Thought and Language   Leave a comment

My wife and I were talking about language the other day, and I decided to write a blog post about it. What it basically boils down to is, you should really know at least two languages.

I don’t know two languages. But I’ve studied Arabic enough to know that I’m missing out. You see, learning another language dispels a hell of a lot of misconceptions about language.

I was nerdy and abstract growing up (Even more so than now). I was the kind of kid who could have gotten into an argument (and usually won) about whether courage or bravery was more important. I would have argued, and I would have done so under the impression that I was discerning the values of a really existing hierarchy of importantness. Essentially, I would have thought I was arguing about an objective distinction like the distinction between granite and limestone.

Illusions like that go away when you study another language.

To illustrate my point, I was reading an English translation of one of de Tocqueville’s books. In one place, the translation read “freedom” and in another it read “liberty.” Another student in the group started expounding on what he thought the distinction between liberty and freedom was. And that’s about the time when another person (one who knew French) pointed out that both words would have been translated from a single French word (liberté), and the fact that two different English words were used was based on the whims of a translator.

Before I studied Arabic, I had been vaguely aware that translations never convey the exact meaning of the original. But that knowledge is a separate thing entirely from reaching for an emotion or an ideal or a concept that you had simply taken for granted, and realizing that thing, that constant, that assumed something simply does not translate.

I don’t make fine distinctions based on the words in the Bible anymore. I don’t argue over the relative merits of liberty and freedom or bravery and courage.

That’s not to say that I don’t use liberty and freedom differently though. I just don’t think the distinction is worth arguing about. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from studying another language is about the ultimate function of language. Language exists solely to convey meaning. It isn’t worth arguing about because if you have to argue over the meaning of a word, you may as well not use that word in the first place. You’ll get your point across more quickly just by using a few other words that everyone accepts the meaning of. If privilege means one thing to me and another thing to you, then it’s not useful for either of us to use that word because we won’t make ourselves understood.

But seriously, you should go learn another language yourself. I can talk at you all day and it still won’t have the visceral impact of reaching for a concept in another language and finding that it doesn’t exist (or conversely, finding new concepts that you wonder why we don’t have a word for it in English).


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