Why the sky is not always blue: Linguistic relativity part II

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December 18, 2012 by JL Walker

Church façade with blue skyAre there any examples of linguistic relativity in Italian that are similar to the multiple words for camel found in the Arabic language? To understand the answer, we should first think about what’s important in Italian culture, the same way that camels have been important to Arabic-speaking cultures. In my opinion, la dolce vita, food and family are three aspects of life that are generally important to Italian speakers. This is, of course, a generalization, and it is also a result of comparing Italy with my home country of the US.

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.

To recap, the two main questions are: Can the vocabulary available in a language provide insight into the culture of its speakers? And could these vocabulary differences change the way speakers thing about those things? I think the answer is yes, and here’s why.

Family
Similar to Arabic’s camels, there are differences in the vocabulary used to categorize family relationships in Italian. In English, there are compound words for relatives such as father-in-law, step-sister, daughter-in-law. In Italian these words are suocerosorellastra and nuora, while father, sister and daughter are padresorella and figlia. This is an indication that family relations are simply more important. A new word has developed, not a lazy combination of words, to describe the variety of degrees of relationship between two people.

La dolce vita
Another example is an expression in Italian which is also commonly used in the English language today: la dolce vita. The fact that English has had to borrow a phrase to express the concept of appreciating the little things and taking the time to savor the moment is evidence that this idea originated in Italian culture, not an English-speaking culture. (The 1961 world-famous Fellini movie led to the expression being adopted by other languages around the globe.) One could argue that that, in 1961 at least, this type of lifestyle existed in an Italian mentality but not an Anglo-Saxon one.

Food
Italians take food seriously. There are probably hundreds of kinds of pasta around Italy, each with its own specific name. In addition, if you look at the Italian etymology of word for tomato, pomodoro literally translates to “golden apple” (from pomo which means apple or fruit and d’oro which means made of gold). This is evidence that when this current staple of Italian cuisine was introduced to Italy, it was considered a very important ingredient. I don’t really think that when Italian speakers say pomodoro they want to express the richness of gold, but how pasta is categorized is definitely nothing to joke about to many Italian speakers.

Colored pens and pencils in a window displayColors
The last vocabulary difference that I think is interesting is a typical example when discussing linguistic relativity: the topic of colors. There is a fascinating difference between the number of basic color names available across various languages. Take Italian and English. There is a specific word in Italian to describe the color light blue: azzurro. If you ask an Italian person what color the sky is, they will not say blu (blue) but azzurro (light blue). Non-native speakers (or at least English speakers like yours truly) might have the instinct to respond blu when asked the question, “Di che colore è il cielo?
But Italian speakers will immediately respond, “No, sbagli! Il cielo non è blu, è azzurro!” (There will be a hint of disbelief noticeable as the Italian person says these words.)
“What? The sky isn’t blu? Ah, ok, I get it. It is technically light blue, azzurro.”
The brain needs to reclassify these colors in order to correctly describe something using a new language system. So if you’re comparing a blue object with a light blue object in Italian, they are no longer as similar as they would be in English. This is because in English, light blue is only a sub-category of blue. The two colors in Italian are similar in the same way that a red and pink object are similar. But think about it: Is a cardinal pink? Does Santa Claus wear a pink suit? Is a stop sign pink? Is Pepto-Bismol red? I don’t think so.

It’s a funny feeling to realize that using the language that I’ve lived with my entire life, dark blue and light blue are just specifications of one color, but in another language, they’re categorized separately. And that’s why, in my new world on the boot, the sky is not blu. It’s azzurro.

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15 thoughts on “Why the sky is not always blue: Linguistic relativity part II

  1. Debra Kolkka says:

    I am currently trying to learn Italian. It seemed simple enough at first, but it seems the more I know, the more I realise how mush I don’t know.

    • JL Walker says:

      I know what you mean! I’m always learning new words. But I could say the same thing about English too. Language learning is a long process and it’s really all about communicating with other people.

  2. I’ve come across similar things through living here in Barcelona. My absolute favourite in Spanish is the fact that there is no difference between ‘earn money’ and ‘win money’ – in both cases, you use the verb ‘ganar’. So there is no difference between earning money through hard work and winning it in the lottery!

