Posted by: DCox | January 19, 2009

When is an Apple not an Apple?

thought-2Just as word and thought are interwoven, so are language and culture. I first discovered this while living in Kenya. We were part of a team of ex-pats, with one couple being from Germany. As we talked the jargon of community development, it soon became apparent that even though we were using the same English words, the German couple brought different meaning to these words. We learned this only when we started implementing project tasks. We weren’t all on the same page.

Another example… there are two words for ‘health’ in Kiswahili (trade language in East Africa). One is ‘afya’ and the other is ‘uzima’. Uzima has a holistic connotation – it refers to well-being in all areas of life, including relationships and the spirit realm. To fully understand the culture, an outsider also needs to understand the language, for the meaning of words is hidden in the language.

More food for thought:

Charles V used to say that “the more languages a man knew, he was so many more times a man.” Each new form of human speech introduces one into a new world of thought and life. So in some degree is it in traversing other continents and mingling with other races. As a hawk flieth not high with one wing, even so a man reacheth not to excellence with one tongue. — Roger Ascham

So sensible were the Romans of the influence of language over national manners, that it was their most serious care to extend, with the progress of their arms, the use of the Latin tongue. — Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, II.

An idea does not pass from one language to another without change. — Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, The Tragic Sense of Life

The word is half his that speaks and half his that hears it. — Montaigne, Essays III

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. — Edward Sapir, Culture, Language and Personality


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