Tag Archives: language

Your grammar influences the way you spend, eat and live

Well, this is fascinating. Especially since I’ve been looking at a lot of shopper marketing recently, as well as talking to insurance people about how AJP region differs from, say, EMEA. Companies get astonishingly detailed info about people’s habits, but having read the article below and seen the brilliant video that summarises Keith Chen’s hypothesis, I wonder if they already look at what languages we speak to work out likelihood to X or Y.

Article below by Derek Thompson, originally from Atlantic. The original article also has a chart you might find interesting, but the whole thing is summed up nicely in this video. Though I’ve got to say, the last bit about death and so on seems like latched-on stats. The link there is wooly, which is a shame, as I loved the rest of it. Anyway, make up your own mind:

Can Your Language Influence Your Spending, Eating, and Smoking Habits?

An absurd-sounding claim leads to a surprising finding

Yes, I know. That headline. It looks like the most egregious form of causal inference. Americans don’t save money because of … our grammar? How utterly absurd. But bear with me.

In the 1930s, linguists proposed that the way we read, write, and talk helped to determine the way we see the world. Speakers of languages that had the same word for orange and yellow had a harder time actually distinguishing the colors. Speakers of the Kook Thaayorre language, which has no words for left and right, must orient themselves by north, south, east, and west at all time, which enhances their awareness of geographical and astronomical markers.

Last year, economist Keith Chen released a working paper (now published) suggesting speakers of languages without strong future tenses tended to be more responsible about planning for the future. Quick example. In English, we say “I will go to the play tomorrow.” That’s strong future tense. In Mandarin or Finnish, which have weaker future tenses, it might be more appropriate to say, “I go to the play tomorrow.”

Chen wondered whether languages with weak future tenses would be more thoughtful about the future because they consider it, grammatically, equivalent to the present. He mapped stronger and weak future-tense languages across Europe and correlated the data with future-oriented behaviors like saving, smoking, and using condoms.

Remarkably, he discovered that speakers with weak future tenses (e.g. German, Finnish and Estonian) were 30 percent more likely to save money, 24 percent more likely to avoid smoking, 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly, and 13 percent less likely to be obese, than speakers of languages with strong future tenses, like English.

If your B.S. antennae are standing straight up (as mine were), you might be more interested in this next part. Chen next compared speakers born and raised within the same countries, as well, controlling for factors like age and number of children. He found the same results: Speakers with weak future tenses demonstrated dramatically, and statistically significantly, more responsible future-oriented behaviors — even within countries like Switzerland, which are a motley blend of strong-future languages (like French) and weak-future languages (like German).

The correlation was savaged by some economists and linguists as facile or worse. But others re-ran the data and found, to their astonishment, that Chen seemed to be right. His paper was published (along with thanks to some of his fiercest critics) in the American Economic Review this year.

“One important issue in interpreting these results is the possibility that language is not causing but rather reflecting deeper differences that drive savings behavior,” Chen concluded. Languages map to large groups of people, but so does religion, culture, family values, and a common history. Are Germans frugal because their language protects them from hyperbolic discounting, or is it just that, well, they’re Germans?

That question doesn’t have a satisfying answer, but this paper, as wild as it seems, isn’t a radical departure from the literature. “Overall, my findings are largely consistent with the hypothesis that languages with obligatory future-time reference lead their speakers to engage in less future-oriented behavior,” Chen wrote.

What does it mean? I have no idea, and Chen himself has responded to the criticism of his work with an honorable blend of erudition and shrugging disbelief. But I suppose that if you suffer from issues like crippling procrastination, as I do, it couldn’t hurt to learn Estonian — or, perhaps more simply, to write inspirational notes to yourself exclusively in the present tense. The future might be a different country, but it doesn’t have to feel that way.

Holy Sh*t! Melissa Mohr’s history of four-letter words (and more), warning, sweary.

Two things here. The first, from Newsfeed, breaks out some facts about swearing, courtesy of Melissa Mohr’s new book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, out this month. Second is Sam Leith’s fantastically colourful review of same. Lovely lovely language.

1. The average person swears quite a bit.

About 0.7% of the words a person uses in the course of a day are swear words, which may not sound significant except that as Mohr notes, we use first-person plural pronouns — words like we, our and ourselves — at about the same rate. The typical range, Mohr says, goes from zero to about 3%. What would it be like to have a conversation with a three-percenter? “That would be like Eddie Murphy,” Mohr says. Presumably from Eddie Murphy Raw, not from Shrek Forever After.

