Sounds and Meaning – Part 4: The molecules of language
Have you ever noticed similarities between languages that are said to belong to different “families”? Why do the pairs “wick-wicked” (English) and “mèche – méchant” (French) have four different historical roots, yet they all share an underlying meaning, “twisted”? Why do “mère” (French) and “mare” (English) sound similarly, and “ma” (Chinese) can mean both “mother” and “horse”? Is it all just pure coincidence? There may be an explanation for these and many other oddities!
Abraham A. Abehsera, “Babel, the Language of the 21st Century”, 1991.
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Hello, and welcome to Language with Chu. This is a series of videos on sounds and meaning. If you haven’t watched the first ones, I recommend that you do so, because this is part four, so I’ve already talked about the other theories and why I’m talking about this. So, please check the videos above if you haven’t, and then resume watching this one.
Here we come to my favorite of the three, even though I’m really, really partial to the phonosemantics one too, which I talked about on part two. This one by Abraham Abehsera is a fabulous book. In fact, I think everybody should read it, just out of curiosity if you like languages, because it gives you a new way of looking at them.
His idea is that, because we don’t have any records… Usually you see trees like these, right? And you say, okay, well, it must be proven, right? That Latin leads to Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc. Germanic. Blah blah. blah. And you take it as a given that that’s it. But we forget that a lot of this is guessing, pure, pure guesswork. There’s no proof, there’s proof sometimes when it comes to the same language and how it evolved or changed. In my opinion, it doesn’t “evolve”, really, but it changes. But there’s very little proof of how one led to the other. Again, that’s a topic for another video.
But what Abraham Abehsera says is that nobody asks some really simple questions. For example, what happened at the beginning that led to language? Did the language capacity grow, develop on its own and people didn’t have language but were capable of it? The same with mathematics, for example. Or did all come about at the same time? What were the first words, and how were they chosen? You know, who chose the first sounds? Who chose the first words? Who chose what to name? Then, according to which law? How did they come up with the system? And more so when you start thinking about the structure of a language.
In another series of videos, I’m going to talk about these questions more in depth, and the different schools of thoughts, and the different theories, from creationism to Darwinism. And you’ll see what a mess it is, actually. These questions aren’t answered, and are not likely to be anytime soon.
But anyway, back to his work he asks, why did cousin languages adopt different sounds for the same concept? Horse, cheval, caballo, etc. That’s just for the word horse, even though they are cousin indo-European languages, they each chose different sounds. Maybe an explanation is what I just told you on part two about phonosemantics, maybe not. Maybe there’s something else that binds words together and makes each people choose different essences of things to name them.
Then, why does each word have a certain sound, certain combination of sounds, instead of others? Why did English speakers decide to call an apple an apple and not a carrot? Nobody knows. And finally, why do cousin languages choose the same sounds for different meanings? Like appel is to call in French, and apple, you know what it is in English. Gateau is a cake in French, and gato in Spanish is a cat. So the same combinations of sounds, consonants in particular, but different meanings. It’s kind of strange, right? They could all have picked the same. Why not?
Well what’s sure is that arbitrary consensus doesn’t explain. This decision that was just collective, and you know, a little group of people started deciding, and they came up with a word and said, okay, let’s name an apple and apple. It doesn’t explain it. Why not? Because there are too many parallels in all the world languages, not just within the same families.
So let’s look at that a little bit more closely:
He talks about how universal language ignores time. Basically, what he calls “universal language” is what you can perceive if you study different words from different languages, as I’m going to do in a minute. You’ll see that there’s something that almost tells you that people back then, were a lot more right-brained. You know, the right brain is the one that sees the whole, the essence, the global meaning of things, while the left brain is more logical, it’s analytical, it’s the one where supposedly language is more centered nowadays. But perhaps people in the past had more of an ability to think with their right brain, and imagine things, and perceive the essence of things. Why not? He’s not the only one to say it, actually, there are several references I could give you about it. And I think it’s quite convincing, actually, when you think about how words came to be…
This is just my analogy of it. It’s funny because, in a sense, this is the elephant in the room in Linguistics too. Nobody wants to talk about these topics, as I said on part one. But, you know the story of the blind men: Each blind man is touching a part of the elephant, and nobody can figure out what it is. So this one will guess he’s touching a rope, the other one a tree, the other one a wall, etc. And the idea is that all of us together can see much more reality than each of us alone.
