To have or to be with, that is the question

The choice of words give away a whole culture, and in particular the way verbes are built. A concept such as owning something is translated in most European languages the same way: to have, avoir, tener, … A European possesses things, the thing is owned.

Conversely, other cultures focus rather on the relationship between two elements, that is to say the languages express the existence of a person/object and then link it with the “owner”. One does not say “I have a cat”, but “a cat is with me”. Here are a few examples from a few langauges I cam accross:

  • A Turkish person will say “my cat is existing” or kedim var. Kedi means “cat” to which we add an “m” to show the ownership and var means “existing” or “there is”. To say “I don’t have a cat” in Turkish we would say kedim yok, where yok stands for “not existing” or “there isn’t”. Pretty efficient.
  • An Irish person speaking Gaelic will say Tá cat agam, tá is the verb “to be” and agam is the addition of the preposition ag or “at” in English and the pronoun me. Hard to translate litterally! Maybe “a cat of mine is”?
  • The verb “to have” in swahili is built with the verb “to be” kuwa and “with” na, that is to say kuwa na. A person from Tanzania would then say Nina paka, paka meaning cat.
  • Finally a Russian person will say У меня есть кот (in phonetics: U menya est’ kot). У is the preposition expressing the place, меня translates “me” and есть is the verb “exist” in the infinitive form, this time I will let you translate litterally.

All those differences question the way we interact with our environment and how we relate to objects and beings around us. If I were to say “a cat of mine exists”, how would that affect the relationship I have with my cat?

Neither yes nor no

I used to think all languages had opted for a similar way to accept or decline, to confirm or deny. 2 little words, short to be as efficient as possible.

yes – no
oui – non
sí – no
ja – nein
да / da – нет / niet

The first language to alter my viewpoint was the Turkish language, which uses longer words: evet (yes) et hayır (no). Depending on where a Swahili speaker lives, one will either say the words ndio (yes) or hapana (litteraly “there isn’t”), or a sound and a nod. Thus a long “eeeeh” with raised eyebrows will show agreement, while a “huh-huh” and a nod will show disagreement.

Lastly I came to discover a language that entirely skipped the question. In Gaelic, the official language of Ireland, there is neither yes, nor no. To answer the following question “do you want to go there?”, a simple “I do want to go” or “I don’t want to go” will suffice. The sole verb confirms or declines. And this influences the English spoken by the Irish, who would never lose a game of “neither yes nor no”!

Thanks to the FICEP for organising language initiations and to Paula Nic Cionnaith for sharing her culture on a rainy Saturday of May in the Hotel de Ville.

Numbers – when you next cross the BNF metro station

Little brass signs set in every step of the staircase, a guessing game for the line-14 commuter. I am talking about the 19 steps leading outside the BNF metro station written in 19 languages.

Here are a few illustrators of the languages chosen by the architect Antoine Grumbach:

When you next cross the station, look at your feet and count in the language of your chosing even if it is only till 19.

The storyteller species* – Nancy Huston

We oppose in vain reality and fiction, this is what I will remember from Nancy Huston’s book. Any human group invents stories that imply actions from that given group. We are driven by stories, social background, country, religion, family story and so on. Stories have an effectiveness in our reality as they push people to action and structure our identities, to this end stories are very much real.

Some of us tend to “embellish facts” like the inhabitants of Marseilles as goes the French cliché of the South. They start from a fact and add what they experienced, thus making the story riveting. They are fully aware that stories are vital and create bonds. In the movie Big Fish by Tim Burton, a father gets on his son’s nerves who cannot seperate fact and fiction in his father’s life anymore. With the son, the viewer ends up realising how
disproportionate is the stress we put on reality/truth, when we should wonder on the liveliness of stories. It does not matter if it is not strictly factual! The tale brought closer together two beings. A beatiful plea for the writer trade…

*This is an attempt to translate the title of her book “L’espèce fabulatrice”, which I have not found online.
Here to get the book in French:

Family words – episode 2

French children are taught to say “vous“, “monsieur” or “madame” to seniors. It is a way to show respect to elderly people. One should absolutely not remind them of their age, in the Western world old age is often perceived as a weakness to run away from.

On the contrary, children who speak Swahili will greet an old person with “shikamoo” but will call them “bibi” (grandmother) or “babu” (grandfather) even if they are not related to one another. White hair is recognized as a sign of wisdom.

It would be intersting to shift viewpoint in France. If old men and women in France were not perceived anymore as a weight but as a source of wisdom able to take a step back, it might turn the debate on the retirement pensions around. Our old people would retire from the active world of work, while remaining available for softer activities such as the transmission of knowledge.

Dans 40 ans j’adorerais qu’on m’appelle bibi.

Family words – episode 1

When I learned the languages of neighbors, close or far, from Spain to Russia or Turkey, the words referring to family members are quite similar to English. On the other hand, the relationships between family mmbers seem different when one goes south.

