‘Words are all we have’ – A Hungarian linguist in London

Ádám Nádasdy, a professor of English Linguistics in Budapest, visited the Danube Summer School this week and gave a very interesting lecture, and I believe many of his points are definitely worth sharing.  This blog entry therefore is perhaps more like a cabinet of language curiosities than a particularly detailed narrative, but I hope it shall be engaging nonetheless, language being an incredibly rich and intertwined part of human society.

One of the exercises Adam took us through was how a single word, for example the English, ‘Man’, translates in various languages to different literal meanings. In the Latin grounded Romanian language, for example, the word for man, ‘bărbatul’, relates to the idea of ‘the bearded one’, whereas in Slavonic tongues it has greater connotations to the term ‘masculine’.  This idea of a single object being known by different literal meanings is also evident in other terms too. The English word ‘computer’ for example in Hungarian literally translates to ‘calculating machine’ where in Chinese it can be identified literally as an ‘electric brain’. These observations led some people in our group to suggest that perhaps different languages caused people to think in wholly different ways.

Whilst this is an interesting idea, Adam suggested an alternative view with a metaphor: that perhaps different languages were like different modes of transport, both ‘heading in the same direction’ or conveying the same thought, albeit through different methods. To add my own view to this I find it hard to believe there are any wholly distinct ‘pure’ entities that we can recognise as languages but that there are undeniably many significant cross references between them. This can be evidenced in how interrelated the family tree of languages is as seen in the European focused diagram below. A nice example of this in English is how animal names such as ‘cow’, ‘sheep, and ‘pig’ are all derived from the etymologically Germanic Old English while the meat names ‘beef’, ‘mutton’ and ‘pork’ all originate from the more Norman French brought in with the Normans post 1066, largely because it was the British peasantry who raised the livestock but the ruling French nobility who ate it. Thus I see languages not as unique means of thought or even as separate vehicles but as a graduating and yet interrelated scale of communication.

families

Trees showing Hungarian’s place in the world of languages (click to expand).

The way new words are constantly being created as with slang or through new inventions, also speaks for the fluidity of language. During the 16 century Renaissance, for example – as explorers encountered new nations, phenomena, and languages – so the English language diversified extensively despite Puritan resistance.  This process extends into other languages too though, in Hungarian, words like ‘szendvics’ or rather ‘sandwich’, being borrowed and incorporated from the English and then claimed by installing them within wider Hungarian grammar.  The same is true of the verbs ‘hamburgerezik’ ( to eat a hamburger) and ‘teniszezik’ ( to play tennis).

The way new words are constantly being created as with slang or through new inventions, also speaks for the fluidity of language. During the 16th century Renaissance, for example – as explorers encountered new nations, phenomena, and languages – so the English language diversified extensively despite Puritan resistance.  This process extends into other languages too though, in Hungarian, words like ‘szendvics’ or rather ‘sandwich’, being borrowed and incorporated from the English and then claimed by installing them within wider Hungarian grammar.  The same is true of the verbs ‘hamburgerezik’ ( to eat a hamburger) and ‘teniszezik’ ( to play tennis).

Today more than 1.5billion people in the world speak the once small tribal language that has become English, as telecommunication and globalisation make our world ever ‘smaller’. However I believe this is not evidence of one language ‘swamping’ or ‘polluting’ others but as evidence of language’s extraordinary power to absorb and diversify, English hosting words from over 350 different languages. Today often we don’t even realise this interconnectedness, the word ‘zoo’ being borrowed from France, ‘Pyjamas’ from India and ‘Shampoo’ from Urdu, yet this transnational foundation pervades almost all languages, not least those of the Danubian basin.

Thus, I conclude, it is this linguistic patchwork that, rather than diluting the fascination of learning languages, instead intensifies it.
-Kate.

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