Most of us understand language—and indeed our world—largely through our mother tongue. Astonishingly, many professional linguists and philosophers of language in the English-speaking world are monolingual; Noam Chomsky himself is unlikely to be able to order a meal in a language other than English. It’s hard to understand how one might grasp the nature and structure of language if one has only a single point of reference.
In the Foreign Service, presidential visits bring the best stories of such myopia. Imagine a bunch of White House interns and volunteers with little or no understanding of the local language or culture descending on an unsuspecting nation, and with the absolutely unqualified belief (like that of the religious zealot) that “our President” is the very center of the universe, the hub around which all else revolves—rather like the black hole at the center of our galaxy. The role of the Foreign Service officer in these situations is to stand at the intersection of cultural misunderstanding and international incident, to mediate distrust and miscommunication, and at the end of the day, of course, to get the White House whatever it wants.
My first substantive assignment in the Foreign Service was to be the press lead for elements of President Clinton’s participation in the 2000 G-8 Summit in Okinawa, Japan. This was where I learned the hard way that phrases like “if they think x, then they must be smoking crack” didn’t translate very well (or at all) into Japanese. I’ve left out the expletives here, of course, but it was extremely hard to get my White House counterparts to understand the subtleties of translation. It would have required a course in general linguistics, and the Peace Park was perhaps not the best venue for that.
Like those White House staffers, many of my language students came to class thinking that other languages were basically just like English, with all the words replaced. So if one wanted to say “I buy five books” in Japanese, for example, all one had to do was replace each English word in the sentence with a corresponding Japanese one. But that of course doesn’t work—the appropriate Japanese sentence is structured in English as “I books five buy.” Teenagers are a bit quicker than White House staffers, so rather than feeling frustrated about this difference in structure, most kids took it as a particularly compelling indication that the world seen through Japanese might look a bit different than one seen through English. I don’t for a minute subscribe to strong versions of what’s come to be called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: the idea that people who speak different languages think differently at the most basic levels. Statements of Whorfian ideas are most often delivered with long lists of Eskimo words for snow. The fact is that all of these words for snow can be translated into English (wet snow, loose snow, snow packed hard like ice, snow on trees, falling snow)—we just don’t view each of these terms as separate lexical items (that is, as individual words).
Japanese word order is something I enjoy exploring with students almost immediately because it lets them know immediately that the world is not as it seems. This is to say nothing of even more complex and nuanced differences between English and other languages. The language of the Maya, for example, exhibits a bizarre property known by linguists as “ergativity,” in which the subject of intransitive verbs is identical with the object of transitive ones. While this makes no sense to most of us, what it means in practice is that in most Maya languages, people say things like “my shot the turkey,” “his struck me,” and “me slept.” (Coe, Reading the Maya Glyphs, p. 16).
And there are many more extreme examples of languages structured so differently from English that they would make your head spin. One linguistic fact of life seems to be that the more people speak and learn a language, the less complex it will become over time. This flies in the face of some prevailing notions about primitive languages, as it becomes crystal clear that the languages of so-called “aboriginal” people are viciously more complex than languages like English, Spanish, French, German, or Mandarin. For more on this, an excellent (though technical) account is given in George Lakoff’s classic (and definitely a runner-up for best book title ever) Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.
What’s even more interesting is that we can subvert commonly accepted categories like English or Mandarin, both of which come in a bewildering array of flavors and colors. Languages change across distances and over time, and with contexts and social groups. I think I’d agree with the humanist George Steiner, whose book After Babel developed the idea that virtually all communication is an act of translation—not merely between different languages but even across the same language. This is a beautiful idea and one that helps us see that every act of communication we make involves an interpretive act of one sort or another by the receiver of that communication.
There are those who have tried to reduce all of language and cognition to metaphor. One of the best examples of the central role of metaphor comes in the physicist’s search for the fundamental principles of the universe and the fundamental building blocks of matter, which are called “quarks” (the word was taken by the physicist Murray Gell-Mann from an evocative passage in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake). Just as atoms may be said to have positive and negative “charge,” quarks are divided into a number of types that include properties like “color,” “charm,” and “strangeness.” A quark’s color obviously has nothing to do with the spectrum of visible light, and “charmed” quarks are not necessarily engaging dinner companions. And you might notice that I referred in the paragraph above to the fact that English and Mandarin come in a wide variety of “flavors and colors,” which is also a metaphor, but one that you no doubt instantly understood!