Well, extrapolate that to languages, and what he’s saying is that… Imagine this was the word for tree in English, in Spanish, in Hebrew, and Chinese, etc, etc. And each one of them conveyed a little bit of that “essence” of the word. And when you combine them together, when you see them together, that’s when you get a real idea of what a word means. It’s kind of an interesting concept. If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, you notice that there are subtleties, words that are so simple… Like cabbage: you know, in Spanish or in English cabbage is a cabbage, right? You don’t think of many analogies or things to say about it. Well, in French, if you call somebody “my cabbage”, it’s an endearing term. So cabbage has another connotation there, of something endearing, cute, whatever. The same happens with almost every word, I would say, even though there are “exact translations”. There’s always a subtlety that you perceive when you learn a foreign language that wasn’t there in your mother tongue. So he could be onto something by explaining this is a sort of a molecule.
And let me explain to you how he came up with this way of viewing words:
He says there should be two dictionaries: one dictionary for synonyms, so words that mean something similar or the same in all languages combined, and another one for homonyms, taking words that sound the same. And he would have two dictionaries and combine them both. So you start off with what he calls the “square unit” which is… You try to look between languages or the same language for synonyms: two words that mean something similar, and put them in the Y-axis. And on the X-axis, you look for homonyms, words that sound the same, share the same sounds. And he focuses on consonants, but I think vowels would apply too, except they’re a little more flexible, they change more with time or across dialects, and things like that. So he focused on consonants.
But let’s take an example: You have the word mèche, which means wick in French. So mèche/wick. Totally different sounds, but they have the same meaning. Then you look for two words: one that will have the /m/ and the /sh/ sound in French as well, and mean something different, and with /w/ and /k/ in English that would mean something similar here. So you have to find similar sound here, similar meaning here. And we got a pair: méchant and wicked, so something about an evil person. And he says, for each pair that you find like this, in the six or seven thousand languages of the world, you may find five, ten, sometimes three, or whatever. And what is interesting about these is that, if you were to look as normal linguists or, in general, people look at them, you would find that these words were not related at all. They have different roots. All of them have different roots. And they tell you, okay, it comes from old Germanic, it comes from whatever, Gaelic, Proto-Indoeuropean (they make up the words for Proto-Indoeuropean) and Proto-Germanic… “Proto” =old, imagined (no traces), and then you come up with these words. So notice, the roots are different. They shouldn’t be related if there’s nothing in common, right? Yet, you find out that there’s something that binds them. It’s almost like gravity. Can you guess what that is? What do these words share? It’s the idea of a torsion. A person who is wicked is twisted, just like the wick is, right? And you’re like, okay, that’s interesting! It’s almost like a like a force field that binds these four words together, even though they didn’t have the same roots.
Now, if you saw just one example, you may say, well, maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe they got the roots wrong, whatever. But let’s expand this example, and do what he did to find these “molecules of language”, the elephant.
You take any two concepts, like mother/wife/woman and horse. And you look for two homonyms: bride in English and bride in French, which means “bridle”. Okay, so there is a connection between words that have to do with “horse”, and words that have to do with “mother”. Do we stop here? Maybe not, because when you have the word married in English you also have a word for female horse in English which is mare. Interesting, so even within English, you have married and mare /m-r/, /m-r/. And the meaning stays. So purple is anything that has to do with “horse”, and green anything that has to do with the “wife/woman”.
