Miguel Ángel Aijón Oliva
But just say the word

Words we might need someday


I need to start using old images of the blog because the Diarium site won’t allow me to upload any new ones. Probably an advancement of the times to come.

Languages have different inventories of words, thus of concepts, as famously illustrated by color term lists across the world. This justifies the pervasive phenomenon of word lending and borrowing. The general notion is that we won’t borrow a word from another language if we don’t need it, but of course we might question what is meant by needing. The constant acquisition of English terms by Spanish is not only due to the technical and scientific advantage of some English-speaking countries over most Spanish-speaking ones. Many borrowings are just apparent – OK, just apparent – equivalents of autochtonous terms, but, ya know, everything sounds kinda cooler in English. So why would anyone want to say comprar when you can say shopping. However, even in this case the notion of necessity somehow looms over – more than a student of mine has pointed out that ir de compras ‘to go and buy’ it’s not really the same as ir de shopping; in the latter case, you’d probably expect to take a walk around some sophisticated apparel boutiques rather than to get your apples and onions at the greengrocer’s. Which calls the very distinction between necessary and unnecessary loans – more technically, that between functional and symbolic ones – into question.

We might then wonder why some concepts are verbalized in some languages, while in others it is necessary to use periphrases and paraphrases to convey a similar meaning. The most evident explanation lies in social and cultural peculiarities, but these are often rather abstract and can be handled at will, making it possible to justify what we are interested in justifying. I won’t mention that old legend about snow-related terms in Eskimo – and saying I won’t mention it only to do it right afterwards is called a preterition. But another well-known example is that of German Schadenfreude, meaning the pleasure found in other’s misfortunes. Of course it is a compound of two pre-existing words, but neologisms are not usually born ex novo. I really don’t understand why the Spanish society, where people often find reassurance in knowing that others are worse-off than themselves – and where economy in language and thought is the supreme law – has never felt the need to introduce such a convenient term. Another case is Hebrew shakulim, denoting the parents who have lost a child, which marks a difference with most Western languages, having words for ‘orphan’ and ‘widow(er)’ but not for this. I guess this has something to do with traditional social and economic considerations – losing a child should not in principle mean for anyone to become underprivileged, as against what could easily happen with orphans and widows.

There are also Spanish terms that have no apparent translation in English and other languages, such as madrugar ‘to get up early’ – culture yet again – and estrenar ‘to use something for the first time’. They would seem to be scarcely useful to speakers of the latter language since, unlike siesta, guerrilla and mosquito, they’ve never been borrowed. This suggests that people always get up early in culturally Anglosaxon societies, thus do not see anything remarkable in it that might justify giving it a specific name – or a verb.

Also, productivity and creativity are manifested through different means in different languages. I was struck when I read something like “the townspeople began to move supperward” in Faulkner’s Light in August. Can you create an adverb in Spanish that means ‘towards supper’? I don’t think so, and it’s just because we lack a productive suffix that can indicate the direction of a movement. In turn, we of course have other resources. Almost any verb can form a compound with its object in the plural form, yielding a new word that will denote ‘someone or something that recurrently does something’. For example, if my neighbor breaks (romper) a window (ventana), I can easily accuse him of being a rompeventanas (a windowbreaker, which I guess is also quite acceptable in English, just as heartbreaker is) and everyone will understand this word even if they’ve never heard it before. So, again, it turns out that a language is basically a way of experiencing the world. No doubt there’ll always be something lost in translation. A definition or description made to explain some foreign concept will never have the suggestive power of the original single word that was created specifically to say that and not something similar to it.



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