How do words shape our minds? Do the French suffer because they have no word for berry or cozy?
'Ilunga’ means a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time. That’s a word I’ve just imported into English from Tshiluba. A bunch of linguists voted it the world’s hardest word to translate. Then they gave us a translation. I’m so happy to have this word. It allows me to think thoughts that I couldn’t think before. I wonder if Obama is basically an ilunga. My wife is definitely not an ilunga. She’s all over me after my first abuse.
I don’t know about you, but I do most of my thinking in words. If I don’t have the words, how can I have the thoughts? And if you can’t have the thoughts, you can’t make plans. Tonight I’m going to do some schoogling. Until I learned the word, I couldn’t have had that plan.
While 'schoogling' sounds like something we can’t talk about on Public Radio, it’s just googling the names of old schoolmates. It’s increasingly the cause of cylences. Cylences: are the long gaps in a phone conversations that occur when a person is reading e-mail or cybershopping while talking on the phone. Or schoogling.
I think there are lots of thoughts we can’t think without having the right words. Or at least, wouldn’t be very likely to. Different languages and cultures have different words, and hence have different conceptual schemes, and even see the world differently.
One might suspect there’s less truth to this than there seems to be. I just translated the word linguists found most difficult to translate, `ilunga’, with an English phrase about ten words long. Before I ever had the word I could have thought, ``Ken is the sort of person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”. Isn’t that the same thought you I have when I think ``Ken is an ilunga”? What’s the big deal? I could invent the word, ``lexijerk” to mean ``radio personality who shows off by using new words in a pointless way” and offer it to Ken. Then Ken can think ``John is a lexijerk”. But it’s probably a thought he has had before, without benefit of this great word.
But when a culture or a language or a co-host finds a word to be useful, it suggests that the phenomenon, for which the word stands, has some importance, gets at a distinction worth making. The word ``Ilunga” encodes the insight, or at least possible insight, that the people it takes three offenses to truly anger form an interesting class; they may share other characteristics.
On the other hand, I’m told the French don’t have a word for ``berry”, just words for strawberries and raspberries and blueberries, but not a general word. But they still recognize the class; they serve a nice compote made only of berries.
Most of these examples come from Geoff Nunberg, the Berkeley and NPR linguist who will join us on Sunday’s program. Geoff is a thoughtful linguist, who will help us get beyond my amateurish speculations on the importance of words.