In Swahili, the paternal uncle is referred to as the elder father (baba mkubwa) or younger father (baba mdogo) and the maternal aunt as the elder mother (mama mkubwa) or youger mother (mama mdogo).

A Congolese classmate explained us how in Lingala the paternal uncle is the elder or younger brother and the maternal aunt is the elder or the younger siste. The word for cousin disappears for the benefit of brother and sister.

Through language, we perceive a society where the family is enlarged beyond the nuclear family. I have found the beginning of an answer in the following proverb in the book Aya of Yop city: “When a baby is in the belly, he belongs to his mother. When he is born, he belongs to everyone.” The family welcomes and supports the mother and the child during the first days and then the child is introduced to the neighbors. He grows in a community where the tontons and the tanties watch him when he plays in the street and welcome him for lunch/dinner at theirs.

We find the same system in India, where adults are called auntie and uncle, the embodiement of the proverb “it takes a village to raise a kid”.

Pastoureau – words of colours

The little book of interviews with Michel Pastoureau is quick dive into each color through which colors appear as ever evolving social constructs linked to how they are created. I have read it again to write this article and there are too many amasing anecdotes for me to pick one over the others! I will thus let you ead it.

A detour through an Eastern African language shows us very clearly where the colours come from. In Swahili, only 3 colours are adjectives (that have to agree with the rest of the sentence): red ekundu, black eusi and white eupe. Michel Pastoureau reminds us that the 3 structural colours during the Antiquity were white as colourless, black for everything dirty and red as colourful. Can we draw a link?

The rest of colours in Swahili are made out of elements of the environment:
– colour of turmeric, rangi ya manjano, that is to say yellow
– colour of trees or leaves, rangi ya manjani/kijani, that is to say green
– colour of a prune looking like fruit, rangi ya zambarau, that is to say purple
colour of the water of peas, rangi ya maji ya kunde, that is to say brown
colour of ashes, rangi ya majivu, that is to say grey
Some colours are close to English, for instance orange, rangi ya machungwa,or close to French like pink that is to say rose or rangi ya waridi.  

You can find this book in anoy of these book stores:

A matter of point of view

A same geographic place, the Baltic sea in English, but multiple designations. The Latvian and the Lithuanian people say Baltic sea (in Latvian baltijas jūra, in Lithuanian baltijos jūra). On the other hand, the Estonian people talk about the western sea, Läänemeri, when they sea the Baltic. On the opposite bank, they say the Eastern sea: Östersjön in Sweden, Itämeri in Finland, Østersøen in Denmark or Ostsee in Germany.

This difference in names still exists in our contemporary languages regarding the Baltic sea. It can be surprising when we compare the situation to the Mediterranean sea, which all bordering countries call the same. Indeed the Roman when they settled all around this sea thus united the names. Originally, the Mediterranean was the Big Green (wȝḏ-wr) for the Egytian, the Western sea (Hinder sea) in the Bible, etc. With the Roman Empire, this sea ended up being at the center of the known lands, that is to say in latin medius (middle) and terra (land). Such a phenomenon did not occur around the Baltic sea.

Source: article from the Inalco, Région de la mer Baltique une “Méditerranée du Nord” ? by Katerina Kesa

The language of horns

A little logo on the wheels across the world. We press it without a thought. Yet each culture adopts its own klaxonish music. A new language to learn at each border crossing. In France, the horn is the last resort according to the highway code and must signal imminent danger. More often than not, impatient car drivers tend to honk hoping to green the light. As a pedestrian, my whole being jumps every time I hear it, it feels so aggressive.

In Cambodia, it is a way to show sonorously that one shares the road, when rear mirors, lanes and rules are not clearly defined. 3 blasts of honk and the tuk tuk overtakes the truck or the minivan from the left or the right while avoiding a bike that has just honked, all of in a very fluid manner. Everyone is peaceful, it is not considered to be aggressive, just a little dialogue, short and audio.

What about you? How is the language of horns in your country?

Pronoun and gender

3 years ago in San Francisco, I decided to gain some knowledge on non-violent conflict resolution. As I sit in a room crowded with a San Francisco diverse audience, the organizer asks that we introduce ourselves: state your name, your organization and the pronoun you wish to be addressed with. “Julia*, National Center for Lesbian Rights, she”, “Tim*, just curious, they or ze”.

They or ze ? That is how I first heard the neutral pronoun as well as the first and last time I had to say “I am a she”. The whole exercise seemed a bit useless as there were over 50 participants and the one-hour training session would not be interactive at all. Another way for San Francisco to prove how liberal it is…

I understand the need for the language to evolve with society and if I had to pick I would choose ze over they. For an English-learner, a sentence such as “they says…” goes against all the grammar rules I was taught. Ze is interesting as it sounds close to he or she. I wonder how the whole debate will unravel when the pronoun revolution hits France, a country regularly struggling with what we call inclusive writing. Would we pick eul, ul, alle, olle, … ?

*Of course, all the names are fictional.