When ideas don’t translate

No matter how many times I tell them, Be it a Murat or a Zeynep or someone named Elif or even a Yiğitcan or two, they refuse to accept it. The Sapir Whorf hypothesis suggests that, to varying degrees, each culture-language allows people to consider, discuss and understand some ideas more and better than others do. In the linguistics of today, the linguistics practiced in departments so named, the hypothesis is dismissed as either untestable or worse, wrong. But the hypothesis holds water, a lot of it. Here is a conversation vaguely related to it.

Afiyet olsun meets internet meme absurdity.
Afiyet olsun meets internet meme absurdity.

Languages have both formulas for communicating ideas and truth values and such, as well as set-phrases for doing much the same. Put another way, in English you can convey how sure you are about something with a little adverb like “certainly” as in: “Certainly a day will come when you will understand the horrors of teachehood.” But you can also say: “As sure as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow, you will one day repent for having touched my Batman action figure.” In the first, the adverb “certainly” allows the listener to infer that the speaker truly believes that such a day will come. In the second example, the same is true, but by use of a comparative sentence similar to /a is as true as b/. These phrases are very englishy, especially the adverbial one. But they are also very indo-European-y, as they are easily translated using nearly identical (often cognate) language structures and words. In English it is the case that the certainty with which a speaker makes some assertion is important and by consequence English has formidable number of adverbial evidentiality markers (adverbs which relate how sure the speaker is about something). The preceding was meant to let the reader know that there some things that are important in English.

I remember reading the article where I learned about the number of adverbial evidentiality markers. But I remember much more viscerally my early days of Turkish learning. I wanted to convert how sure I was of what I was saying, using adverbs, but not only did I not know their Turkish counterparts, but as it turns out, they are few and far between in Turkish. For sure, evidentiality is important to Turkish speakers, but it is both conveyed differently (think endless numbers of postpositions), and also sometimes it is not as important as other things. Continue reading “When ideas don’t translate”


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