Then, we keep going, and lo and behold… here it’s not even cousin languages: Mande is from Africa it’s a language in Africa, or languages in Africa. And the word for “horse” is weefo, and the word for “horses” is wed, like “she wed somebody”. So you still keep finding this among languages that are not related, not from the same family, and so on and so forth. You have in Danish kone, “wife”, and in Russian the word for “horse”, конь. Аgain, then you have in Мandarin… Аnd here I added them for the sounds, because this one is 妈(ma1) and this one is 马(ma3). So they do share the sounds, but you see also that they share part of the character: this is a character for woman, and this is the character for horse, which you see here. So it´s interesting, the ways in which you write can also have these square units.
Okay, so then, you take two more concepts, and you take the “horse” that you had before, and you add the “sea”, and we find that mare in Italian and mare in English have the same sounds, mare is a pond in French, and mare again in English. Then you have aqua, water in Latin or Italian, and in Latin you have equus (like in equestrian) for horse. So you start seeing how the “horse” is related to the “mother”, and to the “sea”. And the rule he came up with is that, if (A) the mother is linked to (B) the horse, and (B) the horse is linked to (C) the water, then the (A) mother will also be linked to (C) the water. Well, is it possible? Do we find it in any languages of the world? Oh yeah, for sure. We have mer in French, and mère (different spelling, but the same sounds) for “mother”. You have 海 (hai3) in Chinese, and you have 母(mu3) in Chinese as well. Here the sounds are not the same, but I put the example so that you can see, again, that it has to do with the ideogram, the way it’s written.
So here we start seeing that there’s a connection. And you could say, well what’s the relationship? Imagine that you were one of our ancestors, you know a primitive man. This is 10.000 BC. Why would you be linking the wife with the horse, or you know, anything like that. Well in archetypes, or in general psychology, people compare women with wild emotions, like horses. Women, high in emotion, water, horses etc. That could be one link. The other one is that they are both carriers: the horse is used for carrying, traditionally, and the wife, the mother, carries a baby, right? And the sea could be the “sea” where the baby grows, the placenta. There are all kinds of analogies you could find for why these words are related, and how they reflect some kind of ancestral view of the world.
You can keep going on and on. Here are some examples: I let you read them, but basically it’s the idea that something “ripens” within the mother, like the baby. There’s a wall: in fact, the French word for pregnant and a wall, an enclosure, is the same. So there’s the idea that something increases in size, is broad, or is ripe, or is like a wall. So all these are sort of analogies for birth or pregnancy, and it’s fascinating. I really don’t want to bother you with so many details, but the book goes on and on and on, and it builds from these, until you get a story, which is almost like what you see in dreams. It’s a different kind of language, it´s symbolic. And it could explain, at least in part, why so many words that are supposedly not related (like in Chinese and English) have similarities.
And nobody in Linguistics has explained that. Nobody… they just don’t know. They just say that it’s random, it’s arbitrary, etc. But there are just too many coincidences, over and over when you look at them, to think that it’s just a pure coincidence.
So to me, it’s starting to look that there is a subconscious language that we carry around. It’s almost like a universal fabric, something that binds all languages together. There are “language universals”, which I’ll talk about in the future, but they’re very few and far in between. And the sounds seem to be more universal than we think. And as I said before, different aspects of reality could be scattered perhaps throughout all the languages, and that could be the “confusion of tongues”, finally. Because each culture picks different types of traits of an object, of an entity, or of a feeling even, to describe, they choose specific sounds, and they kind of omit part of the elephant, of what the meaning of the word is.
And maybe it’s like (this is just a bunch of proteins, for example)… and you see, imagine that the word apple was here, and each of these little strings are the word apple in a different language. And then you combine it with a mother,horse, blah blah blah, and you end up with something that actually describes reality. It describes what it is to be human, it describes why languages are the way they are, instead of it being, oh well, these strings just happen to be there because of whatever, or it was random, maybe they are all interconnected. And we could find out, if people were really dedicated to doing so. So far, I haven’t seen many linguists who are interested in this, because it’s not materialistic enough. You have to think a little bit out outside the box, and ask questions that are a little bit uncomfortable in the field of academia, which I’ll talk about later.