2. Kids often learn a four-letter word before they learn the alphabet.

Mohr’s work incorporates research by Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who uncovered the 0.7% statistic above and has also charted a rise in the use of swear words by children — even toddlers. By the age of two, Mohr says, most children know at least one swear word; it really “kicks off” around the ages of three or four.

3. Some of today’s most popular swear words have been around for more than a thousand years.

“S— is an extremely old word that’s found in Anglo-Saxon texts,” Mohr says. What English-speakers now call asses and farts can also be traced back to the Anglo-Saxons, she adds, though in those times the terms wouldn’t have been considered as impolite as they are today.

4. The ancient Romans laid the groundwork for modern day f-bombs.

There are two main kinds of swear words, says Mohr: oaths—like taking the Lord’s name in vain—and obscene words, like sexual and racial slurs. The Romans gave us a model for the obscene words, she says, because their swearing was similarly based on sexual taboos, though with a different spin. “The Romans didn’t divide people up [by being heterosexual and homosexual],” she says. “They divided people into active and passive. So what was important was to be the active partner.” Hence, sexual slurs were more along the lines words like pathicus, a rather graphic term which basically means receiver.

5. In the Medieval era, oaths were believed to physically injure Jesus Christ.

In the Middle Ages, Mohr says, certain vain oaths were believed to actually tear apart the ascended body of Christ, as he sat next to his Father in heaven. Phrases that incorporated body parts, like swearing “by God’s bones” or “by God’s nails,” were looked upon as a kind of opposite to the Catholic eucharist—the ceremony in which a priest is said to conjure Christ’s physical body in a wafer and his blood in wine.

6. However, obscene words were no big deal.

“The sexual and excremental words were not charged, basically because people in the Middle Ages had much less privacy than we do,” Mohr explains, “so they had a much less advanced sense of shame.” Multiple people slept in the same beds or used privies at the same time, so people observed each other in the throes of their, er, natural functions much more frequently — which made the mention of them less scandalous.

7. People in the “rising middle-class” use less profanity.

“Bourgeois people” typically swear the least, Mohr says. “This goes back to the Victorian era idea that you get control over your language and your deportment, which indicates that you are a proper, good person and this is a sign of your morality and awareness of social rules,” she explains. The upper classes, she says, have been shown to swear more, however: while “social strivers” mind their tongues, aristocrats have a secure position in society, so they can say whatever they want — and may even make a show of doing so.

8. Swearing can physiologically affect your body.

Hearing and saying swear words changes our skin conductance response, making our palms sweat. One study, Mohr notes, also found that swearing helps alleviate pain, that if you put your hand in a bucket of cold water, you can keep it in there longer if you say s— rather than shoot. Which is a good piece of info to have next time you’re doing a polar bear plunge.

9. People don’t use cuss words just because they have lazy minds.

Mohr discusses the myriad social purposes swearing can serve, some nasty and some nice. “They definitely are the best words that you can use to insult people, because they are much better than other words at getting at people’s emotions,” she says. Swear words are also the best words to use if you hit your finger with a hammer, because they are cathartic, helping people deal with emotion as well as pain. And studies have shown that they help people bond — like blue-collar workers who use taboo terms to build in-group solidarity against management types. When asked if the world would be better off if everyone quit their cussing, Mohr answers with a four-letter word of her own: “Nope.”

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EDIT: Sam Leith wrote a cracking review of the same book:

It’s wonderful stuff, swearing. It stiffens the sinews and summons up the blood, and not just metaphorically. Obscenities actually do act on us physiologically. Swearing increases electrical conductance across the skin, pushes the heart rate higher and measurably increases resistance to pain.

Obscenities are also linguistically interesting in themselves: the more currency they have, the more their emotional colouring and the associations they trigger overwhelms what they actually mean. “Fucking”, these days, only rarely means “having sex”. And they become marvellously plastic, grammatically.

Swearing doesn’t just mean what we now understand by “dirty words”. It is entwined, in social and linguistic history, with the other sort of swearing: vows and oaths. Consider for a moment the origins of almost any word we have for bad language – “profanity”, “curses”, “oaths” and “swearing” itself .

