I was struggling to decide on a flavour of ice cream “Dulce De Leche”, which although sounded exotic gave me no idea of its content. A friend told me Dulce was sweet and Leche was milk in Spanish, so it must be a sweet milk ice cream. I opted for it and it tasted amazing. Later a Google search told me apparently it was an Argentinian delicacy consisting of condensed milk.
With globalization, this has become a common occurrence. We come across words and phrases from other languages quite often and struggle to pronounce or understand them. Throw in a few exotic words and everything sounds cool. Even a lowly torn “rag” can be made to sound cool by calling it a “schmatte” in Yiddish. As long as you are not taunting someone, personally, I think it’s a good problem to have and a quick online search helps decode it anyway but some may disagree. After all, language, the very means of communication, is a complicated social characteristic.
There are roughly between 6500 to 7000 spoken languages in the world, based on which source you refer to. Language is a key differentiator between humans and other species, the ability placing us at the top of the pyramid. It helps us communicate, share our ideas, thoughts and feelings. It serves three basic functions of being informative, expressive and directive.
In Addition to communication, language helps define our identity and expresses our history and culture too. Words woven together can have different connotations in various contexts, thus reflecting the customs and culture of the group of people speaking it. Most non-native speakers miss out on these subtleties.
In fact, culture and language are quite synonymous and research has proven that language can shape the way we think.
A study found that Russian speakers were able to readily identify a gradual change of colour from light to dark blue whereas English speakers were unable to detect it. The reason could potentially lie in the fact that the Russian language has different words to specifically categorize different shades of blue while English lacks it. This in turn is reflected in the respective speaker’s ability.
Some people have a great sense of direction if their language mandates it. A study showed that an aboriginal community in Australia uses direction as part of their language. So instead of saying go left and then right, as the majority of the world would say, they would possibly say go west and then turn north. They know their direction at all times. It just demonstrates how strongly language can influence, such that you can orient yourself with it, without the help of a magnet or compass.
Another example would be gender. In languages like Italian and Spanish, each noun is gendered. The Italian word for beer, birra, is feminine while wine, vino, is masculine. No wonder wine is described as strong and full-bodied while beer is referred to as light and bubbly, words ascribed to feminine traits.
However, languages are like shifting sands, a living thing, as they constantly evolve with our cultural changes. The increasing use of foreign words may reshape the language itself.
Connectivity through technology is influencing and hastening this process. It is a powerful tool, especially in today’s world of Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. The language which can be used to dress up and flatter can also be wielded as a weapon, used to sway a single individual or whip up a mass movement. Technology is placing this power in the hands of everyone. It is widely accepted that Trump’s few words on Twitter sparked the US Capitol Hill Siege protest.
Gone are the days when kids used to be encouraged to sort fights out using words rather than getting physical. The saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, meaning hurtful words cannot cause any physical pain, are now a thing of the past.
Simple words have so much power and energy. A few words of support can help heal someone. The encouraging words of a teacher can help define the trajectory of a student’s life or a few words of praise can motivate an artist to achieve greatness.
Meanwhile, some choice negative words can even destroy life. Repeated negative references or overtly abusing someone, in person or online, can affect even the mentally strongest individual and make him or her question their own worth, while a weaker person can even be pushed over the edge. Studies show a marked increase in extreme reactions and even suicides due to online bullying in recent times.
Research has shown that the brain’s pain matrix is activated by pain-related words. Say we hear the word “tormenting”, our brain will dig up painful experiences of it. Compounding this is the negativity bias, the notion that negative thoughts stick more than positive ones and influence our decisions. Hence, we need to be careful about choosing the right words to express ourselves, rather than throw words around casually.
Words have power and language has a deep influence on how we think, feel and express ourselves. Instead of throwing in a few foreign words to sound cool maybe we should put some thought towards the context, content and consequences of our statements. It’s time we pay a little more attention to the phrase “Mind your language!”, after all, who knows what impact we are creating with them.