But to wrap up with what Abraham Abehsera says in this book, he talks about two sorts of forces: creation on one side, so how words were created (but he talks about it more in terms of creationism, so god inventing the word and languages, and I’ll get into these two opposites in future, in a future series). But basically on the other hand, you have that languages evolve (change, in my opinion). It’s etymology, the study of the history of words. For me it’s more like the information field that is represented in these sounds that are the same. And they both work together. So you start with different roots, and they all diverge (repulsion) and form different words. Those are historical changes, those are more conventional, they’re decided by people, say. And on the other hand, you have a law of attraction that kind of pulls words together to sound the same, just like we saw with the examples before: wicked and wick, mèche and méchant, that actually makes them sound the same, as if there was a glue that binds them, something that attracts them together with time. And the reason why people choose similar sounds to depict similar concepts… And that says something about much, much further in the past, and a different way of viewing reality. A bit like Socrates, like I explained in the previous videos, where he talked about the words carrying the “essence” of things. So, on the one hand you have the etymology, the roots of a word, and how they spread, and on the other one, you have the words that want to sound the same and group together, and maybe that’s why you have different families of languages that end up having similar sounding words.
So that’s it for theory number three, that’s just the main theory. So, phonosemantics, then what Carme Huertas did with the toponyms (names of places), and now what Abraham Abehsera did in the book Babel. I hope that you’re starting to get curious about language and sounds. Personally, I find it fascinating, and I think it should be studied more thoroughly. But unfortunately, so far it doesn’t look like it, because it’s not in line with most of the Academia says and thinks about language, especially when you get into Chomskian linguistics, which I’ll talk about in the future. So, I’ll leave it at that, and make sure to tune in again for the last part.
Sounds and Meaning: Part 3 – Each syllable has meaning!
In this part, I introduce another path towards finding the hidden meaning behind sounds and the words they form. As sneaky as ever, this time they are hiding in plain sight, in each syllable or sound of names of places, and common names.
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Carmen Jimenez Huertas, No venimos del latin: Edición revisada y ampliada (2015)
In english: Romance Did Not Begin in Rome: A critique of the Latin origin of Romance languages (2018)
Hello and welcome to Language with Chu. This is part three of the series on sound and complexity, or sounds and meaning. If you haven’t watched the previous two parts, I recommend that you do that because I’m following up on that. Click right here and you’ll see them, and I’ll leave the links at the bottom as well.
So let’s go back to how to find meaning in sounds. This one is another book. It’s in Spanish, but you can find it in English. I believe the title is “Romance didn’t start with Latin” or something like [see references] that. Just look for the author and you’ll find it. That’s another topic for another video on how or why she thinks, and is very convincing about, the fact that Latin is not the mother of romance languages.
But what I want to pick from this book in relationship to sounds is that she quotes philologists and linguists who have taken names of places. Names of places are usually the ones we assume are the most arbitrary, or maybe they have a historical trace somewhere, but we don’t think that Paris means anything or London, right? Usually you just take it as a proper name, and that’s it.
Well, what these people did was divide the different names of places, which you see in this column, and again, they don’t mean anything in theory. And then, they took a syllable that they had in common. And they looked at the landscape, and by looking at the landscape, they saw that, say, for example, these places [with “ba”] all have to do with water. Then, the “ka” places had to do with rock, /k/. Okay, so could that be… could that relate to some actual words? Yeah, in Spanish, roca, coral, calcio, etc. Those have to do with stone, something rigid. And the towns that are full of stone, or coral, or whatever, have the /k/, /ka/ sound, etc. And these are thousands of words that then gave each of these particles a meaning.
