Looking at things from as many angles as possible is my favourite past time. I was reflecting on the nature of how we use language in light of my recent musings on what psychiatry taught me. Most of all it taught me that what people say isn’t nearly what they mean. It’s like the same words mean different things to different people – and you needn’t be in psychosis for that to occur. Rather than considering one language from the point of view of two people, I scouted for insights the perspective of one person and two languages.
However, before we go there, we can even look at one language. The way we use words even differs within the English speaking world – I am sure you can think of examples. Saying someone is different in Canada is a polite way of saying they are an outright freak – and not in a good way. Not so much in Ireland: different can be good.
I happen to be bilingual in English and Russian. You can judge my command of English, and I can tell you that my command of Russian matches that. Consider this situation: you’ve just met a lovely new colleague over lunch and found the interaction pleasant. You meet a colleague you are friendly with later and tell them of your encounter with the new girl: “She’s very nice.” There’s no way you would use the word nice when speaking of someone you met and liked in Russian. You would say what literally translates as: “She’s very interesting.” The literal translation happens to be rude in some parts of the world, especially in Ireland. In Russia, nice is reserved for kittens and puppies. All the while, the emotion you experienced from the encounter is exactly the same. This is why translations go wrong.
Maybe it’s just a bad example and a poorly matched translation? Let’s consider something black and white then: yes and no. When Russians say no – and they do that a lot, it could mean that there’s some minor adjustment required, or it might even be an interjection – the same way that well is in English. When you say no in English – especially in the UK and Ireland – it means you never want to hear this again. A Russian nice is much nicer than an English nice, and a Russian no is much milder than an English no. No wonder there are misunderstandings. Words are able to cardinally change the way we feel about something.
So why do they keep saying that the words we use account for just 7% of communication?