Melissa Mohr’s title, then, is more than just an attention-grabber: the history of swearing is one of a movement back and forth between the holy and the shit. At different times in the history of the west, the primary taboo has been to do either with God, or with the functions of the human body. (The latter, though, does subdivide in a meaningful way between the sexual and the excremental. Really, this book should have been called “Holy Fucking Shit”.)

Though Mohr is mainly interested in English, she is generous in roping in examples from outside it. A helpful and interesting chapter on ancient Roman filth does much to sketch the background, too. How do we know what was obscene in a dead language? By literary genre, essentially: if it was written on the toilet wall but didn’t appear in satire, it was likely to be properly rude. English has a “Big Six”: “cunt”, “fuck”, “cock”, “arse”, “shit” and “piss” (though Mohr plausibly suggests that “nigger” should now be in there). The Romans had a “Big 10″: cunnus (cunt), futuo (fuck), mentula (cock), verpa (erect or circumcised cock), landica (clitoris), culus (arse), pedico (bugger), caco (shit), fello (fellate) and irrumo (er, mouth-rape).

So the Romans, like us, had a primary relationship between the body and the idea of obscenity – though their sexual schema was a little different, with shame attaching, above all, to sexual passivity. Sexual obscenity also, to complicate things, had a sacramental function – as witness the fruity ways of the god Priapus. Some of that shit was holy.

In medieval times, though, the emphasis was all on the holy. Common words for places and things contained vulgarities regarded as quite innocuous. London and Oxford both boasted a “Gropecuntelane”, which is where the prostitutes hung out, and if you visited a country pond “there would’ve been a shiterow in there fishing, a windfucker flying above, arse-smart and cuntehoare hugging the edges of the pond, and pissabed amongst the grass”. At the same time it’s hard to recapture quite how shocking medieval people would find a vain oath.

Christianity was founded on oaths and covenants – as was the whole dispensation of feudal society. To swear an oath was to compel God to pay attention to your promise – and to do so in vain was to dishonour God and risk eternal damnation. Indeed, it was believed that if you swore on God’s body – “‘sblood!”; “God’s bones!”; “by Christ’s nails!” – you physically spilled his blood, broke his bones and tore out his nails in heaven.

Mohr credits the decline in the importance of oath-swearing to the rise of the merchant classes. Feudal society’s scheme of estates was bound by chains of oaths between lords and vassals, right up to the king. Capitalism moved us from oaths to contracts: the oath before God became less important than keeping your word to business partners – and you didn’t need eschatological terror to enforce that. Plus, there’s the dry, old complaint that swearing constantly “devalues the currency”. Between 1640 and 1660, around the civil war, men might have to swear as many as 10 conflicting oaths of loyalty if they wanted to keep their heads attached to their necks.

At the same time, something else was going on: the idea of privacy. In an age when everybody pissed and shat in public, and sex would as like as not take place in a room or even a bed shared with others, taboos around bodily functions weren’t all that strong. Chaucer’s “swiving”, “toords”, “queyntes” and “erses” were vulgar and direct, but they weren’t obscene. One word was regarded in the late-18th and 19th centuries as so shocking that it was variously rendered “inexpressibles”, “indescribables”, “etceteras”, “unmentionables”, “ineffables”, “indispensables”, “innominables” “inexplicables” and “continuations”. That word? “Trousers.”

How things change. By the first world war, soldiers swore so much that the word “fucking” came to function as no more than “a warning that a noun is coming”. Now even the extremest obscenities have lost their power to shock. In Irvine Welsh’s novels, for instance, “cunt” is more or less a synonym for “bloke”. It is telling that, where for the Romans the genitals were veretrum or verecundum (“parts of awe” or “parts of shame”), “in today’s American slang, the genitalia are devalued as ‘junk'”.

The only actually taboo language is that of racial insult. Words like “wop”, “kike” and “yid” (though not, interestingly, “nigger”) were intended to give offence from the off – but only to those on the receiving end. As Mohr writes, the idea that everybody should find them offensive is a relative innovation. Not, it should be said, a bad one.

Mohr’s scholarship seems to be sound and her approach positively twinkles with pleasure and amusement. She gives her chapters headings such as “Shit, That Bloody Bugger Turned Out To Be A Fucking Nackle-Ass Cocksucker!”, and she’s not above finding it funny that a paper on urinary incontinence was co-authored by Splatt and Weedon.

