Friday, March 26, 2010

Do Words Affect your Thoughts?

German has a word Schadenfreude which means to 'gloat over someone's misfortunes.'  Yiddish has a word kvellen sich  which means 'to rejoice in another's success or good fortune.' The sich is like the myself in wash myself. This is  known as a 'reflexive.'  It's important in kvellen because it implies an inner emotion of rejoicing for another. Why are these facts of interest?  Well, Yiddish is a form of German, and some German speakers can understand some Yiddish dialects and many Yiddish speakers can understand many German dialects.  So?

It so happens that despite their similarities in most respects, Yiddish has no word at all meaning 'to gloat..." There is no Schadenfreude in my Yiddish dictionary, no word at all for gloat.   Interestingly, German doesn't have kvellen sich or any other word that means 'to rejoice for another..." German does have a word for rejoice that is just like its English counterpart, just as Yiddish has another word for rejoicing in general, but only Yiddish has a separate word specifically and only used to indicate one's extreme emotion and pleasure when someone else does well or has good luck.

Does this difference in the lexicons of German and Yiddish affect the minds of their speakers?  Can Yiddish speakers gloat even though there's no word for gloat in Yiddish?  Are Germans more likely to gloat over others' misfortunes? Are they able to be happy for someone else's good fortune?  If you believe that the words in  your language determine the way you think, then you'd have to say that Yiddish speakers can't gloat, and that Germans can't be happy for others. The lack of a word for gloat in Yiddish would mean the lack of such an emotion.  In the same vein, the lack of a word meaning kvellen sich, would prevent German speakers from taking joy in another's happiness.

People frequently tell me about  documentaries or articles about "primitive" tribes whose languages lack certain words.  The point always is that these tribal members can't think of the things those words refer to. In evaluating such news,  remember Schadenfreude and kvellen sich.  I never knew a word for gloat when I was a child. I did know "Ich kvell mich" (for I kvell myself") when someone was happy for another.   However, I certainly did know how to gloat over some nasty person's downfall.  My monolingual English speaking friends didn't know from kvellen, but they certainly seemed to be able to be happy for someone else.

Does this mean that it means nothing if your language encodes one attitude or emotion, but not another? Actually, I think it does mean something.  I never had to learn that it was desirable to be of generous spirit and be happy for another even if I didn't have the same good fortune.  I learned it just by learning the vocabulary of Yiddish and hearing people say happily how much they kvelled.  I had no word for gloat, but I knew that it wasn't nice to rejoice in another's misfortune.  My language taught me that.  In other words values can be transmitted through vocabulary, especially when there is a word for something, but no word for its opposite.

Oh, I heard Yiddish speakers, or actually one Yiddish speaker, who would bitterly say, "He deserved his bad luck!"   But I knew that person wasn't nice, that it wasn't nice to take satisfaction in someone's misfortune. In fact, my parents made it clear that this person wasn't nice precisely because she gloated, and said so. 

 Had I learned German as a young child, I presume I wouldn't have had such compunctions about feeling and expressing Schadenfreude.  That doesn't mean that I would have been unable to feel happy for people as well. In other words, I would feel equally justified in expressing both feelings. Truthfully, some people do deserve bad luck and it's hard not to rejoice in the bad fortune of a real SOB.  Still, it's good to be a person who revels in someone else's good fortune. In the confined world of the shtetls in Eastern Europe where Yiddish was spoken, everyone was subject to bad luck. Jews had to rely on each other. There were no laws protecting them.  They had to be supportive of each other.  And, the bad luck which befell your neighbor yesterday could befall you next week.  Gloating wasn't an option. At least, overt gloating wasn't.

There are other instances in which we can definitely show that the vocabulary of a language, especially the vocabulary of gender and race, can have a real effect on people's attitudes and their treatment of others. When I was a child, two expressions were common that taught contempt for people of color. "How white of you," said when someone behaved honorably, and, worse, "I'm free, white, and 21." (One became a legal adult at 21 when I was growing up). As for women, it was enough to know that they were gossips, hags, old maids, and other such undesirable things that men weren't. There were no words for men which were counterparts of those for women.  Therefore, the vocabulary was enough to know that women's talk was undesirable and so were women who weren't married.  (For a fuller discussion of this issue, read the Vocabulary and Gender chapter in my book Language the Social Mirror, 4th ed. )

Words and Meanings across Languages

"___ has a word for it," (Substitute the name of any language for the blank.)  Almost everyone knows that each language has words for some things that another language doesn't.  Or, to put it as it is usually put, we have a word for something, but other languages don't.  If the other language, the one that doesn't have the word, is an exotic (to us) tribal language, then we think of the language as lacking or as a sign of thinking in some wondrously different way from us.  Of course, they have words for things we don't. We take that as a sign of their thinking in some wondrously different way from us as well.

