Monday, March 24, 2014


I find language fascinating. I read books on etymology for fun. Word nerd alert. 

I have a particular love for languages such as Tok Pisin or Bislama, that were created to facilitate trade between English-speaking merchants and settlers, and native peoples. Creole languages appear deceptively simple on the the outside, but of course they're not. Even the simplest languages will find a way to communicate complex ideas, at least eventually. In the short term, I'm sure, they're a handy way to look at a native population as savage and uncivilised, and therefore steal their land. 

I am fascinated by translation. I remember studying the Treaty of Waitangi at university; as Wikipedia says so succinctly: "The English and Maori versions differ." Which is kind of a big deal when you're talking about a treaty that covers sovereignty. 

I am fascinated by translators, these invisible and often nameless people who hold such power, and recommend Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation to anyone else who's interested. 

Sometimes translation works. Sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes it is accidentally magical. 

But mostly when it comes to language, I'm fascinated by its limitations. Are all people fundamentally the same, or does language frame, and limit, the way we think? Pre-language, what were we like? In feminist psychoanalyst theory there's the chora, a stage in an infant's development where we haven't figured out yet where we end and the world begins. At the same time as we start to figure that out, we also start to develop language. There are suddenly rules and barriers. We're taught that language frees us, but what if that's not the case? Language is a very narrow framework when it has to support everything. More importantly, can language really bridge the gap between what we feel and how we make that understood? 

My language is English. Would I be a different person if I thought in another language? Can we ever learn to think in a foreign language? 

The Germans probably have a word for it. The Germans have a word for everything. Like Schadenfreude. A perfect word for a very familiar human emotion. But why isn't there an English word for it? Did the English not feel Schadenfreude, or did they simply not acknowledge its existence because to do so would be to admit to something distasteful about human nature? 

Which brings me to this list of foreign words we could use in English

My favourite from the list is pana po'o, a Hawaiian word that means scratching your head to remember something. 

Do you have a favourite foreign word? 


  1. Language is like software code in our heads, yeah, and definitely effects how we process and express our thoughts and emotions. A possum by any other word would not smell as sweet. : p

    My favorite foreign word is probably Treppenwitz, which I'm not exactly using right, but is easier to say than the original French version, L'esprit de l'escalier.

    And for more on imagery shaped by languages, see this post by Matthew MacNish.

    1. Possums do not smell sweet in any language. Says the angry person who had to pick up all the scattered recycling this morning.

      Treppenwitz is wonderful! And I agree with the pronunciation of the French. By the time I figured that out, I'd be past the staircase, into the taxi, and three quarters of the way home.



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