LANGUAGE QUIRKS

Hanna Karnei - Ecuador


May 9, 2017

The other day Benoit and I in a fit of nostalgia for our mother tongues were talking about French, Russian and Belarusian (in my country we speak both) — what these languages do well and where they fail to communicate what we think. We went on sharing our likes and dislikes about their structure, explaining the meaning of proverbs (I learned that French sayings are majestically euphonious), and remembering the words that don’t have equivalents in English. That conversation made me want to look for quirks in the languages and explore them better, so here are a few insights I gained from taking some time to think what’s special about the languages I speak.

The first thing that comes to mind is that the nature of English tends to make communication between two people quite informal. For example, personal pronoun ‘you’ is to be used when talking to your friend, as well as to your boss. If the language shapes the culture, then English is structured the way in which the hierarchy is not such a relevant concept as in many other languages, and so rank and authority don’t affect communication as much. I always come back to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers where he writes about Korean pilots who began speaking exclusively in English at work after a series of plane crashes in 80s and 90s. They were commonly attributed to communication in the Korean language which reflects ‘high power-distance’ culture — the authority, in this case the captain, is respected and it’s hard to challenge him if he does something wrong. I can hardly imagine this happening in the context of the English language.

I personally like English for its reliability. The communication is straightforward, the sentences in written form are short, and double meaning isn't as common as in Russian. Again, compared to my mother tongues, it goes hand in hand with an ever progressing world –it’s easier for me to, say, write an essay in English when it comes to talking about social issues, technology or education because there is a good vocabulary to do so.

This year, constantly switching from Spanish to English to Russian and Belarusian, I kept stumbling on solid untranslatable words I wish existed in English. It may be tough to put a finger on such word as faltar which can be literally translated into ‘to be lacked’ or ‘to be missed’ with the exception that in Spanish it can be used to say, for example, Me falta (I miss) a dress to go to the party’, as well as ‘Nos faltan (We need) two dollars to be able to pay for the tickets.’


Падарыць (padaryc) is a concise word for ‘to give as a gift’ in Belarusian. And I hope one day English will have its own ‘Bon appetite.’ But I also have a few favorite and really useful English words that have no exact translation into my native languages — awkward, challenge, open-minded, embarrassing, stuff, and experience.

I think Spanish is the language of verbs which took over the role of adjectives to explain the mood and capture human idiosyncrasies. Like, there is the difference between levantar and madrugar. The first word means to get up, while the second – to get up very early. My host mom liked to joke that I never madrugar because there is no such word in Russian or English and hence I don’t understand this concept. Or my favorite word – aprovechar, which can be translated as ‘to take advantage of’, albeit the English version isn't charged with the same intentionality. When somebody told me to aprovechar my time in Ecuador, they meant to enjoy every moment of it so I could leave with no regret. Another example — in Spanish they say tener ganas. It means to really want, have a strong desire for or to be in the mood to do something. It would be cool if in English we could say ‘I don’t have any ganas to go out tonight.’

Interestingly enough, it’s not as easy to come up with examples and analyze my mother tongues the way I do Spanish and English. My guess is because I speak Russian and Belarusian automatically, I’ve become short-sighted about their strengths and weaknesses. I always thought of the Russian and Belarusian languages to be poetic, with all their adjectives and synonyms and various literary devices, but maybe I only think so since reading literature in both of them from a young age allowed me to grasp properties of the languages only a fluent speaker can recognize.

This year has only proved to me that languages we speak shape the way we act and express ourselves. Like never before did I feel in Ecuador the impact the Spanish language had on me, transformed by its structure, lexicon and grammar. The more I was mastering Spanish, the more I was becoming myself when I spoke it, and yet I realized there will always be subtle alterations in the way I show up depending on how one language or another manifests itself.

Hanna Karnei