The power of language

Call To Words — Jun 2022

We translate our thoughts into words, but words also affect the way we think.

Have you ever worried in your student years or later in life that time may be starting to run out to achieve your goals? If so, would it be easier conveying this feeling to others if there was a word meaning just that? In German, there is. That feeling of panic associated with one’s opportunities appearing to run out is called Torschlusspanik.

German has a rich collection of such terms, made up of often two, three or more words connected to form a superword or compound word. Compound words are particularly powerful because they are (much) more than the sum of their parts.

English too has many compound words. Some combine rather concrete words like “seahorse”, “butterfly”, or “turtleneck”. Others are more abstract, such as “backwards” or “whatsoever”. And of course in English too, compounds are superwords, as in German or French, since their meaning is often distinct from the meaning of its parts. A seahorse is not a horse, a butterfly is not a fly, turtles don’t wear turtlenecks, etc.

One remarkable feature of compound words is that they don’t translate well at all from one language to another, at least when it comes to translating their constituent parts literally.

This begs the question of what happens when words don’t readily translate from one language to another. For instance, what happens when a native speaker of German tries to convey in English that they just had a spurt of Torschlusspanik?

But then, this begs another, bigger question: Do people who have words that simply do not translate in another language have access to different concepts?


Different words, different minds?

The existence of a words that convey a particular feeling poses a fundamental question on language–thought relationships. 

Linguistic relativity is the idea that language, which most people agree originates in and expresses human thought, can feedback to thinking, influencing thought in return. So, could different words or different grammatical constructs “shape” thinking differently in speakers of different languages? 

While this is a long debate, Jo Adetunji, Editor at The Conversation UK, believes we need to get closer to the human brain, by measuring perception more directly, preferably within the small fraction of time preceding mental access to language.

But, yes, like it or not, it may well be that having different words means having differently structured minds. But then, given that every mind on earth is unique and distinct, this is not really a game changer.

Read the full article, here.