Culture and vocabulary

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Isn’t it fascinating to see which languages have extensive vocabularies for different things? We all know about the somewhat apocryphal number of Inuit words for snow – many of which describe the varying stages of the melting process. It is true, however, that Hawaiians have 65 words alone for describing fishing nets, 108 for sweet potato, 42 for sugar cane and 47 for bananas (the basic food stuffs).

Scotland goes into extraordinary distinctions for foul weather, Somali have a huge number of words for camels, mostly depicting their different basic feeding and sexual practices, and likewise the Greeks have a range of expressions to interpret face slapping and the Baniwa tribe of Brazil has 29 words for ants and their edible varieties.

So what does the English language tell us about British culture? The international spread of English seems irresistible, and surveys bear out the impression that acquiring some level of English is a priority for the largest number of language learners (one in three claim they can converse in it). It’s a language that boasts an extraordinary range and depth of vocabulary and is by far the biggest amongst the approximately 6800 languages of the world, with so many nuances fantastically defined.

What is really interesting is that in many instances it is deficient in expressing so many things commonly articulated elsewhere. This diversity must, I believe, be sustained and encouraged to flourish in an age of ever-decreasing languages (as roughly one a fortnight becomes extinct).

Of course, some words express all that is germane to a certain climate. One wouldn’t expect the English language to have a word like hanyauka (from the Rukwangali language of Namibia) which translates as to walk on tiptoe on warm sand.

Nor indeed would one expect thankfully many local concepts to be imported into British life. One won’t find an equivalent for mmbwe (from the Venda language of South Africa) meaning a round pebble taken from a crocodile’s stomach and swallowed by a chief or indeed, my favourite example of all: nakhur the Persian word for ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’.

However what is so interesting is that there are a number of commonalities if not universal sentiments that are expressed in the much smaller vocabularies of the world’s languages. Persian brings us mahj to define looking beautiful after a disease and wo-mba, from the Bakweri language of Cameroon, which translates as the smiling in sleep by children or termangu-mangu, the Indonesian for ‘sad and not sure what to do’.

The differing of cultural attitudes towards time are well articulated by their vocabularies. While so many of the claims of languages to have no words for such and such are apocryphal, it is only in Panjabi that they have a word parson meaning either the day before yesterday or the day after tomorrow. The notion of twenty four distinct hours is irrelevant to the Zarma people of Western Africas who use wete to cover mid-morning (between nine and ten); the Chinese use wushi to mean eleven to one; and the Hausa of Nigeria azahar takes in the period from one-thirty to around three. The Samoans’ word afiafi covers both late afternoon and evening, from about 5pm till dark. In Hindi pal is a measure of time equal to twenty-four seconds and ghari is a small space of time (twenty-four minutes).

Instinctive reactions might be thought to be limited to one kind of vocal range of expression. But if we touch a boiling kettle around the world, the exclamation denoting pain has many varieties though all I hope able to be interpreted. In Korea you say aiya! in the Philippines aruy! and in Russian you cry oj! In Danish it’s uh! and in Germany auwa! At least we can all jump for joy at the wonder of our diversity!

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