So then, what happens when you go, for example, and take a simple name? This is a town next to Barcelona, and if you go by the general assumption you say, okay, it either has to do with “Valerius”, some kind of Roman person, a general, whatever, that went to that town, or with valerian root. Except [there is no famous Valerius recorded in that town, and] valerian root wouldn’t show up throughout the whole year, so there would be times when the landscape was bare. That wouldn’t serve as a landmark or anything. So then, if you use the particles that I just told you about, and combine their meaning, it becomes a lot more interesting. A name that seemed complete completely arbitrary or random, or maybe historical or whatever, ends up being all these meanings that you can see here. And the town just happens to be in a big valley, and it’s the union, the confluence of several rivers, it’s surrounded by water, is big, etc. So, it’s a bit of a coincidence when you see so many patterns like this all over and over.
And even simple words. For example, she talks about the word “calabaza”. In Spanish, it means “pumpkin”, and when you break it into these particles, you end up with something that says “hard water container”. And that’s the use of pumpkin in many Spanish-speaking countries. Actually, traditionally in many countries it was used as a water container. You dry the pumpkin, and use it as a water container, still today. So a word that sounds completely random (nobody knows where it comes from) becomes something that, chunk by chunk, has meaning.
Another example is the word slave, which supposedly, comes from Latin slavus, except that in Latin, “slave” was servus, not slavus. So that’s already kind of iffy. And then, somehow this /k/ sound appears because all the Latin languages share it, and even German. They all have that /k/ sound added to the words esclavo, esclave, etc. If you use the particles, the same kind of particles, you end up with these four, and each one means: “es” is usually associated with words that have to do with “used to be”, “ex” like as an ex-minister. Then “c”, living being or human being. “La”, related to, and like we saw here the “ll”, union, meeting, it’s something that relates things, links things. And then, here in “vo” you have free and unbound. So, if you combine them together, you get something along these lines: “Used to be free human”. Well, what’s a better name for a slave than “used to be a free human”? You see? So, even these particles could actually have a lot of meaning.
The author speculates that it could be that all their romance languages, and others, shared a common ancestor which that was an agglutinative language. That means, it’s a language that collects all these little chunks that you see in the screen, for example, and all these chunks have meaning, and it glues them together, just to simplify what that type of language is. I don’t know if it’s that, it could be. It could be that languages in the past used to all be agglutinative, but I tend to think that it’s not so much the structure, the type of language they were, as it was this knowing what sounds conveyed, or choosing sounds for what they conveyed. So, so far we’ve seen two theories: phonosemantics by Margaret Magnus, and this one from Carme Huertas. And I’m moving on to the third one, so stay tuned for part four. See you in a bit.
Sounds and Meaning – Part 2: Phonosemantics
If you are crazy enough to work on the entire dictionary of a specific language, and group words according to which sounds they have, and what pieces of meaning they share, see what happens! Suddenly all sounds carry certain meanings, and if you replace them, the meaning changes! I bet you never noticed it before. And it’s not just a “mere coincidence” when thousands of words, and their corresponding sounds show the same patterns.
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– Margaret Magnus, “Gods of the Word: Archetypes in the Consonants” (1999)
– Margaret Magnus’ website
– Her dissertation
– Also in this series: Sounds and Meaning: Part 1 – Introduction
Hello, and welcome to Language with Chu. I hope you watched the first part of this presentation. Please click above and watch that first, because it will give you the content of what I’m talking about. But let’s move on. I’m going to start by telling you about one of the theories that talks about sounds and meaning:
It is the work of Margaret Magnus. And it’s not just this book. There’s actually her thesis, there are more writings by her. I personally find her excellent. She’s made me think a lot about words and what they really mean, and sounds. But let me give you a brief explanation of what she talks about:
She called it Phonosemantics, so “meaning of sounds”. And in her hypothesis, she says that “in every language of the world, every word containing a given phoneme (sound) has some specific element of meaning, which is lacking in words not containing that phoneme. Each phoneme is meaning bearing”. So what that means is that (I’ll show you in a in a second with an example) each sound, say /a/… whatever, has a meaning, an intrinsic meaning. And that is what she calls the “phonesteme”. So that would be the smallest chunk of meaning in language, not the phonemes. Meaning you, have to break it down on two things: meaning is the reference, like I showed in my earlier video about the tree. It’s just the meaning of the word. But there could also be inherent meaning, which are traits that are like the essence of a thing it’s not the thing itself. If I ask you to describe something like, I don’t know, a bomb, say, you would say, well, it’s explosive, it’s hard, it’s, you know, it has something… it’s enclosed, you know, all those things… all those characteristics of a definition, those would be inherent meaning that are carried sometimes or very, very often by the phonemes themselves, by the sounds themselves.
