Think of an idiom or expression in your language that you find particularly colourful or uniquely reflective of your people and way of life. Got one? Great. Now don't you wonder whether such an expression can be satisfactorily expressed in other languages? If so, how would they say it? Is everything really translatable? Do we all share the same experiential existence? To what extent is our view of the world shaped by the language we speak? Can you really know a people if you do not know their language?
There are broadly two views on the connection between language and the human experience. The first one is what I call the "What you see is what you speak" view (more formally known as "Linguistic relativism". This view basically contends that a language evolves and is shaped by the experience of the people who speak it. I think this largely makes sense. If you live near the North Pole, it's logical that your language would contain many expressions that adequately cater to the conditions and way of life near the North Pole. If you live in an area where resources are scarce and you have to constantly fight for resources, your language would presumably have devices and words to describe conflict, competition and interethnic relations. While the "What you see is what you speak" view is useful in explaining the vocabulary of a language and perhaps some aspects of linguistic devices, it does not satisfactorily explain many other things. Why are languages structured the way they are? Why do languages of the same family, for instance, evolve in the same way even when the communities of speakers have moved far apart from each other? (e.g. Germanic languages)
The other view that is slightly more controversial is what I call the "You are what you speak" view (more formally know as "Linguistic determinism"). This is quite self-explanatory. It argues that who you are as a person and the way you see the world are to a large extent shaped by the language you speak. In some ways, this view also makes sense. It's entirely conceivable that the absence or presence of certain devices in a language would affect the behaviour and cultural norms of its people. For instance Pomo, a language that uses evidentiality suffixes - i.e. you use different suffixes when making a statement depending on the strength of the evidence you are basing your statement on - makes it more difficult for its speakers to be economical with the truth. For example, the statement "It is raining" in Pomo can be said in at least 5 different ways, depending on how you came to make that statement. Did you see the rain with your own eyes? Or did someone who had been outdoors tell you that it is raining? Or perhaps you saw indications that led you to conclude that it is raining (e.g. people entering the building are all wet or had wet shoes)? Or did you hear the sound of the rain? When I read about Pomo, I wondered how politicians in that community survive. It must be quite a challenge to spin in that language.
But as I said, this is a controversial view. Furthermore it does not explain everything. Is the fact that first and second person singular personal pronouns ( i.e. "I" and "you") are seldom used in Asian languages a contributing factor to the fact that Asian societies put the interest of the group above that of the individual? Or is it because many Asian societies tend to be less individualistic that their languages tend to reflect the lack of emphasis on individuality, hence the relatively low usage of first and second person personal pronouns?
Controversial as it is, from my personal experience, the language you speak does affect your view of the world. Learning the language of a people does give an insight into their way of thinking and their way of life. Sounds clichéd, but Le Comte de Monte Cristo in French is to its English translation what a film in colour is to a film in black and white. You'll probably still get the gist if you read either, but trust me, it's just not the same.
This was supposed to be a short light-hearted post. I guess I got carried away. Anyway, in tribute to all the languages that have enriched my life and made it worth living, I'm exploring some well-known and colourful expressions in Malay and/or English as well as their reincarnation - if any - in other languages. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did putting them together.
I am starting with the familiar Malay expression "Panjang umur" (or "Speak of the Devil" in English), which you use when an absent person that you are talking about - especially if you're saying something bad about him - suddently appears. What struck me the most is that in many languages, the person being spoken about is always referred to as something sinister e.g. the Devil, wolf or an evil character. Malay seems to be the exception, attributing long life to people who suddenly appear when other people are talking about them, while the expression in Arabic seems to be - in my judgement - the most neutral, if not also the cutest!
Bahasa Malaysia: "Panjang umur" - "(He will) live a long life". Presumably, someone who immediately appears after being "summoned" is destined to have a long life.
English: "Speak of the Devil." Why the Devil? I haven't managed to unearth this, but maybe it's linked to medieval belief that if you summon i.e. call out the name of an evil spirit it will appear?
'Arabi: "أذكرالقط يأتى ينط" - "Mention the cat, and it comes a-jumping!" Something along the same line with "Speak of the Devil..." but this one involves a cat. How cute!
Nihon-go:"Uasa-wo sureba..." - "Had (we) been gossiping..." Obviously an expression of relief of sorts. Upon seeing someone that has been just mentioned in a conversation, the interlocutors heaved a sigh of relief that they had NOT been gossiping. For if they had, they would be in trouble.
Français:"Quand on parle du loup, on en voit la queue..." - ""When you speak of the wolf, its tail appears." Though similar to the "speak of the Devil" pattern, I also find the imagery quite amusing. You can imagine seeing the tail of the wolf wagging from behind the bush!
Italiano: "Parli del Diavolo e spuntano le corna!" "You speak of the Devil, and the horns begin to sprout!". Another reference to the Devil, with the addition of the horns. In Italy, they also apparently use the Latin phrase "Lupus in fabula..." ("The wolf in the fables") which I think is related to the wolf that the French are talking about above.
Español:"Hablando de(l) (rey de) Roma...""Speaking of (the king of) Rome..." I have been told that the expression "hablando del Diablo" (speak of the Devil), which is closer to the English one, is also used, but many people say "hablando del rey de Roma" which is usually shortened to just "hablando de Roma". I'm told that this "Roma" is used because it rhymes with the next part of the saying which ends with the word "asoma" ("appear"). The continuation apparently varies from country to country. I've heard of "mira quien se asoma" ("look who's here"), as well as "el burro se asoma" ("the donkey is here").
Deutsch: "Wenn man vom Teufel spricht...""When you speak of the Devil..." This is literally similar to the English version.
Zhongwen: "Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào." - "Speak of Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo arrives." Cáo Cāo is a famous character from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an anti-hero of sorts. The rhyming words helped popularise the phrase too, I suppose.