Fun With Language

Contemporary Gobal Studies

Fun with Language

From a menu in a Chinese restaurant in Sulawesi, Indonesia. It is an excellent example of how difficult the English language can be and also how much language is connected to the social context of a society. The restaurant propietors, not familiar with American culture, were oblivious to the dramatic affect of their mispelling of the word “crab”.

Language is a fascinating part of culture. There exist some 6000 languages in the world. Language serves as both a primary unifying and divisive factor in human relations (I remember in high school we thought we French students were way cooler than those taking Spanish). It serves as a primary defining characteristic of a culture. In France, it is illegal to publicly display the use of a foreign word if a suitable French word exists to express the same meaning. A sign for your NYC styled restaurant reading “Cafe Central Park” would have the language police all over your derriere. Think how many words and phrases we use that make very little sense outside of the cultural context. A very simple example of this is the phrase “have a ball”. Outside the confines of the culture in which it is understood to mean “enjoy”, the phrase is silly, unless that is you are politely offering someone a ball – then it makes perfect sense. An excellent examples of this was recounted in a documentary about refugees from Sudan getting use to living in the States. When one of the young men boarded a Seattle bus the driver told him “it’s cool” (I forget to what she was referring). He responded very politely that it actually was not cool but quite warm which he found pleasant.

For whatever reason shirts with words or phrases written in a language other than the language of the land are quite popular. It is quite trendy for people in the States to wear shirts with words written using Japanese/Chinese kanji, Japanese hiragana and/or katakana. When asked if they know what their shirt says most say no. The response to the follow up question – then why wear the shirt – is typically “Because it looks cool” (accompanied by a look that says get out of my face and let me get on with my groovy self in my funky foreign language t – shirt). And typically it does look cool but more often than not says something absolutely meaningless. This situation gets quite a bit more interesting when the meaning of a word or phrase is vulgar, offensive, off color, etc.. But keep in mind that often the words of a language are culturally defined. Outside the cultural context they mean nothing. One could write a very offensive word in the language of the Khoisan, and it would mean nothing to the majority of the people in the world. You could repeat the word to your mom, kids at school, boss etc and nothing – blank stares all around. But if a person popped up in the area of Botswana where Khoisan is used and greeted the first person with such a word they would most likely get a bit more than a blank stare.

The following are excellent examples of how much language is connected to the social context of a culture and outside of that context means very little.

“The other day I was at the bowling alley overseeing the afternoon activity period and noticed a fellow with the word “walrus” printed boldly on his shirt. That was it – a green shirt with “walrus” emblazed across his chest. No image, no quirky description just “walrus”.

“At the mall the other day Alicia noticed a young girl, probably in 5th grade or so sporting a shirt with (and I am going to use censors here for those of the social context where this word is culturally quite offensive and certainly not emblazoned across 10 year old girls shirts!) “F……. U” as in “Harvard U” or “Stanford U”

– both described by an American living in Jakarta, Indonesia

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