I’ll give you a quick example: you have words with /str/ in English, right? “srt”. And they all mean something linear, like a line, a string, a strip, a stripe, a street. That’s curious, because when you look at each of these words, they all have different roots according to the standard etymological explanation. And then you have words with /ap/, and they happen to have some quality that tells you they are flat things: cap, flap, lap, map. Okay, what happens if you combine the two? What word do you get? Strap. And what is a strap? It’s a flat line, basically, it’s a band.
Okay so, these things, when looking at the roots of the words, will not be grouped together at all. And Margaret Magnus did 14 different kinds of experiments, I believe, in which, from different angles and in different kinds of groupings, she found out for the entire English dictionary (and she did a bit on Norwegian and Russian too) that you end up with something that looks like this:
For the sound /b/ she grouped words. Every word that didn’t have prefixes and suffixes, just the main core of the word without affixes, if you want.
She grouped them and she said, okay, some of them have to do with explosions, some of them have to do with badness… What’s the quality that these words share in common? And she ended up with this kind of grouping, where all the words that start with /b/ will have one of these characteristics.
And if you change it for a /d/, the characteristics will change.
Sometimes some of them will be shared, so you’ll have these four for /d/ as well, but they’ll have a subtle difference. Now I don’t have to time to explain all the experiments she did, but it’s really fascinating when you see the words grouped together. Then she explains that each language will choose to group these essences a little bit differently, and that would explain why we don’t use the same words in every language. So Russian, for example, (this is not the actual analysis, it’s just for a visual representation)… Russian would use words starting with /b/ to also represent big and bulging things, or fire or light, but for badness they chose, I don’t know, the /g/ sound. Norwegian would have done the same with another group of words, etc.
Each sound will have been divided like that, and then it gets fascinating, because she starts combining those sounds saying, well, what happens if you put the /b/ and then follow that with an /r/? Or what happens if you have /g/ alone and /g/ and /l/, etc?
And she ends up with all kinds of fascinating combinations that tell you, wait a minute, there’s something about sounds! Of course, the /b/ doesn’t have a meaning in itself but it could convey in one word all these little traits of an object. So keep that in mind for the next one, which is yet another theory of how to find meaning in sounds. Stay tuned, see you next time!
Sounds and Meaning – Part 1: Introduction
Do sounds have meaning? A question ignored for centuries could hold the key to understanding how language emerged, and what it is. In this first part, Juliana introduces you to a few misconceptions in Linguistics, and the idea that maybe, just maybe… sounds may carry in them the essence of the entities they describe.
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– Ferdinand de Saussure, “Cours de Linguistique Générale” (1916)
– Plato, Cratylus (ca. 390 BC)
– Edward Sapir on sounds and meaning (1930)
Hello and welcome to Language with Chu. It’s been a while and I’ve been doing quite a bit of research, and I recently gave a talk at a polyglot gathering about the topic that I’m about to tell you about. I had to shorten it so much because I only had half an hour to talk about it, so if you were at the Polyglot Gathering 2021, you might have already seen the gist of it. But this series of videos will expand on that. If you weren’t there, then it may all be new, or you may already have some ideas.
