What’s in a noun? Linguistic relativity part I

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December 14, 2012 by JL Walker

M subway sign in front of the DuomoWe’re all familiar with English literature’s quintessential love story, Romeo and Juliet. Some of the most famous lines of Shakespeare’s story are Juliet contemplating Romeo’s surname. She compares her love to a rose, explaining that she would like to change Romeo’s name, and that she will love him no matter what family he belongs to:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Juliet knows, however, that Romeo’s name is indeed important in her world. She simply expresses her wish that names didn’t carry as much weight as they actually do.

The more superficial layer of these lines question the importance of the label used to describe a flower. But what if Juliet’s rose were known as a “thorny flower” instead? Would the flower’s name change how the rose is perceived?

Linguistic relativity is the idea that, due to a language’s structure or the vocabulary available, speaking a different language causes the speaker to think differently. It has been debated by linguists (you can read about this topic on Wikipedia), and key questions are: Do languages influence the way a person experiences the world? Do languages change the way a person thinks? I use two languages on a daily basis, and my answer to these questions is yes.

This is a complicated topic, so I’m going to publish two seperate articles. The first part will focus on the topic in general, and the second will focus on Italian in particular.

Because I don’t have anywhere near the linguistic abilities or the research to focus on how grammar differences may influence the way a person thinks, I’m going to just look at a few simple vocabulary words and how they differ across languages.

Large horse statue at nightThey say that there are more words for camels in Arabic than many other languages. I don’t speak Arabic, but there is a separate word for a female camel in Arabic, while no specific English word exists. This gives you an idea of how these two languages are indeed different. In English, however, a female deer is a doe, a female sheep is a ewe and a mare is a female horse. This relative wealth in Arabic of camel-related words is most likely due to the fact that, historically, camels have been very important in Arabic cultures, the same way horses were very important in English-speaking cultures. Both animals were the most common transportation system before automobiles. Just think about how many words in English are used to describe a type of horse: in addition to mare, we have filly, stallion, foal, colt, just to name a few. So, while you need to use two different words in English to describe a female camel, you only need one word to describe a female horse, a male horse, a young male horse or a young female horse.

To a certain extant, these kinds of horses (or camels in Arabic) are categorized not as sub-categories, but as different entities altogether. There’s a reason a new word for female horse was introduced during the evolution of the English language: the indispensable nature of the object in the world of English speakers. Similarly, Juliet’s world places importance on family ties and feuds, making last names of vital importance. These things and therefore the words used to describe them, are meaningful.

This is just an intro to this topic. In a few days I’ll post the second and final part of the discussion, this time focusing specifically in differences between English and Italian.

What do you think? Do you think vocabulary is a reflection of relative meaning across languages?

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One thought on “What’s in a noun? Linguistic relativity part I

  1. […] In my previous post, I talked about the theory of linguistic relativity, focusing on two famous lines by Shakespeare and one small difference between Arabic and English vocabulary (even though I don’t speak Arabic). This second section will focus entirely on Italian as compared to English, and my own experience of language differences. […]

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