirahãs don’t have words for colors either, distinguishing them only as light or dark.
  • Aymara, the ancient indigenous language of the Andes (spoken by more than two million in Bolivia, Peru, and Chile), has a unique and rare expression of time. It doesn’t have a future tense but instead represents the past as in front of them and the future as behind them. While that sounds confusing and perhaps impossible, consider expressions in English: “Let’s prepare for what lies before us” or “We face an uncertain future.”
  • In Indonesia, verbs never change to express time. Whether it happened before, is happening now, or will happen later, the verb tense remains the same. On the other hand, the Yagua language of Peru uses five verb tenses one for something that happened within the last few hours, one for the day before, another for something that occurred within the past few weeks, another for an occurrence at least two months ago but less than a couple years, and another for anything that happened longer ago than that.
  • Speakers of Japanese and Spanish are thought to base their verb tenses on intent. If you meant to do it, you “pushed” a cup off the table. But if you did it accidentally, “it fell” (so presumably you had nothing to do with it). I’m not sure this is as rare a linguist feature as it might sound. We use a lot of passive voice in English as well, especially when trying to deflect blame. Think of official corporate statements and government speak.
  • About a third of the world’s languages have no concept of right or left. Instead, they use directional language (east, west, south, north) for everything. We might lay out a series of photos, for example, from left to right (or as Hebrew speakers might explain it, right to left.) But many cultures would describe them as west to east. One reason is because navigation is so much more important in these cultures than for us. For example, even small children of the Australian aboriginals, the Thaayores, learn early how to find their way around.
  • In English, blue describes an overall color. In Russian, there’s no one word encompassing the color but numerous words for shades of it (such as light, very light, dark, navy, steel, etcetera). 
  • In fact, many languages do not distinguish between the colors blue and green (such as Thai, Welsh, and the African language, Tswana) or have a single word that can describe either (as in Korean and Chinese). In Vietnamese, both the sky and the leaves of a tree are xanh (pronounced “grue”). They might say “leaf grue” or “ocean grue” to distinguish the shade, but the overall color is still the same. In Japanese, the word for blue (ao) is often used for the word many English speakers would think of as green (such as the color representing “go” on a traffic signal).
  • Some languages use gender to describe things, though not consistently across languages. So in German, the word for moon is male and sun female, while French, Spanish, and Hindi use the inverse, with a female moon and a male sun. In other languages, such as Farsi, pronoun articles are gender neutral. Then there are those, such as Danish, where articles can be male, female, or neutral. And curiously, gender-free objects in Danish can take either of two kinds of articles: en (the equivalent of “an” in English) or et (“it”) and den or det (as in “the” or “it”). As one Dane told me, “there’s no rhyme or reason for it—you just have to memorize which one to use.”
Know any other language trivia you can add to the list?


  1. Along with the gender in language note, I read this really interesting study that people of those cultures tend to assign masculine or feminine attributes to objects based on the gender of the words.

    "For the word 'bridge,' which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, . . . Germans described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, and peaceful, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, and strong."

  2. How fascinating, Jordan, thanks! In fact, a couple of the examples I've cited in my post come from neuroscientist Lera Boroditsky as well (whose studies are covered in that excellent link you sent...can't wait to explore that site, btw).

    And that's a fascinating concept about the objects themselves having masculine and female attributes and how cultures make those distinctions.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

  3. Oh don’t even get me started with the language trivia. In Russian everything is male or female, including objects, so verbs and adjectives change their endings to reflect that fact. But, for certain objects, there are male and female words, both. For example there are two words for moon: Luna, female and Mesyats, male. No rhyme or reason, you just know it.

  4. As a Puerto Rican explaining my language you must first explain how they hold a female or male connotations. Great information.

    Please stop by my blog I have a surprise for you.

  5. Interesting stuff, Lina! The two words for moon, do you use one or the other depending on context or are they interchangeable? And luna...that's a lot like the romance languages, no?

    Orlando, you're right about that. I'm not sure I found the surprise--do tell! (Also I commented on your comma post last week ... it didn't seem to show up yet.)

  6. So interesting, Supriya! I love the Japanese and Spanish examples about the cup. So true! I do find Spanish such a flowery language, and even though it does my head in to have to say something in 10 words when I can do it in 4 in English, I love the poetry in Spanish.

    Lina, I had no idea about that with Russian.

  7. Oh, Orlando, how irresistibly sweet of you! Many thanks for the really thoughtful honor!

  8. Here's a bit of trivia: In German there are three genders assigned to nouns, like in Danish. The problem (especially for foreigners) is that Germans can't always agree in which gender belongs to which word. So butter is generally feminine, except in some dialects where it's masculine. And it only gets more confusing when you have foreign loan words. If the convention isn't already established, how do you decide what gender the new word should have? One person might say that the foreign word should have the same gender as its German equivalent while another might think that sounds all wrong.