December 18, 2012 by JL Walker
Are 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.
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 suocero, sorellastra and nuora, while father, sister and daughter are padre, sorella 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.
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.
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.