I like languages

And I got to find out something interesting about Armenian over the weekend. We have an Armenian contractor who happened to be visiting the US, and was interested in a site visit while he was here. I spent most of Saturday driving him around in the mountains for sightseeing, after we finished our business meeting.

Toward the end of the day, as I was returning him to the airport, I asked if he was interested in having dinner before I dropped him off, or if perhaps he wanted to get some good food to take on the flight with him. He started to answer, then stopped and looked in his Armenian-English dictionary. He then said that he was not hungry, and asked, “Not hungry is negative; how do you say positive?”

I told him that “not hungry” was the normal way of saying it in English, but, really, that’s an interesting point. Apparently, in Armenian, the normal way of saying it is the equivalent of something like, “My hunger is satisfied.” In English, though, if that were used at all, it would be at or shortly after the prior meal, to indicate that you are finished.

It’s just a different way of looking at things, which is one of the reasons I like languages. I don’t speak anything other than English and a little Japanese, really, but I’ve acquired bits and pieces in and about various other languages.

I have a book that gives a few interesting examples of the way languages can differ. For one, the Hopi language doesn’t “bind time” the way that most languages do – it doesn’t really have tenses the way we know them. For another, the language of the Tobriand Islands doesn’t separate out individual things; it deals with them in aggregate. Where we would say, “That is a book,” their equivalent would have more the sense of, “That is an instance of EveryBook.”

An interesting place to start looking for more about languages is Tenser, said the Tensor and its linked sites.

2 Responses to “I like languages”

  1. Jim Venis says:

    Steve: FYI: “Time binding” is a concept from General Semantics as formulated by Alfred Korzybski. It refers to the human ability to pass information and knowledge between generations at an accelerating rate. Korzybski claimed that this capacity was unique among animals. Each generation of other animals does things pretty much in the same way as the previous generation. Humans, on the other hand, have developed technologies used to look for food but now grow or raise it.

    I wonder how this plays out in Hopi psychology. Do the Hopi live in a perpetual “now” state?

  2. wheels says:

    Well, I wasn’t using “time binding” in that sense.

    I was speaking in the sense of being able to bind an utterance to a tense: “x will happen,” “y did happen,” “z is happening,” rather than “w occurs,” where the time relationship of w to its occurrence isn’t specified.

    As for the Hopi living in a perpetual “now” state, that could be a very good question. Without verb tenses, it seems to me that urgency couldn’t be communicated very well. Maybe it’s a very suitable language for Zen.