Unless I’ve miscounted I’ve gone through the alphabet twice and 2009 has graced us with an additional Saturday. As a parting shot to the year that was, here are a few completely random thoughts about language:
For most of my life I’ve heard that Eskimos had anywhere from ten to three-hundred different words for snow. Then someone told me that this is actually a myth. It may be a myth that people who live in the very far North have actual different words for snow, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t have terms for different types of snow. After all ice climbers really do have terms for different types of ice, such as verglas, which is “a thin ice created over rocks during a rainfall or when snow melts freezes on rock.” Since some types of snow and ice are safer for crossing than others it makes sense that people would come up with ways to describe them.
In a previous post I talked about Pizzzza Hut’s ignorance of the Cyrillic alphabet, but I forgot to mention that, when I was in Russia, I went to McDonald’s and had a Big Mac. The Russian word for “big” is больш, or “bolshoi”, which can also mean “beautiful”. You’d think that calling the Big Mac a Больш МаК would be great marketing, but instead they called it a Биг МаК, or “Beeg Mak”. This just seems really sloppy, although the famous Russian ballet company is called the Bolshoi, so maybe McDonald’s actually thought people would confuse burgers with ballet dancers. And it probably makes more sense than calling a Quarter Pounder a Royale with cheese.
A librarian from Kenya once visited the library where I work. Before he got there I did some quick research so that when I was introduced to him I said, “Jambo. Nafurahi kukuona.” That’s “Hello. It’s nice to meet you.” Apparently my pronunciation was pretty good because he immediately started speaking to me in Swahili and I had to explain that I’d just used up my entire vocabulary. Fortunately he was fluent in English, but he appreciated my effort and it helped break the ice.
This experience and similar ones made me realize that, while we might see different languages as barriers to communication they can actually be bridges.