A Language Is a Universe

I wrote the following on a student’s essay (in Spanish) and decided to quote myself on my blog to preserve these ideas for humanity:

Dear Jack,

every language is a universe of its own. In order to speak a language, understand it and write well in it, it is not enough to pass through on a package tour that only allows you to see the exciting world of a language from the window of a bus. You have to become a citizen (or, at least, a permanent resident) of this strange and fascinating universe. You have to gain an understanding of the laws that govern it.

No language is exactly alike another language. It isn’t possible to find an exact, word-for-word rendering of any sentence or paragraph. If you write a sentence in English and then look up every single word in a Spanish dictionary, you will not end up with a meaningful sentence in Spanish. All you will create will be a sad jumble of meaningless words that refuse to comw together in a coherent whole.

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7 comments on “A Language Is a Universe

  1. Good stuff. And, of course, culture is also a language, because every individual culture has a different relationship to sub-text. Also, as Nietzsche has pointed out, the hardest differences to bridge are those where two elements seem most similar — most probably because we mistake similarity for sameness. This, of course, relates to my personal experience as an English-speaker, with a different historical background from other English speakers.

    That which suffers the most from differences in sub-text is irony. I’m sure if we could remove irony from communication, we would have a very mechanical, useful language, but much of the substance of communication would then go missing.

    Irony is produced when there is a recognized difference between cultural and social expectations and what is said. Irony is therefore fundamentally social and based on shared cultural understandings. It’s not about the individual alone and his or her desires or perceptions of the world.

  2. If you write a sentence in English and then look up every single word in a Spanish dictionary, you will not end up with a meaningful sentence in Spanish. All you will create will be a sad jumble of meaningless words that refuse to comw together in a coherent whole.

    I suspect that if you write a sentence in Chinese and then look up every single word in a Chinese->English dictionary you will get something that reads like an owner’s manual, or the type of thing you see ridiculed by Jay Leno. But if a few Americans made even that amount of effort at trying to communicate in a foreign language, maybe we could chip away at our trade deficit…there’s an old saying that sellers speak the language of buyers, not vice versa.

  3. This post is gorgeous. I love the idea of a language being a universe. Do you know that John Donne sonnet “I am a small world made cunningly?” For some reason, your post reminded me of that poem (and I love Donne so that’s a huge compliment!!!)

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