More interesting thought on the differences in culture and outlook caused by language… just because since reading about languages recently, I’ve picked up again a book I got about halfway through a few years ago. Dreaming in Hindi is a book on language, and India, and friendships and drama, and culture, and battles with cancer, and seeing and doing the things that mean most to you in this life, while you still can.
Katherine Russell Rich reflects on her escapades learning Hindi over many months in India:
Only years later, in a conversation with A.L. Becker, did I begin to understand what had happened to me. “People who study language think of them as codes, but they aren’t really,” he said. “A language is a whole map of reality.” It was Wittgenstein who first compared language to a map. A language should mirror the world the way a map does, but what Becker was talking about was more profound. “Most of the distinctions we make about ourselves–what time it is, where we are–we learn through the map of language,” Becker said. He described how in Burma, he’d learned firsthand that languages aren’t, as base, codes with essentially the same fundamental components. His “attunement to the world” had to be changed.
“Here” and “there” fall into a linguistic category called deictics–words that rely on context for meaning. “Here” and “there” are meaningless unless used in a sentence, unlike, for example, “bottle” or “chair.” The way deictics are conceived change from language to language. In English, we have just two positioning signifiers: “this” and “that,” “here” and “there”–the first in each pair indicating a location near the speaker, the other near the listener. But a number of tongues–Korean, Thai, several Romance languages–employ a third signifier that refers to a place that’s far from both.
I just love reflecting on the ways languages differ from one another, the way they impact our world views, and the challenges and new perspective you gain when learning another language–especially one vastly different from your first.