Language – is there a word for everything?

Do you say what you think, or think what you say?

In today’s age of modern soapboxes, it is now accepted that if you have something on your mind, there are many different ways to shout it. Never have we been more in love with using our own words, and there are umpteen tweets, posts, hashtags and shares to back this up. The fact is; language now allows us to express our views in many ways. From a linguistic perspective, this raises an interesting question: would we have reeled off the same number of lines of text (if given the same number of platforms) hundreds of years ago?

There are those who would argue that more is talked about today, simply because our language allows us the freedom to do so. This theory, linguistic relativity, originally proposed by Sapir & Whorf in 1940, suggests that rather than the language being used as a platform to express their own thoughts, it in fact acts as a parameter, restricting what we can think, depending on the lexicon available to us. Their argument that “if a rule has absolutely no exception, it is not recognized as a rule” stands; for example, if we only ever saw everything in blue, we would not know that there are other colours; the concept of colours wouldn’t even exist.

Language today

This question is one that can be applied to today’s multi-lingual society. If an English notion didn’t exist in French, but someone spoke both languages fluently, surely progress would dictate that we would create that equivalent in French? And so this is what has happened over the course of the last few hundred years; words borrowed; “le marketing” and adapted; “surfer le Web”. But there remains a list of expressions or ideas that are simply language specific, and which certainly cause todays’ translators some sleepless nights. How do you express the feeling of being homesick for a place you’ve never been to, for example? That’s not a valid feeling, I hear you say; you can’t be homesick for a place you’ve never been. Well, they feel it in Germany, and it’s called Fernweh.

I don’t want to get mixed up with idioms; it’s raining cats and dogs will never translate literally, but rather to give an insight into how language can have a direct impact on how we think, and how a translator, when dealing with an idea totally non-existent in one language, must put on their Shakespeare head to develop new words and expressions in order to transfer that original meaning.

It’s clear that language is still evolving, and despite globalisation creating interdependent cultures and societies across the world, we still face the challenge of how to transfer some elements of these cultures into our own. The localisation industry deals with this challenge every day, and whilst we may not be familiar with every term that doesn’t ‘make sense’ in our own language, we are certainly more open to understanding them now. I don’t think we will ever reach a stage where every language has equivalents of every single word; however translators’ experience and knowledge in how to transfer ‘imported’ phrases will make our inter-cultural understanding a lot easier.

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