I love languages, and one of the great things about learning other languages - or even just learning about them - is how it expands your mental horizons. One of the first things you notice is that...
I love languages, and one of the great things about learning other languages - or even just learning about them - is how it expands your mental horizons. One of the first things you notice is that many words don't correspond 1:1 with each other in distinct languages. Sometimes, what you think of as one concept gets partitioned out into one, two, three, four distinct word forms in another language. Other times it's the opposite, and distinctions are lost. What are some interesting vocabulary/lexicon differences between English and another language you're familiar with? I'll give some examples:
- Russian motion verbs are a lot more complex than English ones. There are two distinct words for "to walk", idti and xodit'. The former is used for walking in one direction, the latter for walking in multiple or unspecified directions. The former is also used for single actions while the latter is for habitual action. Russian makes this distinction in every common verb for motion. It also makes a distinction between going by foot and going by a means of transportation, like a car, a bicycle, or a train. In English, you could say "I walked to the store" to specify you went by foot, but you could also say "I went to the store" and the mode of transportation is unspecified. In Russian, there is no single verb "go" that doesn't imply either by foot or not by foot. You have to use either idti/xodit' "go by foot" or exat'/ezdit' "go by some means of transportation". (As I understand it, I'm not a native speaker of Russian, just studied it a bit.)
- Terms of kinship are a big topic. Wikipedia lists six distinct basic forms of kinship terminology, and that's just scratching the surface. Some languages distinguish between the maternal and paternal side of the family, others do not. Some do not distinguish cousins and siblings. Some make distinctions between elder and younger family members with distinct words. Unfortunately, I don't speak any languages that are markedly different from English. But even in my native Norwegian, which is closely related to English, there are some differences, such as:
- First cousin is a distinct stem (søskenbarn, lit. sibling-child, i.e. the child of your parent's sibling) from second cousins (tremenning). There are also distinct words for cousin (no gender specified) and female (kusine) and male (fetter) cousins.
- Maternal and paternal grandparents are distinguished.
- I struggled to understand what the hell a "cousin once removed" was until I realized it's a kind of family relation that has no name in Norwegian.
- Or it could just be a single word. For instance, English has one word, "suspicious", meaning both an attitude towards another person's behavior (suspicious of) and that behavior itself (behaving in a suspicious manner). In Norwegian, those are two distinct words: mistenksom (suspicious of) and mistenkelig (behaving suspiciously).
I've only studied a couple of languages seriously. But I also have an interested in constructed languages as a hobby, so I've dabbled in a lot of languages, looking to pilfer ideas for my own projects. I really think it's expanded my view of the world, by showing that categories that seem obvious, really aren't. That's a lesson I've tried to transfer to other areas of life.
I also think it leads into philosophy, because it's really a question of how to divide up semantic space. If we imagine the theoretical space of all things that could ever be spoken about, how do we divide up that space into distinct words? Which categories do we choose to represent as meaningful, and which ones are relegated to being a sub-aspect of another category, only distinguishable by context? I imagine that in a culture with large family units, it makes more sense not to distinguish "brother" from "male cousin", than a culture in which nuclear families are the norm, for instance.
Do you have any cool examples of how vocabulary works differently in other languages, whether it be a single word or a large class of words? Or examples of times when encountering a different way of describing the world by learning another language led to insights in other areas of life?