But it’s something that, I should tell you straight away, you won’t find in Linguistics books. You won’t even find it when you’re talking with friends about language really, or in any kind of mainstream book about language. It’s kind of specific and it took me a while to find it, actually. You have to pick at different clues.
But basically, it’s about the question, “Could sounds have meaning?”. Normally (and I’ll start with my slideshow in a minute) you don’t think that the letter “t” or the vowel “e” have any intrinsic meaning, right? What does “e” mean? Well, nothing, right? Well, maybe nowadays we don’t see it like that, but perhaps they used to have a meaning…
In fact, Socrates (so we’re talking about Plato’s writings, this one was from like 390 BC)… There’s a really nifty text called “Cratylus” where he talks to… Socrates talks to two philosophers, and they’re arguing about whether language is purely arbitrary, a convention, or whether the act of naming things has something to do with reality. So, do sounds convey something? And he puts it beautifully. He says, “well, I think that our ancestors created names, started naming things, created language, because they were perceiving the essence of things”, just as a painter is looking at a landscape, say, and he or she will choose the colors and materials and textures to portray what he or she is seeing. And it’s a way to “signify”, to represent what he sees about reality. Obviously, the portrait or the drawing is not the object itself, but it tries to catch the essence of what the object is. And Socrates says that, basically, language could be a bit like that. That originally, people chose certain vowels or certain consonants because they showed the essence. Something softer may have one consonant, something rough may have another one, etc.
Well, it sounds kind of crazy but I’m finding more and more that there may maybe some clues there. So let’s begin by looking at this diagram:
It’s very simple. That’s how usually Linguistics sees the word. Ferdinand de Saussure is a linguist from Geneva. He was writing this in 1916, I believe. And he’s one of the fathers of Linguistics. I myself studied his theory when I was at university. And one of the things he says, is that for every word, every “sign”, you have the “signifier”, which is the word, the characters, letters and sounds that you pick to depict that object. And then you have the “signified”, which is the actual concept or object. So, I think of a tree, and I say “tree” in English, but not in Spanish. In Spanish it is “árbol”. So each language would have chosen specific sounds to depict an object, right? So far, so good, and nobody really splits it up. Nobody, as I said, tries to figure out the meaning of the /t/, the /r/, etc. So, usually we leave it at that. [And it’s all supposedly arbitrary, a convention.]
But in fact, when you think about nature, there’s something very interesting:
Why would we see that 26 to 100 atoms (depending on who you ask) form all matter in the universe, and 20 amino acids only form life of all kinds, from a plant to a human being…? And then in languages, we also have that for each language, there are about 20 consonants and 5 vowels (in average, of course). So each one of them goes on to form bigger organisms. From the atom, you get molecules; from the amino acids, you get proteins, which then compose cells and the bodies and every organism in existence; and then from languages, you start off with those little pieces (letters and sounds) and you end up with entire languages, spoken and written.
So there’s some kind of parallel there, even though I’m obviously oversimplifying things, and it’s not necessarily exactly the same. But we could find more comparisons just by remembering that sounds are the smallest “molecule of language”, say, and they usually kind of get ignored.
When you study Linguistics, usually you break down the subjects into these six disciplines:
You have Phonetics, which is all the sounds in the world, the human sounds. And you study a bit about how humans are made to pronounce sounds, etc. Then you have Phonology, which is actually the study of “phonemes”, the tiny sounds that each language chooses. I explained that in a previous video when I was talking about sounds and the importance of learning them for when you learn a foreign language. And according to Phonology, usually phonemes are defined as the smallest unit of meaning in language, except that it’s not really meaning. It’s only because when you change a phoneme (so, one sound)… If I tell you “pet” and “pat”, I just changed the vowel, and yet, the meaning of the word changed. In that sense, they’re “the smallest unit of meaning”. They just change the meaning of a word as a whole. But I think you’re going to see in a minute that we can go deeper than that.
