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

Antarctica (iStockPhoto)

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.

Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.

11 Comments for Words Are Like Icebergs

Josh Nezam 09.21.10 | 1:01 PM ET

I found your article quite intriguing, and I’m glad to read some writing about travel that reaches beyond mere journalistic reports to highlight what we get out of travel, or what about it is so fascinating that makes it a recent phenomenon that has become a global market.  I’ve noticed that when I, or others try to speak and learn a new language that we simplify our thoughts to try to fit them into words that we know or understand.  We translate our native language into the limited outlets of the foreign language we are trying to speak.  If “Globish” becomes the language of the world, then surely we will be able to conduct business across borders and engage in other practical affairs.  However, what we lose in return is understanding between cultures.  The simplification of english into “globish” renders it utterly useless for a genuine exchange between two people.  It’s hard enough sometimes to correctly verbalize something in your own native language which, you have a much stronger grasp of.  So, if “Globish” is simply a means of communication about practical matters, then where goes the poetry, the feeling, the humanity of language? Sounds a bit dangerous?

Kimmie 09.22.10 | 2:21 AM ET

“And even now, years later… when I leave a friendís house and hear the door shut behind me, part of me wishes there were someone to walk me halfway home”  It is a wistful place you’ve left me… and with thoughts of lovers and friends along the years… wishing there had been that last bit of the journey to share… before saying that final goodbye… in the essence of language it is about sharing the spirit of things more than just an image…  Globish… gives us dinner, but we may very well miss dessert.

Brian Barker 09.23.10 | 1:15 PM ET

Globish reminds me of another failed project called “Basic English” which failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use :)

So it’s time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations.  As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

Your readers may be interested in the following video at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU  Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

Shawn 09.28.10 | 8:55 AM ET

This has been on my mind for a while, and even more often now.  I have recently placed myself in the dead center of Madrid and I look forward to the day when I don’t have to use only those basic, utilitarian words in my new foreign language.  As time goes on, I hope to discover those nuances of the Spanish language that defy translation and open small windows into the soul of the country.
Thanks for motivating me!

Brianne 10.02.10 | 3:22 PM ET

This is a great analogy; when learning a language, we only really learn the surface meaning. The proper meaning. But, if you visit a country that the language you are learning is native to, your speech will seem overly formal because you only know the surface. Learning the meaning underneath, the slang and the context of words in new languages is only something you can live. From experience, we spend far too much time (as you mentioned) translating other languages in to english in our minds when direct translations do not exist! The only way to truly learn a language is to let go of your preconceived notions and live, feel and experience the words as the flow through you. Be like a child and just listen, learn and repeat. If you’re not trying to translate, you can discover the massive depths that lay below the surface.

Caitlin 05.28.11 | 4:47 AM ET

Beautiful piece.

Jason 05.31.11 | 5:53 PM ET

I think you have hit the nail on the head, I have been teaching English for many years now in Spain with all age ranges, skills and abilities. The first thing people ask me is whats the translation, whats the meaning in Spanish and yes you can translate the meaning with many words and combinations of words. However you cant always express the underling tone or expressiones formally or informally.  This is the hardest to explain to students and friends. Excellent blog…

Jason 05.31.11 | 5:55 PM ET

If you dont mind adding i have a free web page for learning in English.


joshywashington 06.01.11 | 2:42 AM ET

Wonderful post and sentiments,. I find languages very difficult to adopt and rely solely on Globalese and the Unspoken language. I like sending friends off by seeing them part way home, it warms the journey with the lingering company and is also a nice excuse to get out of the house. ;)

riitaa 06.01.11 | 8:36 AM ET

great article I like writer imagination

Vago Damitio 06.01.11 | 8:48 AM ET

It’s amazing how sometimes we find ourselves in a situation that we think is annoying only to find out later that it was something beautiful or life changing. These are the words that I love, the ones that can’t be translated. In Hawaii we have a word like that Aloha, but even though it gets translated as love, hello, and goodbye, in fact it’s much more. I explain it like this- Aloha means we breathe the same air, we are intimately connected on the most fundamental level from birth until death, we are all part of each other, and thus, we should have compassion. That is why we say it when we meet and depart, so that we can remember that.

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