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.

Exercise in alphabetic empathy

This is a thought experience.

In Cambodia all or nearly all is written both in Khmer and English so that the tourists are not too lost. Let’s imagine a moment that the roles are reversed, that the Khmers have conquered the world a few centuries ago and everything is dubbed in the Khmer alphabet.

How would we feel in a country that is ours, but where everything or nearly everything is also written in a language beyond understanding to us? What if the Khmer tourists understood better than us some of the signs along our roads?

Truth in Russian and American

It is always revealing when a language has more than one word to describe a concept that just has one in your own. The Russian language has two to talk about truth: pravda (пра́вда) and istina (истина). Some* analysed that specificity with today’s political goggles. A Russian friend of mine explained to me that pravda, also the name of the USSR propaganda paper, was therefore tainted. Istina is in a way the next level of truth, the fundamental truth that cannot be altered.

In English on the other hand, there is only one word, truth, closer to istina than pravda. For a French ear it seems that the truth is very highly rated for Americans. How many times do we hear the injunction “you need to tell him/her the truth!” in American movies?
It also reminded me of the entry form anyone has to fill in at the United States border. On top of the questions regarding the applicant criminal record, this question has always made the French raise eyebrows: “Do you seek to engage in or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage or genocide?” Can you imagine the terrorist ticking the “yes” box? So why this question? Because by ticking “no”, the terrorist committed yet another very serious crime from an American perspective: he lied.


Blog of an amateur linguist

This blog is a humble attempt to build bridges between cultures and languages through sharing my discoveries on languages while hoping to spark “bouncy” thoughts. Curiosity drives me to write today to share my love of words with other curious minds.

1st thought: French has two words langues and langage, when English only has one, languages. In French we differentiate between the different languages such as Turkish or Swahili, the langues, and the concept of language as a mean of communication, the langage.