Dividing up the world

Jun 14, 2010 by

In the last posting we touched on a very important topic: lexical divergencies between languages. When it comes to languages learning or translation, people often think that words (for the most part) match up in meaning across languages, even if the sound associated with a given meaning differs from language to language. So ‘tree’ is /tri:/ in English (the same sound is associated with the meaning ‘three’ in Russian), /arbr/ in French, /’derevo/ in Russian and so on. But the concept of ‘tree’ is the same across languages, right? Then why are there two different words for ‘tree’ in, for example, Hebrew: ets and ilan? As it turns out, examples such as tree vs. ets/ilan or leg/foot vs. pied (see last posting) are more of a rule than an exception.

And such divergencies are common not just in rare or specialist vocabulary, but with common words as well. To continue with our leg/foot example, while some languages such as English or French distinguish between the part of the lower limb that extends from the groin to the ankle and the part below the ankle (English: leg vs. foot; French: jambe vs. pied), many other languages make no such distinction. Thus, no matter which part of the lower limb you injure, you will still tell your Russian-speaking doctor that you hurt your noga, and similarly your Hebrew-speaking doctor will hear your complaints about your regel. That does not mean that you cannot specify more precisely which part of the leg you injured, but you won’t be using one monomorphemic word to do so. By the way, the same split is observed with upper limbs: English arm vs. hand; French: bras vs. main; Russian ruka; Hebrew yad. Also, while English distinguishes fingers from toes, Russian uses the same word for both: pal’tsy (English literal translations of this word would have to be digits, but pal’tsy and digits are by no means parallel in terms of their distribution, frequency or age of acquisition by children).

Other famous examples where one language has two words and another language — just one include the English house and home, both of which translate into Russian as dom and Hebrew as bayit; and the English chair and stool, both of which translate into German as Stuhl.

But it is not true that English always has more words than other languages. Thus, where English has just one word river, French has two: fleuve and rivière. The difference is in whether the river flows into a sea or into another river. For example, in English we would say that the French city of Lyon features two rivers, while the French would describe the Saône as une rivière and the Rhône as un fleuve. Note that the English tributary is not parallel to the French rivière in terms of their distribution, frequency or age of acquisition by children.

Two areas of basic vocabulary particularly prone to such lexical divergencies are kinship terms (words denoting relatives) and color terms — we will discuss them in future postings.

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