With a near 7,000 distinct languages, there must be significant difference between one speech pattern and another across the languages. Due to this, language barriers exist, but what causes the need for different words and expressions varies from culture to culture. With the globalization of the world, many languages have adapted to take on ideas from other languages. For example, most English speakers are familiar with the idea of “bon appetit” at this point in time.

However, some languages and cultures have neglected connecting with the larger world and managed to harbor languages with true differences from the outside world. This is beneficial to studying language barriers and, more specifically, Whorf’s ideas of languages as discussed in Language Barriers; Linguistics. In this text, the author discusses isolated languages that have preserved more unique forms of speech.

First, the Dani people of Indonesia are presented as only having words for black and white, however, the people were able to identify other colors. Whorf had asserted that cultures only had words for what they perceived and those words gave way to perception in themselves as well. Still, this was not quite conclusive enough seeing as most people could see colors just fine. What needed to be tested, were abstract concepts.

Moving onward, the article discusses a different people from Brazil known as the Piraha. These people did not have numbers, but rather a system of counting “one”, “a few”, and “many”. The people were questioned and proved to be able to count in clusters, but specificity was a place where they lacked. Numbers may seem like a rudimentary subject, but further analysis shows otherwise.

The Piraha are an isolated group of traders, which meant they did not deal with money, but rather just bunches or singularities of goods. Because they did not need to think in numerical ways, they didn’t produce words for it and therefore lacked abilities that related to the subject. As stated in the article, “While there is no dispute that language influences what people think about, evidence suggesting it determines thought is inconclusive.” This is the beginning of understanding the language barrier.

From these cultures’ perspectives, English has words and ideas that they do not consider. It may seem like a limited occasion, but in truth, most languages have barriers of ideas. Words that other largely spoken languages have without english translations include: 幽玄 (yugen) which is a Japanese word for a sense of profound sense of being and beauty in the universe; toska which is a Russian word for extreme and painful sadness; and compadre/comadre which is the Spanish word for the person who is your child’s godparent.

Although it is easy to say that there is no significance and that we can use a sum of words in one language to make up for the lack of the word, it is more than the expression of an idea. The very presence of a word in a language shows that a culture has valued that idea enough and needed to discuss it enough for there to be a word for it. As an example, comadre or compadre are examples of a really familial culture where every person needs a specific title to remove distance in relationships. Because we do not see the relationship between a parent and their child’s godparent as very important, we don’t have the word. Similarly, 幽玄 and toska were words used because the ideas are important to those cultures.

In all, language barriers exist because of who we are, what we do, and where we came from. It is a summation of experience and thought that has lead to today’s modern languages. Languages grow and change to fit the people that speak them, but there are always remnants of those who spoke them in the past. A language barrier is the difference of ideas based upon necessity.

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February 12, 2018 5:29 am

Hey Jacqueline,
This is a very well written piece and it is an interesting topic. Language barriers are often a nuisance to deal with, but it is amazing to see how influential language is on a person’s culture. Language is a way to get in touch with who we are as a people, and you brought this up when you said that certain languages have specific words that just aren’t used in other cultures because it is not something that all cultures focus on or even acknowledge. I am glad I came across your article because it is a well posed question and got me to think about why some cultures have words for situations or emotions that others do not. I found your article to be very intriguing and hope you continue writing.

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