Are you aware of the limits of your language?

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” ~Ludwig Wittgenstein

I was thinking of my little girl the other day and the words “mamma mín” came to me in a context which is irrelevant here. “Mamma mín” is Icelandic and means “My mom” but the direct translation does not explain the terms of endearment the words relay. Picture a little girl bringing a bouquet of daisies she has just picked to her mother, she offers her the flowers and says “Hérna mamma mín”.

I tried in my mind to translate this accurately over to English but failed. There are, obviously, words that could replace these words – “Here you are mommy dearest” might work but it does not quite replace the simplicity of “mamma mín”. The Possessive Personal Pronoun in its simplicity works as a loving remark in the mouth of the child.

When the girl grows up she will probably use those particular words much more rarely, just like she will almost seize to pick flowers for her mom. These words are precious and, in my mind at least, almost irreplaceable. In English the words “My mom” in the mouth of a child can be the expression of great pride but it doesn’t relay the same feelings  of love that the Icelandic term does.

So I started to think about language. I started to think of something Herta Müller has said about language. She claims that “Language has different eyes” and claims that different languages give different thoughts and meanings. We’ve all heard the “which comes first the hen or the egg” discussion about language. In my mind the question isn’t so much about which comes first, language or thought? than it is about the question of limitations. How is our language limiting our thoughts?

Today I juggle three languages on a daily basis to some degree. My native tongue, Icelandic, is always with me but I partially think and talk in Swedish at the same time that I struggle to write in English every day.  When I started learning Swedish 10 years ago I had a head start. I had studied Danish for years and as Icelandic and Swedish are related languages I knew some of the words too.

Icelanders almost think its “nothing” to learn Swedish because they think its so simple and so much alike our own tongue and the Danish we are taught in school. What many fail to grasp until they’ve juggled Swedish (and this surely goes for all languages) for a while is that it isn’t all that easy. Some words are the same but have different meanings and different nuances. Some words, like sjuksköterska, seem practically impossible to pronounce. But what is hardest isn’t the superficial meaning of the words or their pronunciation. After 10 years I speak Swedish more or less fluently but what still gets to me are the nuances. Words I know the meaning of have deeper meanings than I yet grasp. Concepts that were previously foreign to me have been introduced and are still being introduced to me.

Like The Swedes favorite word “Lagom” which means “average” or “just right”. It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t. Swedes love this word and use it unsparingly and it is very hard to grasp all its meanings and all its different nuances.

“How warm do you want your cocoa?”

In this case it might come down to what we’d like to think of as the Swedish National Soul. The Swedes are a very “lagom” people. Everything should be “just right”.

I’ve exposed myself to several languages. English and Danish came early, then I studied a little French and then I moved to Sweden. These different languages each provide different thoughts and I truly believe that when we study a new language it is mainly the thought behind the language that is the most difficult to grasp (which might be why I can’t remember a word of French, I never dove into the thought behind the language!). Studying irregular verbs is a hassle but learning how to think differently, that’s the true challenge. This is also why I think it’s very rude to settle in a country and never learn the language.

So are we limiting ourselves if we only speak one language? Well, yes I do think so. It’s almost like not getting to know another person, or at least getting to know them without ever putting yourself in their shoes. The Eskimo’s are said to have many words for snow but at the same time it is limited in other aspects. Are you aware what limits your language? And with “your language” I don’t just mean your mother tongue, but your particular use of that language.

I sometimes find myself in the situation where I have a thought in mind but can’t find the right word for it in any language. There is thought without language but I do think we need language to be introduced to new ways of thinking.

Don’t judge the Pirahã people for their lack of ability to count but ask yourself what their language can contribute with. Exposing yourself to new languages is like exposing yourself to new people. You always learn something new, something you didn’t know before. You always learn a new way of looking at things. It may not always vary greatly  from your own but it is guaranteed to widen your horizon and brighten your world.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Sunil says:

    Most people *aren’t* aware of the limitations of their language, but in fact, there are many language where some sorts of thoughts are not possible. And it’s part of why languages with central management (french, for example) are slower to grow and adapt because the speakers evolve around the gaps faster than the language ever does.

    It’s been very educational for me to reach the ends of my vocabulary. In English, I know enough to manufacture words on demand. In Malayalam, my world ends almost right at the edge of the dinner table, I know so little. In Japanese, I can greet people in the morning, thanks to lesson 2 of the Pimsleur course. 🙂 And in french, I can’t help but tell people my clock ate a grapefruit. Because it’s funny.


    1. Eygló Daða says:

      I like studying which words are “borrowed” from other languages and what sticks and what not. It’s a whole philosophy in Iceland as we’d like to keep our language “clean” hence we have words for things other Nordic countries often borrow words for. So occasionally there are several newly made up words for something circling around and then in the end one sticks. Making up words is a good skill to have I reckon. (You have to teach me the ‘My clock ate a grapefruit line’ I’d love to make Frenchmen puzzled.


  2. Allie says:

    I have always regretted the fact that I didn’t take studying another language more seriously. Even though I had seven years of Spanish, I only recall a few words and very poorly at that.

    I find that when I’m writing I often can’t completely grasp the emotion of what I’m feeling. I sometimes wish I had more words at my disposal.


    1. Eygló Daða says:

      It’s hard to learn a language from a book, one has to do a lot more than what’s required of you at school I think. English is a very rich language though.


  3. E-J says:

    To my little girl, I am “Mummy”, but she is beginning to hear other children call their mothers “Mum”, and has said it to me a couple of times, in experimental and/or cheeky mode. I am preparing myself for incredible sadness the day she decides she’s grown-up enough to abandon the word “Mummy” for good. Implicit in that word is so much intimacy, dependency, innocence … I will be proud to be her Mum, just as I am proud and astonished on a daily basis to see her develop in all sorts of ways – but something will inevitably have been lost in the transition, and though I don’t think M will feel that loss at all, I shall feel it very keenly.


    1. Eygló Daða says:

      Watching a child’s development through the words they use must be quite fascinating. I can understand the feeling behind this transition!


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