To understand a language you need the culture that surrounds it

Author CJ Moore says understanding a language is one thing, but understanding the culture in which it makes sense is quite another

Czech proverb that I cannot possibly pronounce declares something like: “To speak another language is to live another life.”

There may be sound historical reasons for the inhabitants of the Czech lands to have mastered more than one tongue, literally to “live another life” under the boot of yet another foreign invader.

But the saying also points to the fascination of learning a new tongue and, above all, of entering its culture. Because culture is where the dictionary ends and where the linguist finds real meaning, crossing over into the life and world of another people.

While this journey is pure enjoyment for some, it becomes a vital necessity if we transpose the task to the field of international relations, an area where the call for translators, or translation by any means, human or mechanical, is ever more urgent.

Yet we can learn words and we can learn translations of words, and then there is understanding, which is something else altogether. Which is where we run into the whole issue of translatability. MIT Professor Noam Chomsky showed in his 1957 work Syntactic Structures that all “utterances” have an underlying universal “deep” structure enabling translation between tongues.

His famous construction, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, may be translated with no difficulty, as the grammatical relations are clear. But the sentence has no recognisable meaning, in our culture at least, as the terms variously appear in a context with no basis in logic or experience. Green ideas? Ideas sleeping? Nonsense, surely.

An early machine translation expert, Bar-Hillel, pointed out the impossibility of getting a computer translation program to understand even the simple phrase “the box is in the pen”. Only our knowledge of the world around us allows us to find a possible sense in this apparently odd sentence.

Meaning therefore arises from context and, by extension, from the external context of culture. Modern sociolinguistics describes the dynamic relationship between a culture and its language, each shaping the other with endlessly creative vitality.

What can life be like for the Algonquin native Americans who have no word for time

We experience puzzlement when we find a culture has no word for something that to us is basic, familiar and an essential part of our reality. What can life be like for the Algonquin native Americans who have no word for “time”? Or for those Australian aboriginal language speakers who have no word for “left” or “right”?

The Australian Law Reform Commission published a report in 1986 which drew attention to the difficulties of interrogating aboriginal suspects due to the conceptual gaps between English and, for instance, Pitjantjatjara.

That tongue has no word for “because” and therefore cause and effect, along with other relational aspects, are conceived and expressed quite differently. Notions of time, place, number and kinship are also far removed from those of a typical English-speaker. “Day” or “yard” can be taken to be any unit of time or place, rather than exact measurements.

The report makes clear that, as a result, undue suspicion falls on those unable to give the clear, precise and therefore trustworthy answers much loved of white judges. Not to put too fine a point on it, in a court of law where languages cross such a cultural gap, we can see the huge potential for injustice.

On a larger scale, the potential for huge misunderstanding can arise in diplomatic exchanges. Mistrust arises, especially in politics, when trying to cross an untranslatable gap.

When Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president, visited the US in 1997, he caused much fuss by suggesting the idea of “democracy” originated 2,000 years ago with Chinese philosophers. Liberal American commentators thought this absurd. But as Elvin Geng, graduate in Asian Studies, points out: “The word ‘minzhu’ first appeared in a classic work called Shuji  where it referred to a benevolent ‘ruler of the people’, that is, a leader whose legitimacy rests on the people’s welfare… In Chinese, the one term can mean ‘rule of the people’ as well as ‘ruler of the people’.”

Both uses of “minzhu” share the sense that the government ought to operate to meet the needs of the people. This criterion may be fulfilled by an enlightened dictator or a Leninist regime as well as by a US-style constitutional democracy.

The concept of human rights equally leads to misunderstanding between China and the West because of the Confucian ideal of natural harmony lingering in the word “quan”. Says Geng: “The Chinese do not assume an adversarial relationship between the state and individual – a notion prominent in the Western understanding of rights.”

Yes, to live another life is, without a doubt, at least a step towards international understanding. A colleague who has seen me break into Spanish at book fairs once commented, “You become another person.” I like that. In my recent book, In Other Words, I try to give others a taste of what it is to cross over into other cultures and live in them oneself, even live them
in oneself.

In Other Words by Christopher J Moore is out now (Modern Books, £9.99)

Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr