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.