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La Dénomination de la Réalité: Part 1


The French expression “la dénomination de la réalité” means “the process of giving names to reality”. It strongly implies a notion of what slice of reality I choose to give a name to. Expressed in other words it hints to the categorization implied. That can differ a lot between languages. In this four-part blog series, I will elaborate on that topic and how much it influences our views of reality.

The point where different processes of slicing reality shows themselves are the so-called false friends. They are expressions for which it seems obvious what the translation means (the friend part) but actually mean something else (the false part).

Let me give a few examples of this concept: “embarassado” in Spanish doesn’t mean embarrassed but pregnant and pregunta could be naively understood as pregnant but means question. In French “espérer” means to hope, where “esperar” in Spanish becomes to wait (or maybe hoping for the bus to arrive?). “Résumé” in French is a CV and means to abbreviate, but has nothing to do with resuming something.

English is a very special case in that respect, as it is known to “borrow” words from other languages. Often there’s already an English expression for the exact translation, so it gets used for a related but slightly different concept. This makes English very susceptible for false friends.

Slang is also an influence, and again English is a special case. In American English, a word is defined by usage, so words get made on the go. This is unlike any other language I know of where there’s an officially approved vocabulary.

A special case where the different mindsets become obvious is dating. In many languages, there are no real expressions for it. English has a wealth of vocabulary for all types of situations. To give some examples, a date doesn’t exist in German, in French there’s “tête-à-tête”, which can be a romantic meal with candle light and all, but can just as well mean a private conversation. In German there are no expressions which would show the romantic nature of the meeting. It must be asked explicitly: “So you want to go watch a movie – just as friends or something more?” In modern usage the English word “date” is used and accepted by young people because there is really no way around the super long and awkward clarification.

Girlfriend or boyfriend in French is called “ma petite copine/mon petit copain” (lit: my little friend) and in German there’s a distinction between “my friend” (girl/boyfriend) versus “a friend” (just a friend). This is due to the utter lack of any clearly designated terms in the direction and always has a component of plausible deniability.

What I mean by that is that the whole process of dating is very mystified compared to how it is seen in English, which shows in the lack of vocabulary and the ample space to explain things away as being just a misunderstanding. This avoids being held accountable (the deniability part). I feel that there is a big difference between how dating does work, here in the United States versus other places. As the language, it’s way more explicit, but in Europe that mysticism does spread into the perception of how things come to happen. What I mean is that between the “boy likes girl, girl likes boy” phase and being married with two kids, there’s no clear-cut way of how to get there. Everything involves feeling out the situation and going with the flow, whatever that is in the moment. But just straight out asking somebody out, would open you to ridicule from friends. So it’s meant to be not perceived and to magically just develop. The same way that there’s no expression for it, there’s no real place for it. Here again, I find a big coherence with the way things are named (or the lack thereof).

In the next post of the series, I’ll continue the discussion and extend it into the areas of friendship and social organization. If you’d like to get support with language learning, please give us a call!


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