I’d like Mohr’s account to have tipped a wink to Viz comic’s monumental and still-growing Profanisaurus. Her argument might have been strengthened, too, by reminding us that Eric Cartman, in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, saves the world from Satan and Saddam Hussein with the words: “Fuck, shit, cock, ass, titties, boner, bitch, muff, pussy, cunt, butthole, Barbra Streisand!”

But here I pick nits. This is a cracking fucking book, and innominables to anyone who says otherwise.

A small price for a smile…

“My girlfriend and I left London in September 2011 to go travelling around the world. On the way, we spent 3 weeks volunteering as English teachers in a rural Cambodian school. Whilst we were there, we decided to set the kids a challenge: to learn how to say the hardest word in English…

“Here’s how they got on.”

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Support the kids at http://www.aboutasiaschools.org/donation (all donations are made securely through paypal).

20 untranslatable words

(via matadornetwork)

“There are at least 250,000 words in the English language. However, to think that English – or any language – could hold enough expression to convey the entirety of the human experience is as arrogant of an assumption as it is naive.

Here are a few examples of instances where other languages have found the right word and English simply falls speechless.

1. Toska
Russian – Vladmir Nabokov describes it best: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

2. Mamihlapinatapei
Yagan (indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) – “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start”

3. Jayus
Indonesian – “A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh”

4. Iktsuarpok
Inuit – “To go outside to check if anyone is coming.”

5. Litost
Czech – Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, remarked that “As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.

6. Kyoikumama
Japanese – “A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement”

7. Tartle
Scottish – The act of hestitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.

8. Ilunga
Tshiluba (Southwest Congo) – A word famous for its untranslatability, most professional translators pinpoint it as the stature of a person “who is ready to forgive and forget any first abuse, tolerate it the second time, but never forgive nor tolerate on the third offense.”

9. Prozvonit
Czech – This word means to call a mobile phone and let it ring once so that the other person will call back, saving the first caller money. In Spanish, the phrase for this is “Dar un toque,” or, “To give a touch.”

10. Cafuné
Brazilian Portuguese – “The act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair.”

11. Schadenfreude
German – Quite famous for its meaning that somehow other languages neglected to recognize, this refers to the feeling of pleasure derived by seeing another’s misfortune. I guess “America’s Funniest Moments of Schadenfreude” just didn’t have the same ring to it.

12. Torschlusspanik
German – Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.”

13. Wabi-Sabi
Japanese – Much has been written on this Japanese concept, but in a sentence, one might be able to understand it as “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.”

14. Dépaysement
French – The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country.

15. Tingo
Pascuense (Easter Island) – Hopefully this isn’t a word you’d need often: “the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.”

16. Hyggelig
Danish – Its “literal” translation into English gives connotations of a warm, friendly, cozy demeanor, but it’s unlikely that these words truly capture the essence of a hyggelig; it’s likely something that must be experienced to be known. I think of good friends, cold beer, and a warm fire.

17. L’appel du vide
French – “The call of the void” is this French expression’s literal translation, but more significantly it’s used to describe the instinctive urge to jump from high places.

18. Ya’aburnee
Arabic – Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means “You bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person because of how difficult it would be to live without them.

19. Duende
Spanish – While originally used to describe a mythical, spritelike entity that possesses humans and creates the feeling of awe of one’s surroundings in nature, its meaning has transitioned into referring to “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.” There’s actually a nightclub in the town of La Linea de la Concepcion, where I teach, named after this word.

20. Saudade
Portuguese – One of the most beautiful of all words, translatable or not, this word “refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.” Fado music, a type of mournful singing, relates to saudade.

For myself, the hardest part about learning a new language isn’t so much getting acquainted with the translations of vocabulary and different grammatical forms and bases, but developing an inner reflex that responds to words’ texture, not their translated “ingredients”. When you hear the word “criminal” you don’t think of “one who commits acts outside the law,” but rather the feeling and mental imagery that comes with that word.

Thus these words, while standing out due to our inability to find an equivalent word in out own language, should not be appreciated for our own words that we try to use to describe them, but for their own taste and texture. Understanding these words should be like eating the best slab of smoked barbequeued ribs: the enjoyment doesn’t come from knowing what the cook put in the sauce or the seasoning, but from the full experience that can only be created by time and emotion.”

