||Language is more than words and grammar. Every word is a symbol filled with meaning, often multiple meanings. The meaning of a word as we use it depends on what we are using it for, and even how we say it. Think about saying “That’s nice.” We could mean that something is nice, or we could use the phrase to indicate that something is obviously not nice, but say it in an ordinary tone, or we could say it with a tone of voice that indicates we mean the opposite, or we could say it in a complimentary tone of voice and roll our eyes, give a wink, or make a face indicating that something is not nice.
Meaning is all about agreement and agreement is learned when we are socialized into our culture. This is why it can be very difficult to translate from one language into another. If we do a literal translation of a sentence in English to another language, for example Chinese, what comes out may not say what we mean at all.
Try it for yourself by using the translator at the website below. As you do so notice all the different ways your words can be interpreted and how the different choices change the meaning. You may notice that the more complicated you make a sentence the more possible meanings there are. http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/chindict.php?page=translate
||Safir and Whorf were two students of language (linguists) who came to the conclusion that language shapes the view that people hold of what is and what is not real. People sometimes say “there are no words for it” when they have encountered some experience that they can’t describe. When this happens others struggle to understand the experience a person is trying to describe, perhaps they can, perhaps they can’t, but sharing the reality of such an experience is very difficult. I’ll share a story that may help with this concept:
In parts of New Jersey there is a kind of sand which locals call “sugar sand”. This sand is very fine and powdery, and it is very soft. Sometimes it extends fairly deep into the ground. Usually you can walk on it without problems but heavy vehicles sink in and get stuck.
I called a tow truck to my yard to donate an old car to charity and warned the driver to avoid a patch of yard near the old car because it had sugar sand in it. The driver went over looked at the yard and said “It’s just sand”. “No”, I argued, “that will sink your tow truck.” The driver, who it turned out was from Michigan, had never heard of sugar sand and clearly thought I had no idea what I was talking about, so after much debate he simply hopped into that big tow truck and backed right into the patch of sugar sand. The truck sunk to the top of the tires so he tried to rock his way out and soon he was in to his axles in both wheels. Finally he had to call two huge two trucks to winch him out. The other drivers laughed at him when they arrived, incredulous that this man had knowingly driven into sugar sand. The original driver, very much embarrassed, kept saying that he could not believe what the sand could do even though he’d been told, but now he’d never forget.
The shared meaning of words is much more than just the dictionary definitions.
Another aspect of Safir-Whorf’s hypothesis is that the very organization of language organizes the way in which we approach the issues we face in life, organize our day and interact with others and objects. This is what is meant by “language precedes thought”. In the morning if we are hungry in this country we think “breakfast”, again in this country “breakfast” brings to mind words that describe certain foods, usually eggs, juice, toast, cereal, milk… of course there is a lot of variation. When we think “lunch” we are likely to think soup, sandwiches, etc. Just the association of these objects with the meal name sends us looking for that specific kind of food, without us thinking “what do I really want to eat”, instead the cultural association, the language association, do the thinking for us.
This is the reason that our language is changing the common name for many occupations: policeman becomes police officer; mailman becomes mail carrier; business man becomes business person. Notice that fireman has been fairly resistant to change. The presence of the word man here indicates that occupants of these occupations are male. Of course in today’s world that is not always the case and the use of the male form of the word can undercut the authority of a woman hold the came role. Seems impossible, but in fact it has an effect.