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La Dénomination de la Réalité: Part 2


The concept of friend is vastly different in different cultures. In English, it’s used for anything south of acquaintance, whereas in German and French there are several levels of friendship. A friend (“freund” or “ami”) is somebody you know for many years and have a very deep understanding with. You share everything with a friend. Contrary to that there are the concepts of (“kollege”, “kumpel”, “copain”) which are less deep, people I wouldn’t trust with my life but are still friends in the English sense. The English equivalent word “colleague” is strictly work related, whereas the German term can be meant on a personal level, too. So the badge of friend is something which is earned over a decade or so, which can lead to misunderstandings with English speakers in foreign countries: “He’s not a friend, we’re just living together (maybe going out together once in a while)”. In the English understanding, that would indeed be a friend. 

I truly believe that there is a big analogy of these terms with how these cultures do feel about people. In the same way that it is very easy to name somebody a friend in English, it is as easy to feel that somebody is a friend. On the other hand, it will never mean the same depth that a friendship has in other cultures.

The slang concept can get taken to extremes. A good example is “Matte Englisch”, which is spoken in parts of the capital of Switzerland, Berne. It has a big influence on the Bernese dialect of Swiss as it is spoken today.

The name comes from Matte, the poor neighborhood down at the river. The trades were located there, which needed access to the water of the river (soap maker, washer, tanner, butcher,…). “Englisch” is meant to mean “not understandable”.

It has its origin in a gangster language, where things are inverted, in order to not be understood while planning criminal activities. The nobility spoke French and yes is “oui”, which is then inverted to “iu” for yes. A lot of the vocabulary means something else in Swiss, so for instance the word “lehm” is used for bread, which means clay in Swiss and in German. The noun “bügel” (Swiss: lever, the iron for ironing) and the verb “bügle” (Swiss: ironing) becomes the job and work, respectively. Cockney English from the East side of London has similar structures, too.

Now this is a language which makes it a point of straight up inverting things. It’s being downside up instead of upside down. I can see how that goes along with a gangster mentality, where the lowest are maybe the best thieves. For sure there is an inversion in the view about people as well, being constantly aware of being the lowest of the lowest isn’t a sustainable state. Now, which one caused which, which one is the chicken and which one the egg remains unanswered.

Sometimes certain words in a language can be traced back to other languages. These concepts weren’t known before contact with that culture, and the worlds got adopted along with the items. Examples are the German terms for window (“fenster”, Latin: “fenestra”) and roof tiles (“ziegel”, latin: “tegula”, French “tuile”), items which were unknown to the Germanic tribes before contact with the Romans. Here comes an expansion of a world view together with the corresponding terms.

In their very structure, languages also differ a lot. Good examples are Slavic and the Russian languages, which often have no articles. Heavily conjugated languages like Spanish can drop the subject from the sentence. The German language doesn’t know any distinction between adjective and adverbs (the only exception being “sehr”―very, which just can’t be used as adjective). Other older languages have concepts which are extremely hard to even find something close to, like the Yiddish/Hebrew words “tacheles” (talking straight up, without any sugar coating) or “chutzpah” (the audacity to do something, to be yourself). That shapes the perception a lot, given that language is something we seldom question, but that we tend to take it for granted in a similar way as the air to breathe. 

There are many examples which go beyond mere words, where the whole grammar changes. A few examples to mention are the polite forms in languages like Spanish, French and German which change up even the conjugation of verbs (maybe close the royal “we” in English). In Japanese this polite form seems to be taken way further, where the whole vocabulary changes depending on the perceived relative position of speaker and addressed person: house is so to say “my miserable cottage” versus “your palace”. But on top of that, objects are counted differently depending on if they are flat, round or in different other shapes.

Another example is Icelandic where there exists only first names, going along with older Scandinavian traditions. To refer to people, you must say whose son or daughter you mean. 

Many nordic/slavic languages changed that into last names at one point which are carried on as last names, regardless the name of your father or mother (“Olafson”, “Ingridsdottir”, “Ivanovic”).

On the other side, the expression of passion is very important in certain Latin languages and really can’t be translated literally. Another example is when French people swear for half an hour with expressions which in English would make a sailor blush, just to neutrally express their passion―no harm meant.

It might be comparable to the Santa Cruzian  “Oh my god, so good to see you. Yes, let’s go and get coffee and catch up. It has been ages since we saw each other. Let me give you my number and we’ll meet tomorrow for coffee…” which actually really just means “Hi, good to see you”.

In the next post, I’ll discuss more ways in which cultures’ linguistic differences reflect different worldviews. We’d be happy to help you bolster your language learning, so please reach out to us to discuss your unique situation.


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