Words Are Like Icebergs
Speaker's Corner: Frank Bures on the pleasures of traveling and learning foreign languages
09.21.10 | 11:06 AM ET
It was getting dark. Paulo had been walking with me for half an hour. He’d invited me to dinner at his house, up near Mount Meru, and now we were going back down the dusty road to my neighborhood in Arusha, Tanzania. I wondered when he would turn around. I kept telling him I knew the way. But he kept walking.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I can escort you.”
The last thing I needed was an escort. I enjoyed walking by myself. But I didn’t realize how much had been lost in translation between Paulo’s chosen English word, “escort,” and the Swahili word for what he meant, kusindikiza.
In my dictionary, kusindikiza signified “to see someone off” or “to accompany someone part of the way home.” I had read these definitions, but I didn’t really understand them. Why would you want to accompany someone part of the way home? That is often the problem with learning new languages: You are taking an idea from one world and transporting it to another. The edges of the word, the shape of the idea, do not fit neatly into a new box.
Delving into a language is always partly about exploring new emotional terrain and figuring out how new notions go with a new set of words. According to linguist Steven Pinker, this is the essence of language: “People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache,” he writes in his book The Language Instinct, “they think in a language of thought.” Pinker says this is sometimes called “mentalese,” and it isn’t the same as what we speak. Instead, we translate our thoughts into words, which is why many foreign words are so hard to translate—you need to understand the ideas behind them.
Words in other languages are like icebergs: The basic meaning is visible above the surface, but we can only guess at the shape of the vast chambers of meaning below. And every language has particularly hard-to-translate terms, such as the Portuguese saudade, meaning “the feeling of missing someone or something that is gone,” or the Japanese ichigo-ichie, meaning “the practice of treasuring each moment and trying to make it perfect.” Linguists refer to the distance between these words and their rough translations as a lacuna, which comes from the Latin word for “pool” or “lake.” There’s a space we need to swim across to reach the other side.
For me, this is one of the great joys of traveling the world and learning different ways of thinking, of feeling, and of being: to land on some new shore of the mind, to look around and admire the view.
Of course, not everyone feels this way. A few years ago, a French businessman and thinker named Jean-Paul Nerriere noticed a trend among non-native English speakers he encountered at meetings: They were using a stripped-down version of the language, and they could communicate more easily with each other than with native English speakers. It was as if they had found a way to drain all the lacunas and meet on a tiny island where only the most utilitarian words would be needed.
Nerriere identified about 1,500 of the most essential English words, dubbed this shorthand Globish, and pronounced it a new global language. Now British journalist Robert McCrum, who has written a book called Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language, is claiming that it has passed beyond the sphere of American and British influence and become a “supranational phenomenon.” McCrum asserts that Globish will be “the linguistic phenomenon of the 21st century.”
He is probably right. Globish will be useful in many ways. But its limits will come to light as people become aware of everything that’s not being communicated—that simply cannot be communicated—with a handful of words floating on a vast ocean of feeling. Globish will either grow and morph into something rich and complex, or shrink and die as we realize how many of our thoughts are getting lost in translation, and how many lacunas still separate us.
It takes time and patience to learn the meaning of words in another language. It was only with time that I began to understand the meaning of kusindikiza. I learned it when people stopped to talk with me on the road. I learned it when they invited me to sit with them for tea. I learned it when I translated the Swahili proverb Wageni ni baraka. It means “guests are a blessing,” and I finally understood that people meant it when they said it, and that theirs was a world filled with gestures that showed how they enjoyed your company, how they valued your presence, and how they would walk for miles to show you that your friendship meant something to them.
Those are the feelings that cannot be included in the Swahili-English dictionary and that will baffle Globish speakers, but that are also among the rich rewards waiting on the other side of the lacuna.
Night had fallen on the road from Mount Meru when Paulo finally said goodbye, turned around, and headed back up the hill. I remember feeling bad for making him walk so far. But I also remember feeling strangely good that he had accompanied me all that way. And even now, years later, living in the United States, when I leave a friend’s house and hear the door shut behind me, part of me wishes there were someone to walk me halfway home.