THE CZECHS HAVE A WORD FOR IT


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that each language conveys a uniquely constituted world-view, breaking experience down in unique ways dictated by its history and circumstances: 'We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organised by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organise it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organisation and classification of data which the agreement decrees.' - Edward Sapir (1884-1936)

So it is, the Welsh have a single word for the blue-green of their sea, the Russians supposedly do not have a word for privacy, the eskimos are famous for having twenty-odd words for snow, and the Fuegians say "mamihlapinatapei", when we say "looking at each other hoping that either will offer to do something which both parties desire but are unwilling to do." These concepts or the lack of them supposedly help or hinder us in recalling and processing information.

"Every language is a vast pattern system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels it's reasoning, and builds the house of consciousness (Whorf, 252).

No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir 1958 [1929], p. 69)

'Human beings [...] are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.'

This is linguistic determinism in its now largely discredited strong form. It is perhaps not an entirely useless fiction, however. Maybe it expresses the linguistic sensibility of those living in a polyglot environment in a form strong enough to impress those entirely lacking this sensibility (monoglots), and it very much accords with the Czech sensibility expressed in the dictum: Kolik jazyk� um�, tolikkrat jsi �lovekem, which suggests that to speak another language, we have to acquire another personality/mindset. So just how different is the Czech world/mindset from the English-speaking one and does one have to go totally schizoid to live in both?

There are indeed many concepts in Czech with English dictionary translations that read like something out of "The Meaning of Liff". Perhaps my method is not the most scientific, but I wonder - if we listed all the Czech words that need a long description in English, and vice versa, what kind of alternative universes would we depict...:)

Anyway, here is a list of my personal favourites:

�ech��eka narrow-minded Czech
�erv�nky red evening clouds
humnathe village backyards
chmuraa black cloud
je�itaa smug vainglorious person (always masculine)
klouza�kaslippy patch on ice-covered ground
knedlikov�rather partial to dumplings
kverulantchronic complainer, a litigious person
n�led�ice-covered ground
narafi�itto fix things up in a clever way
na�stalks and leaves
nedovtipaone who finds it difficult to take a hint
otu�ilecsomeone who does not feel the cold
p�edposr�n�unnecessary self-censorship (vulgar expression lit. preshittedness)
p�esezen�stiff from sitting in the same position too long
smola�a person dogged by bad luck
uhranoutcast the evil eye on somebody
ujecuncle on mother's side
umudrovat seto philosphize oneself into the madhouse
vodn�ka green water-goblin
vybafnoutto jump out and say boo
v�krabekscrapings, an afterthought, (low colloquial) youngest child
v��t seto imagine oneself in somebody else's position
zakecat seto forget something through talking too much
zapa�ovatto stretch your arms backwards

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