Actually, no two languages, even languages spoken by people with cultures that are quite alike, have exactly the same lineup of words.  Moreover, even when we find a word which translates a word of ours, both their word and ours have connotations that are quite different.  For instance, English love refers to sexual love, liking objects or food, recreational activities, one's surroundings, or even work.  We can also use like in most of the same contexts as love, except we can't "make like."  It has to be "make love." In other languages, there may be several words that would translate as English love. Sexual love is clearly demarcated from love of animals, for instance. The word for loving objects might be different from the one for loving humans or animals, and using the wrong word to translate English love could lead to a disaster in intercultural communication.

No language has a word for everything.  Obviously, it won't have words for things that a culture never encounters. No language has a separate word for every single thing in its culture, either.  If it did, if there had to be only one word which can be used to describe one thing, we would have to have enormous vocabularies.  Not only that, but it would slow down communication because, whenever you wanted to refer to something, you'd have to search your mental lexicon for the exact word.  So,  any word in any language can have several meanings. The flip side of  this is that any meaning can be expressed by more than one word.

The meaning a listener derives depends upon the context.  For instance, if I say, "He came up short,"  you know I mean he didn't have enough of whatever we're talking about. In contrast, if I say, "He's short," you know I mean he's not tall. "He made short work of that," means 'he did it in a hurry, probably without care.'  In all languages, most words are polysemous, which is a fancy way of saying, words have several meanings.  The only word I can think of in English that isn't polysemous is budge. Interestingly, it is usually used only in the negative, "He didn't budge."  An almost non-polysemous word is stub as in 'stub a toe.'  The only other meaning stub has is 'ticket stub.' The two meanings are so far apart, it's almost as if  there are two stubs in English.  Even having only two meanings is unusual.

Sometimes some the meanings of a word disappear.  Meat used to mean any solid food, not just flesh. Now, except in relics like nutmeats,  it only means 'flesh.'  In other contexts, however, meat has expanded, as when we say "the meat of the argument was.." Or, "the book was meaty."

Sometimes meanings expand.  Flower used to mean both blossoms and finely ground wheat, what is now flourFlower also expanded its meaning to mean 'the best or most flourishing period of something,' like "the flower of drama in Elizabethan period.' It also means, the choicest example, as in the 'flower of youth.'  I can also use it to mean something which is coming into vogue, as in " documentaries are flowering in the 21st century."  Hmm, I'm not sure of that.  Does it sound okay to you?  In any event, words are polysemous and they can change meaning or have new meanings added, or lose meanings.  This is true in all languages.

German uses two separate words for English eat. Humans essen, but animals fressen.  Yiddish is like German, but it plays on the difference, so that if you use fressen of a human, you mean, 's/he eats like a pig.'  My German was always used rather formally, so I don't know if Germans play with this distinction in the same way.  Okay, now comes the question. Does the fact that German makes this distinction between human and animals eating mean that they think of animals differently than English  speakers do?  Well, we do make the analogy of eating like a pig, so we can conceive of a difference between humans eating versus other animals eating.  We might not do it in one word, but we can express it. This is true of any word one language has and another doesn't.  If need be, the thought can be expressed by paraphrase -- or we can borrow it from the other language, just as we borrowed French words like chic and suave.

On my post about Orwell, I pointed out that people can always express new thoughts in their old language. They can invent words or they can use phrases to express things they don't have a word for.  But, the big question is, if your language has certain words, do those words reflect cultural attitudes.  More importantly, do they make you think in a certain way. Are your attitudes affected by the lexicon of your language? (See Chapter 10 of Language the Social Mirror, 4th ed. for a full discussion)

One thing to consider. If there is a need to express an idea or situation concisely, a language will develop a word for it.  We see this in the proliferation of words for technology and computer related activities in the past twenty years.  What is interesting is when a language doesn't create a word for something that needs referring to frequently.  We see this in the lack of a word to describe two people cohabiting who are not married.  If they are gay, we do have a word for them: partners.  However, if they're heterosexual, there is no one suitable word.  "This is Jenny's significant other." "This is the guy Jenny is living with." "This is Jenny's roommate."  The first is awkward and sounds as if they're destined for marriage.  The second could be of any two people who are sharing rent.  The third could be a college roommate, or anyone sharing the rent.  Why don't we have words for the people in a relationship who are living together?  It's often awkward not to.  I know people in this situation who have been together for a decade or more and who never intend to get married.  How do you introduce them? "This is Ian's ____"  I can't say "woman," because of the sexual connotation. I can't say "partner" because they aren't gay, nor are they in business together.  It seems to me that we haven't developed a word to describe the parties who are cohabiting, it is because this is still not accepted by our society.  It is certainly a common occurrence. People no longer whisper about it or say condemnatory things about it.  However, we won't grace the situation with its own vocabulary.  Of course, if in your circles, there is a word that is being used for this situation, please let us know.