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.