Then, there’s Morphology, which is how words are put together, how they are composed. A “morpheme” is also a chunk of meaning. So, usually you divide it into roots and other morphemes. Like, “possible” with the root “poss”, and then, “im-poss-ible”. “Im” would be a morpheme for negation, “ble” for “able”, etc.
Then you have Syntax. Everybody knows what syntax is, I think. It’s just the word order in a sentence. And then you have Semantics, so the meaning of phrases and sentences just as you read them or hear them. And then, Pragmatics is the language in context: just because you see a question, is it really a question, or is it an order? If somebody says “How happy to see you!”, does it really mean that, or are they being ironic? Etc. All that is Pragmatics.
I’m really simplifying the field of Linguistics, yes, but it’s just to get to this: Usually, you see the first four as the “form”, so anything that is the structure of the language. Then you have Semantics, the only part that deals with content, with meaning. And Pragmatics is, as I said, language in use, in context.
Well, I would argue that, actually, there’s a lot more content that gets ignored, a lot more meaning that is inside sounds. Sounds, and morphemes, because morphemes, the chunks of words, are composed of sounds too. And syntax too, because the way you structure a sentence can also change meaning.
So then, can sounds, the phonemes of each language, have meaning? I think they do. One of the famous experiments with this was done by an excellent linguist, Edward Sapir, in 1930. This is after centuries of ignoring the topic. Most linguists (I’ll talk about it in another series of videos to show you the progression of these thoughts) ignored the idea that any sound could have meaning. But Edward Sapir did a very, very easy experiment with hundreds of people:
He told them: “In a strange land, the words mil and mal mean ‘table’. Could you tell me which one is the big table, and which one means a small table?” Can you guess? Most people guessed, as you probably did, that mal was the big table.
Okay, no big deal. Maybe that’s a coincidence, right? Then, there’s another experiment (there are many like that): I’m showing you two words: takete and maluma. They’re both shapes, and one of them is spiky, and the other one is a rounded shape. Which one would you say is which? You probably guessed right again, or rather not right, but you guessed like the majority of the people. And you figured out that takete was the spiky one and maluma was the rounded one.
Well, if sounds didn’t have any meaning, then it’s a bit strange that you find these things universally agreed upon when in theory these words are random. I could have said the opposite, yet 90% of the people are choosing the same one. So, why? Well, maybe you could say “Oh, it’s because the /a/ is a big sound in your mouth, “aaa”. Therefore you associate it with a big table”. Yes, but the /a/ was here too, see? In takete. So it’s not quite as clear-cut. And /m/ and /l/ are more rounded, they have a rounded feel to them. Yeah, okay, maybe.
Maybe that’s why, but that’s it for now. I’m going to show you studies which I find fascinating, and which actually give you more concrete clues about why Socrates may not have been wrong, and sounds convey the essence of the object. So stay tuned! There’s going to be three different theories or three different works that I’d like to share with you, because they’re very little known, and I think that you’re going to find them fascinating to start exploring this topic. So, see you later for more.
What is a good translation?
What is a good translation? At LingMost we make sure to provide the best quality!
In this two-part video, Juliana Barembuem, our Team manager, describes two different theories about translations (contrastive vs. interpretive), and why one is better than the other. It is addressed to translators, but also to anyone interested in languages.
No more boring translations, no more translations that read as if they had been done by an automatic translator. No more struggling with finding exact “linguistic correspondences” while forgetting that what matters is the message conveyed by the author. If you aren’t yet familiarized with the interpretive method, give it a try! It is more fun, it takes less time, and you will be happy about the results.
Durieux, Christine – “¿Qué es una buena traducción?”, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 1987.
Durieux, Christine – Fondement didactique de la traduction technique, Didier Erudition, Paris, 1988.
And about Danika Seleskovitch, who developed the Interpretive Theory of Translation:
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