The Surprising Priorities of Different Languages

This past year I made it my mission to find the best terms in our Central Asian language for the concepts of honor and shame. Since I knew that honor and shame serve as extremely important categories in the lives of our local friends, I was sure that finding the best overarching term for each concept would be key to my ability to communicate more effectively.

The problem was the more I asked about these concepts, the more words I found for honor and shame, each word emphasizing a different nuance or specific situation. I was looking for an umbrella term, but instead I found a cloud of terms. There was no umbrella term. Turns out that’s exactly what I should have expected all along. If a people group highly values something, they are likely to have many specific terms they use to talk about it. If a culture is rich in a certain way, the language will also tend to be rich in that same area. Our Central Asian friends filter everything through the lens of honor and shame. So they have many terms to speak specifically of these attributes.

It’s the same when it comes to names for relatives. The specificity of kinship terms that exist boggle the mind of a westerner who is used to one title for aunt, uncle, or cousin regardless of whether they are on the mother’s or the father’s side. Once again, this is because kinship is massively important in the worldview of our host people.

Today I was talking with a man who served as a missionary in a tribe in Melanesia. He told me his tribe had sixteen different words for “to plant.” Sixteen! He said this showed not only how important agriculture was to survival in the tribe, but also how important food was to a person’s standing in the community.

Our own English language, the champion of all languages for sheer number of words, has its own areas of particular richness. I have read that English is especially strong in business and science terminology. Makes sense. How utilitarian of us. Once again, the multiplication of terms reflects values of the culture.

If you have learned another language, what are some of the areas that language’s vocabulary is particularly rich? That should prove an interesting window into its speakers’ worldview.

Photo by Damitry Ratushny on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “The Surprising Priorities of Different Languages

  1. I live in South Sudan among the Dinka (“Jieng”) people. Cows are greatly valued in this culture and their language has lots of words to describe the colors and color patterns of cows, many more than we have in English.

    I’m a relatively new follower of your blog and really appreciate it. Thank you for the time and thought you put into it!

    Like

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