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On Language

Photo by Joel Goldstein via https://www.picturecorrect.com/tips/10-tips-for-how-to-take-better-photos/

Behind the lens of a camera, photographers are granted a certain artistic authority. They can manipulate the shot as desired, framing the photo in a way that illuminates some hidden beauty or simply captures a unique aesthetic quality. In any composition, a photographer is making deliberate choices that subtly influence what viewers will see and experience. That is, the way a photographer takes a photo inherently impacts the way that photo is perceived later on. Language, too, has immense power as a means of communication. Indeed, the vocabulary that we have available to us subconsciously shapes both the thoughts we conceive and the ideas we can articulate. While seldom acknowledged, language is a pervasive force in society, a versatile lens that can distort or illuminate our perception of the world.

               Personally, I’ve always been enchanted by so-called “untranslatable” words, linguistic gems for which there are no equivalent terms in English. In Japanese, for instance, the word komonebi refers to warm sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees. Conveyed in this single utterance are layers of complexity and stunning imagery. The term has a certain poetic elegance to it, encapsulating in a single breath a concept that – if articulated in English – would typically require at least a sentence to explain. While words like these serve as a beautiful testament to the universality of human experience, they also raise a fascinating question:

To what extent do the linguistic shortcomings of our languages limit the ideas that we can succinctly and effectively express?

How could an English speaker ever hope to understand the nuances of Inuktitut’s endless varieties of snow or the multifarious shades of blue in Russian? Quite simply, the lack of equivalent terms in English means that we are less attuned to the distinctions between these words and, crucially, miss out on the complexity embedded within them. Even in these seemingly insubstantial ways, language shapes the range of experiences we can communicate, subtly altering the lens through which we view both other people and our surroundings.

               I’m reminded of “Newspeak” in George Orwell’s 1984, an altered form of English designed to suppress critical thinking and limit individualism in society. By depriving people of the vocabulary to communicate complex ideas and nuanced shades of meaning, the government of Oceania was able to effectively quell unrest. After all, with the infinite complexity of human language distilled down to simplistic words like goodthink and crimethink, people weren’t able to formulate, let alone comprehend, rebellious ideas. Although this is a fictional example, it nonetheless illustrates how the vocabulary and structure of language can alternately expand and limit the range of thought achieved by language speakers. Clearly, language influences cognition, and, just like the lens of a camera, it can be distorted to present alternate pictures of reality.

               For the past nine years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn Mandarin, and I have experienced firsthand how awareness of linguistic variation can shift one’s perspective. More than anything, Mandarin is logical, fluid in a way that English is not. Rooted in each character are entire concepts, entire experiences and richly-imagined ideas. Whereas, in English, meaning is communicated by stringing together letters, in Mandarin, a character’s meaning is intrinsically embedded in its structure. The word for computer, for instance, consists of two characters meaning “electric brain.” The word for “person” resembles an actual person. The word for “eleven” is expressed as “ten one.” While I’m still nowhere close to achieving fluency, it’s clear that studying Mandarin has given me a greater depth of perspective and an appreciation for the subtle auditory cues of language.

If nothing else, it has served as an alternative lens through which I can derive meaning from the world around me.

Ultimately, reality takes on different shapes depending on the linguistic tools that we have at our disposal. It is vitally important that we acknowledge how language shapes our underlying perceptions of the world, because it impacts how we interact with others. Inevitably, some meaning will be lost in translation, but by acknowledging the nuances of communication, we can minimize this loss.

Simply put, language is our lens for navigating the world.

In today’s increasingly globalized society, we must understand this before we can truly understand each other.

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