How do you say…

An article by Frank Bures from The Smart Set. It talks about the difference between learning and living a language – you can’t understand a foreign language until you can translate their thought and intent as well as just their words.

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It was getting dark. Paulo had been walking with me for half an hour. He’d invited me to dinner at his house, up near Mount Meru, and now we were going back down the dusty road to my neighborhood in Arusha, Tanzania. I wondered when he would turn around. I kept telling him I knew the way. But he kept walking.

“It’s OK,” he said. “I can escort you.”

The last thing I needed was an escort. I enjoyed walking by myself. But I didn’t realize how much had been lost in translation between Paulo’s chosen English word, “escort,” and the Swahili word for what he meant, kusindikiza.

In my dictionary, kusindikiza signified “to see someone off’ or ‘to accompany someone part of the way home.” I had read these definitions, but I didn’t really understand them. Why would you want to accompany someone part of the way home? That is often the problem with learning new languages: You are taking an idea from one world and transporting it to another. The edges of the word, the shape of the idea, do not fit neatly into their new box.

Delving into a language is always partly about exploring a new emotional terrain and figuring out how new notions go with a new set of words. According to linguist Steven Pinker, this is the essence of language: “People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache,” he writes in his book The Language Instinct, “they think in a language of thought.” Pinker says this is sometimes called “mentalese,” and it isn’t the same as what we speak. Instead, we translate our thoughts into words, which is why many foreign words are so hard to translate: You need to understand the ideas behind them.

Words in other languages are like icebergs: The basic meaning is visible above the surface, but we can only guess at the shape of the vast chambers of meaning below. And every language has particularly hard-to-translate terms, such as the Portuguese saudade, or “the feeling of missing someone or something that is gone,” or the Japanese ichigo-ichie, meaning “the practice of treasuring each moment and trying to make it perfect.” Linguists refer to the distance between these words and their rough translations as a lacuna, which comes from the Latin word for “pool” or “lake.” There’s a space we need to swim across to reach the other side.

For me, this is one of the great joys of traveling the world and learning different ways of thinking, of feeling, and of being: to land on some new shore of the mind, to look around and admire the view.

Of course, not everyone feels this way. A few years ago, a French businessman and thinker named Jean-Paul Nerriere noticed a trend among non-native English speakers he encountered at meetings: They were using a stripped-down version of the language, and they could communicate more easily with each other than with native English speakers. It was as if they had found a way to drain all the lacunas and meet on a tiny island where only the most utilitarian words would be needed.

Nerriere identified about 1,500 of the most essential English words, dubbed this shorthand Globish, and pronounced it a new global language. Now British journalist Robert McCrum, who has written a book called Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language, is claiming that it has passed beyond the sphere of American and British influence and become a “supranational phenomenon.” McCrum asserts that Globish will be “the linguistic phenomenon of the 21st century.” He is probably right: Globish will be useful in many ways. But its limits will come to light as people become aware of everything that’s not being communicated, everything that simply cannot be communicated with a handful of words floating on a vast ocean of feeling. Globish will either grow and morph into something rich and complex, or shrink and die as we realize how many of our thoughts are getting lost in translation, and how many lacunas still separate us.

It takes time and patience to learn the meaning of words in another language. You have to fill in the space around them. It was only with time that I began to understand the meaning of kusindikiza. I learned it when people stopped to talk with me on the road. I learned it when they invited me to sit with them for tea. I learned it when I translated the Swahili proverb Wageni ni baraka. It means “guests are a blessing,” and I finally understood that people meant it when they said it, and that theirs was a world filled with gestures that showed how they enjoyed your company, how they valued your presence, and how they would walk for miles to show you that your friendship meant something to them.

Those are the feelings that cannot be included in the Swahili-English dictionary and that will baffle Globish speakers, but that are also among the rich rewards waiting on the other side of the lacuna. Night had fallen on the road from Mount Meru when Paulo finally said goodbye, turned around, and headed back up the hill. I remember feeling bad for making him walk so far. But I also remember feeling strangely good that he had accompanied me all that way. And even now, years later, living in the United States, when I leave a friend’s house and hear the door shut behind me, part of me wishes there were someone to walk me halfway home. • 12 November 2010


Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.