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One human language dies about every two weeks. Most of them belong to small groups or tribes that have been absorbed into larger groups.
In comparison, English is truly the global language of the contemporary world. Spread by the world’s largest empire, and later by the cultural influence of the world’s mightiest economic and military power, the United States, it is not uncommon for some English speakers to express a sense of pride on behalf of their global language.
But this ‘linguistic triumphalism’ can be fatal. To other languages, that is. Many linguists are worried that the English language’s success has come at the expense of others. That it makes people think of all the other languages — and especially minority languages — as unnecessary.
For some, the unification of the world under one language is a cause for celebration. In their eyes, it can only accelerate a sense of shared humanity. And besides, one might be tempted to ask, languages are born and die with time just as everything else. What then, is so special about preserving them?
Languages Are a Way of Thinking Differently
What is fascinating about language is that it equips the user with mental tools to help them think in certain ways. Every time a language disappears, a unique way of interpreting our world and the environment around us is lost forever.
These need not be just trivial differences. Different languages represent a part of the world’s neurodiversity. Approaching a problem with a different language may even help with decision-making and problem-solving.
The scientist Benjamin Lee Whorf was so dazzled by variations in Native American languages that he even claimed (inaccurately, but you get the idea) that their speakers are intuitively primed better to understand Einsteinian physics.
So it must be said that languages offer a variety that is comparable to the diversity of the world’s plants and animals. Research suggests that bilingual people — even if they aren’t fluent in more than one language — tend to think differently from monolingual speakers.
Language represents what we think, and may even determine how we think.
Here are some examples:
Russian Has No Word for Blue
In Russian there’s no word just for blue. But there are words for dark blue (siniy) and light blue (goluboy). This lack of a singular word has been demonstrated to influence how Russian-speakers perceive colour. Like this example, the number of basic colour terms varies a lot from one language to the other. For example, the Dani people of New Guinea and the Bassa of Liberia split colours similarly in the dark/light dynamic.
Mandarin Speakers Think Differently About Time
Studies have shown that Mandarin speakers think about the concept of time differently than English speakers. A quick example is, in Mandarin, one doesn’t say next week and last week but refers to ‘the week below’ and the week ‘above’. English speakers perceive time as linear on a side-to-side scale. Mandarin speakers think of it vertically.
Some Australian Indigenous Languages Think Differently About Direction
Likewise, there is an aboriginal language spoken in Queensland, Australia called Guugu Yimithirr. This language does not use words like forward, backward, or left and right. Instead, they place an object using words for directions between two objects. A native speaker would never say someone was standing behind a house. They would instead say they were standing westward (for example) behind it.
At Least One Language Has No Use For Numbers As We Know It
The Piraha tribe in Brazil does not make use of numbers in its vocabulary. Instead, they just term items as ‘a few’ or ‘many’. This trait goes against what was previously thought a universal fact, a part of Noam Chomsky’s theory of ‘universal grammar’. (Incidentally, this language is critically endangered and one of the most isolated on Earth).
Apologies Are Straightfoward In English, Not So Much In Japanese
In English, how we apologise tends to be pretty standardised no matter what the context. But in Japanese, there are different ways of apologising that are more contextual. For example, you must specifically say ‘moushiwake gozaimasen’ or ‘I’m terribly sorry’ to higher-ups.
Languages can also have grammatical gender differences requiring speakers to switch up their pronouns, verb endings, adjectives, numerals and so on, depending on the gender of the noun. Studies have shown that when German and Spanish speakers are asked to describe objects, they often conjure up gendered words that reflect the nature of their mother-tongue.
For example, the word ‘key’ is masculine in German but actually feminine in Spanish. So a German speaker will be more likely to use the word ‘jagged’, whereas a Spanish speaker might be tempted to go with ‘shiny’ and so on.
But even the Germanic languages have non-trivial differences. For example, German speakers often correlate action to an end goal. In one study, researchers asked German speakers to determine what was happening in a simple picture of a woman walking in a car park. The German speakers were more likely to say the woman was walking to a car. Whereas English speakers were more likely to just say that the woman was walking. This difference implies that the German language may prime speakers to think more about future consequences and outcomes of actions, whereas English speakers are more likely to dwell on present events instead.
Every Language Has Unique Words and Phrases
A part of the way languages help us think differently becomes apparent when we interpret some of the words they use, and especially if they have little or no direct translation into English.
For example, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘landlessness’ has only ever been written once in English, by Herman Melville in 1851. The conspicuous absence of this term has fascinated postcolonial scholars, who believe there was never a need for it in English because a shortage of land was never an Anglo-Saxon problem — presumably as they spread out to new worlds and continents to settle and farm in the vast wilderness.
One of the most fascinating, this German word means ‘weary of history'. And is a tired reflection of Europe’s age, and to the many layers of history to it there is. The word may also carry a tinge of guilt with it (especially after the Holocaust) and fatigue. A weariness that the weight of history cannot be escaped.
Another German word, but a beautiful one, refers to the feeling experienced while connecting with nature, especially while alone in the woods.
Mono no aware
Translated from the Japanese ‘物の哀れ’. This term refers to an awareness — and sadness — of the impermanence of time. It is both a nostalgic and bittersweet word. Said to call on having been ‘witness to the dazzling circus of life — knowing that none of it can last’.
This Welsh word has been described as almost impossible to translate into English because there is no single English word that can explain it. Still, the closest attempts often include ‘homesickness’ and ‘longing’. It is more like a combination of both words along with ‘yearning’, ‘grief’, and ‘sadness’, especially if a ‘home’ has been lost, and no longer resembles the ‘home’ that one is yearning for.
This Finnish word loosely means ‘the distance a reindeer can travel without stopping to urinate’. For obvious reasons, this curious word is absent from languages that owe their origins to warmer climates the reindeer do not call home.
Certain words can even provide an insight into how cultures perceive one another. This fascinating word, of Chinese origin, literally translates into ‘White Left’ in the derogatory sense, referring to people of a liberal mind in western countries who pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours.
This Arabic word conveys a wish to die before a loved one in order to spare the agony of grieving over them. It translates into the English as ‘may you bury me’.
A powerful Korean word that refers to a collective feeling of oppression and isolation, and perhaps a necessary word given the political fragmentation of the two Koreas in the modern world.
The idea that there are words that are either poorly translated or non-existent runs both ways. For example, there is no Chinese equivalent to the English adjective ‘chatterbox’, which translates into ‘a mouth like running water’. For other comic translations from English to Chinese, check out these chinese phrases.
It’s Time to Pay Attention to Language Diversity
It is impossible to touch upon even a tiny slither of all of the differences between the global languages, but you get the idea. With every language that disappears, so does a unique way of interpreting the reality of what it means to be human.
Preserving languages is a matter of ecological, anthropological, and psychological importance. With every tongue that is lost to history, so is a crucial part of the story of our development and our place in the world.