    • JL Walker says:

      Very interesting nuance! I would love to learn Spanish too someday, so I’ll keep that vocab word in mind when I do 🙂 And I’m glad to hear that you feel the same way

  3. Diane says:

    About family relationships: I have found it curious that neice/nephew and grandchild are the same word in Italian (nipote)… I guess context clarifies the relationship…usually.

    • JL Walker says:

      I agree, especially when that whole Berlusca-Ruby thing was happening: was he talking about Mubarak’s niece or granddaughter? I have as yet to find an explanation as to why the same word is used for both relations in Italian. It’s kinda cool that my relationship with my niece and nephew is described the same way as my mother’s relationship with them.

  4. Joe says:

    Fascinating.

    But if compound words are lazy, what does that say about German speakers? They don’t bother to create new words for anything, as far as I can tell. (My favorite compound word is probably Bremskraftverstärker, literally “brake power strength-maker,” for what I’d call a brake booster and speakers of British English would call a brake servo.)

    And all this time I thought azzuro meant blue and that the blue wires in my Italian cars were just very faded from age! (Now I realize that they probably chose azzuro over blu for color-coding very intentionally, so there’d be no confusion with the white wires labeled “B” in black-and-white wiring diagrams.)

    So now I’m curious: What does a native Italian speaker say if you ask them what color turn signals are? To me they’re “amber,” because apparently I’m a nerd (and regulatory documentation says turn signals shall be amber), but I’ve noticed that other English speakers don’t seem to differentiate between “orange” and the color of turn signals.

    • Elisa Kaf says:

      Hi Joe, I don’t know for the italian, but the French call it orange too, whereas the Brazilians see it as yellow…

    • JL Walker says:

      About German…. as far as I know (which isn’t very much) there are lots of compound words in German! I think I would have to re-analyze my whole theory if I wanted to take into account German rules.

    • JL Walker says:

      And Italian speakers would use the word for “orange” for turn signals, I think. But since I don’t even have a driver’s license here and live in a city where public transportation is relied on heavily, I’m not an expert!

  5. Elisa Kaf says:

    Very interesting post, as a French native speaker who fluently speaks english and portuguese and who studied spanish and chinese I have also been aware of linguistic relativities.
    I call some languages “technical” like the english or the german where you would combine words instead of creating a new word, and others “poetic” like the latin languages where you have several words to express tiny nuances of the same concept.
    What is also interesting are the similarities in expressions in different languages for example “welcome” in french literally translates as “bienvenu”…

  6. katy z says:

    Cute post, good points, pretty good elaboration. You make me wish I had kept a blog for the 10+ years I lived in Italy!!! BUT… and I’m only bothering to write this because constructive criticism is important, and because you seem like a nice person…so I must say the following.

    If you write phrases such as, “This is evidence that when this current staple of Italian cuisine was introduced to Italy, it was considered a very important ingredient,” you will not be taken seriously. This phrase is logically impossible, when you think about it. You wrote: …”.._when_ …this stable was introduced, it was considered very important ingredient.” If you think about it for a second… :)))) (In case the penny didn’t drop: A food can’t be a staple at the time it is introduced to a new country. It takes years for a crop to become stable in a new environment, and decades for it to become a staple. This is true of our times — can you imagine how long it must have taken 500 years ago?)

    Keep writing, and keep improving!!! And always ask yourself whether or not what you’re writing makes sense. Best of luck and have a ton of fun in Italy!!! Katy Zei — Firenze 1994-1999, Milano 1999-2004. And pardon the goofy, web-style punctuation.

    • JL Walker says:

      Thanks for your response!

      Sorry if my writing isn’t always crystal clear, but what I meant was that today (currently), tomatoes are staples in Italian cuisine, especially if you go to Southern Italy.

  7. Ale says:

    Nice post! I love how you analysed those little things, you gave us a different view about things we Italians do not think about! Thanks anc ciao!
    ps really sorry about this, but “azzuro” it is not correct. It is “azzurro” 🙂

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