It all began, as many great things do, over a beer. I was on a ski holiday in Bulgaria and I tried to order a “Wymenko”. I got laughed at good-naturedly by the lady behind the bar who explained to me it was in fact pronounced “Shoomyensko”.
Of course it was.
Sometimes a Feed is a slow burner, and I had virtually forgotten about the beer incident until I returned to England and was ready to Feed. The night before I had cleared out my purse and found some receipts from my Bulgarian trip. It fired my curiosity and took me away from the Feed I had planned.
I hopped online and found the Cyrillic alphabet. Attempting to copy the symbols into my notebook took me right back to Mrs Jenkin’s classroom when I was five years old; making poorly executed copies of the carefully drawn chalk marks on the board in my exercise book.
This started me thinking about communication and different languages and how we all take the words we use to describe things for granted. The Cyrillic alphabet (used in Bulgaria), for example, consists of 33 letters, compared to our (based on the Roman) 26 and this allows more room for manoeuvre with two s sounds as well as a yaw, an oo and a ts.
I then started to study the idea of language in more detail, and followed the thread of a recent conversation with a friend about the words we don’t have in English but that exist in other languages.
The Germans, for example, have a word for the witty remark you only think of after you’ve lost an argument – treppenwitz –and the Hungarians a word for walking around in a shirt and no trousers – donaldkacsázás – literally ‘donald ducking’! It works the other way too, the French have no word for ‘warm’ – making do with chaud for any temperature above cold.
But this doesn’t mean that the French have less ways of explaining the temperature, merely that they need to employ larger combinations of words. Do we need a word to describe every emotion or situation we experience and, for that matter how do we form the relationship between a word and it’s meaning in the first place?
Language separates us from the beasts, and humans share a remarkable ability to shape events in each other’s brains. I’m doing it to you right now. Every time we share a story or watch the news we do something that comes so naturally we forget how impressive it is. The right words in the right order can create very precise impressions in another person’s brain.
Cognitive theorist Noam Chomsky suggested that virtually every sentence we utter is in fact fresh and new to the world – and current thinker Steven Pinker has expanded on this theory to suggest that language is an instinct in all of us, rather then something we learn by rote. Pinker believes we don’t learn to speak in the way we learn how to tell the time, but that instead it’s an innate ability – like a fish knowing how to swim. He concludes that although we all speak different languages (no mute tribe has ever been discovered) language develops in a child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction.
I feel like I’ve merely been able to scratch the surface in a day’s exploration of language, but I know I’ve created myself a new hobby… one that will last a lifetime.
Every sentence is a fresh and novel construction never before encountered. Isn’t that fascinating when it’s laid out in black and white?
Oh, alright. The ‘Geek’ t-shirt is on order.
Join my language exploration…
- Watch the short film Skwerl by Brian and Karl – a fascinating insight into how English sounds to foreign speakers.
- Dip into Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s Meaning of Liff, a dictionary of things there aren’t words for yet. The town of Cullompton, for example, is suggested as a neologism for one who simply cannot do things quietly.
- Visit Wikipedia to take a closer look at the Cyrillic alphabet (or better still head to Bulgaria and study it first hand…)
- Think about how we spell. George Bernard Shaw famously said that fish could just as easily be spelt ghoti (as in gh from tough; o from women and ti from nation).
- Get your head into Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct – it veers towards the academic in parts but it certainly gets those little grey cells working.