language and tone

Before learning Khmer, the language of Cambodia, I’d never learned a language with the intent to use it. Beyond grammar, pronunciation and translating the words themselves, I’ve recently figured out that tone also carries meaning. Sure, I know how to ask where the bathroom is, but after concentrating so hard on my pronunciation, my question echoes through a bus station as a very militant, “BATHROOM! WHERE!” and I’m suddenly realizing just how aggressively I’ve communicated that I need to find the bathroom. 

Additionally, asking a question without a lift in tone towards the end makes it very hard to be understood as a question.

Another consideration is how our word choice changes depending on with whom you’re speaking. For example, if you can’t hear what someone is saying, how do you ask them to repeat themselves? In English, with friends, I ask a simple, monotone, “what?,” but if with someone I don’t know as well, maybe that gets extended to, “what was that?” or if with my boss’s boss: “sorry, could you repeat that?”

The same happens in Khmer, yet there’s an even more complicated traditional honorific system in language. One uses different pronouns based on relationship or hierarchy.  For example, the word “you” and many verbs in Khmer are said differently depending if the person is younger than you, the same age, your parents age, your grandparents age, a priest, or a government official, etc. The Khmer Rouge, a communist genocidal regime in the late 1970s, changed this aspect of the language in order to force an ideology. Everyone was forced to be egalitarian in language, addressing each other only as ‘comrade.’

The use of “thou” declined in the 17th century, especially around London. “You” was used when speaking to a superior and “thou” was used when speaking to an inferior or a close friend. An emerging middle class brought uncertainty towards being superior or inferior and therefore using “you” was often the safer default – this gradually led to the abandonment of “thou” in everyday speech.

We have aspects of honorifics in modern English as well, but they don’t change our general pronoun ‘you.’ As children, we address our friends by first name, but in most cases, address our friends’ parents by  ‘Mr.’ or some variation of ‘Ms.’ While our general word choice matters in English, it’s not something I consciously think about as a native speaker. Someone could be completely fluent in meaning and grammar, yet still miss subtler aspects of language and appear rude, angry, or otherwise differently from what they intend. For example, a Khmer friend recently asked me the meaning of the English word “foolish.” I said it’s the same meaning as “stupid”, but maybe a word I’d use with someone my grandma’s age and not a close friend. I clarified that it’s still a negative word – I would not call someone elderly foolish in front of them, but would still feel comfortable referring to someone as foolish in their presence. It’s a negative, but polite word to use (at least in American English). “He’s an idiot” vs. “He’s foolish” carries the same meaning, but subtly communicates something different about speaker, or at least the relationship between the speaker and listener. The difference lies within how you’d present yourself to a close friend versus someone with whom you have a more formal relationship. As I said before, I struggle with the subtle and honorific aspects of Khmer, alongside the grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary.

Beyond honorifics, I’ve also learned there can be a concept in another language that doesn’t exist at all in English, or at least not in the same way. The same goes for the reverse. For example, in Khmer, there is no direct translation for the word “hand” or “foot,” only “arm” and “leg.” Khmer-speaking people learning the English word for “hand” for the first time are also learning about the concept of “hand” as well. I know this because when I asked my Khmer tutor (who speaks fluent English) to translate “hand,” he first put his hand in arm of him and clarified, you mean that which starts here (pointing to wrist) and ends here (pointing to end of fingertips)? I was shocked at first – how do you communicate about your hand if there’s no word for it? Then I imagined there’s specific medical language for each bone in our foot, yet if my fifth metatarsal was broken, in colloquial speech, I simply say the bone on the outside part of my foot. More so, it may not crucial that a listener knows exactly which bone – I could even stop at “my foot is broken.” The meaning is generally understood as it needs to be. If they needed a word specific to “hand” in Khmer, it would exist by now.

Additionally, a concept in English that exists a little differently in Khmer is that of “siblings.” In English, when someone asks me how many siblings do I have, I answer “one sibling” because I have an older sister. In Khmer, the speaker is considered part of that number – in other words, in Khmer, I answer that I have two siblings, because there’s two siblings in the family.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The grammatical structure of a sentence differs in Spanish, as with many other languages; for example, nouns come before adjectives and singular verbs should be conjugated based on the subject noun. Not conjugating a verb is similar to saying “he run” instead of “he runs.”

My first experience trying to learn any language at all was in middle school. I remember buying a Spanish dictionary at a yard sale, thinking I could just swap my English words with these Spanish words and that was the key to conversational fluency. I was whipping out a grammatically erroneous, “El blanco perro correr!” when trying to say “the white dog runs!” and, on top of this, the only word I could pronounce correctly was “the”.

Through learning a language, and practicing it in a country for three weeks, I’ve come to understand much more about how culture shapes language or possibly, how language shapes culture. It’s also made me consider aspects of my own language previously taken at face value. For example, in English we say “I am sad” in the same way we say “I am tall.” Other languages use different verbs for these two states of being, one being a mood and the other being a permanent trait. In Spanish, “I am sad” is “estoy triste”, using the verb conjugation “estoy,” which translates to English as “I am” but in Spanish is more specific to describing temporary states such as mood. Alternatively, the verb conjugation “soy” also means “I am” when translated to English, but in Spanish is meant for more permanent aspects of being such as “I am tall” or “soy alta.” To use “estoy triste” is almost as though you are currently experiencing an emotion, but are not transformed by it. Linguistically, does the way we describe something affect our perception or experience of it? Is there a psychological difference between saying “I feel sadness” versus the more commonly stated “I am sad?” I have these questions as a language hobbyist, yet if you’re further interested, here’s a TedTalk by a cognitive scientist on “How language shapes the way we think.”

I’m continuing to be surprised by language and finding that many explanations for why something is said the way that it is results in a mini cultural lesson as well (even if not explicitly). Additionally, concepts exist clearly in some languages and not others based on many different factors such as, for example, latitude. In my next Skype lesson between a wintry Chicago and a consistently tropical Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I’ll have to ask my tutor the translation for words such as snowmobile, salt truck, and snow sled – knowing what I know now, I’ll be amazed if it’s an easy and direct translation.

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