Languages Are Like Species

Languages are like species. They evolve; they don’t last forever, and they are unique. Each language has words and expressions whose exact parallels do not exist. A delightful example is the Swedish word gökotta, which means to wake up early in the morning with the purpose of going outside to hear the P1090813first birds sing.

Another beautiful word with no English, French or Italian equivalent is the Japanese verb shinrin-yoku  (森林浴 ) which translates to “forest bathing”. And perhaps our eat-on-the run society should adopt the Spanish word sobremesa, a period when the meal has been eaten but the conversation is still flowing.

Neapolitain is a group of distinct Italian dialects spoken in the region of Campania. I’ve always enjoyed the Neapolitain expression, “Sembre n’ altr’ ottànt“, despite its lack of poetry and crude simplicity. Translated directly it would read,  “It looks like another 80.” But when the phrase is used to describe a person, it means that there has been such an improvement in her appearance that she has been revitalized, as if she had been given another 80 years of life.

A biological species transmits a genetic history, but one whose expression is not independent of its environment. Similarly, a language carries historical influences, changing with successive invasions. Different regions of modern Italy haven’t shared the same pattern of occupiers, and not surprisingly the country is rich in dialects. When Neapolitains say munno  instead of mundo (their word for world) the nn substitution of nd might reflect an Oscan influence, an Indo European language gone extinct. ItalyHistory

As countries adopt official languages and mass media reaches formerly isolated areas, a homogenizing force threatens dialects and entire languages. This is further accentuated as English, the language of ubiquitous American culture and of the former British Empire, continues to spread worldwide. In the Philippines, where 34% of the population speak Visayan languages, the official languages are English and Filipino. Yet the majority of business transactions take place in English.

Worldwide, 75% of articles in social science and 90% in natural science are published in English. There’s a great unifying advantage to having a common language, but it would be a shame if the mechanism is left unchecked. If no effort is made to protect the beauty of the particular, both species and languages will be bulldozed. Let’s coin a word that is more than just the Norwegian’s kukelure (to just sit and think about things while doing nothing), one that prompts us to unify thought and action.

Further Reading:

See Positive Lexicography Project, an online glossary of untranslatable words.

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