Sunday, May 26, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Words and worlds

How language shapes our reality

Update : 09 Dec 2023, 09:36 AM

A reader of my column from last week (December 2, 2023) asked me: “But why was young Amartya Sen baffled by the proposition of Kaiser Morshed? Why was the expression ‘do you care for chocolate?’ baffling?” That expression baffled Sen for a while as he thought about whether it was an opinion or evaluation question or preference question. Sen, despite his brainy Presidency College background, was not familiar with that expression. He, like me, would prefer a straightforward question, "would you like to have chocolate?" 

Like Professor Sen, I too am not a big chocolate fan. I would say, “no thank you.” If you have some sandesh, I will try. Growing up in Bagerhat tuned my taste buds to Bengali sweets rather than Swiss chocolates. My understanding of the English words, phrases, and usages also hinged on my socialization. We grew up surrounded by books -- mostly Bangla and some English, as both my parents and older siblings were voracious readers. I had fewer problems language-wise in Canada. 

A gentleman (better left unnamed) came to Carleton University a year after me. He was quite rattled by the fact that we were receiving a small amount in tax returns, and he did not. I explained to him the rationale of tax returns -- that we graduate students with our pitiful income were not supposed to pay any tax in the first place and since taxes were deducted at source, the government returns money paid in taxes to us.

I told him that, after a year, he would also qualify for this bounty from the government. Not fully satisfied with my answer, he proceeded to the accounts office with the same question. The officer told him, "I am afraid you do not qualify." He came back more confused and told me, "I am sure something is wrong and fishy, why did he say, 'I am afraid'? What was he afraid of?" 

That gentleman was unfamiliar with that expression.

Class and college influence our usage of language. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu introduced the concept of habitus, which incorporates class, culture, and socialization in one package. It is our habitus and cultural capital which shape our behaviour and impact our language. In Bangladesh, the common term that captures this is "upbringing."

Our worlds shape our words. And, in turn, our words help construct our little personal worlds that we like to inhabit. We live in multiple worlds all at the same time. We live in a material world, an ideational world, a world of belief or non-belief, a metaphysical world, a moral world, and a world of imagination.

We have our worldviews. Worldviews are not views about the world but our broader understanding of the world. Some writers use the German word weltanschauung to mean worldview. Welt in German means world, I know that much from my efforts to learn German when I was a student at Bagerhat High School. No, the school did not have a language program. We used to subscribe to a Bengali magazine called Ajker Germany and then, by reading Syed Mujtaba Ali -- one of my heroes -- I became very curious about Germany. Curious enough to sign up for a correspondence course to learn Deutsch.

I later found out that learning a language through a correspondence course is like learning swimming by watching videos on swimming. So, I discontinued. The only good that came out is that I am not frightened by big German words. This helped me during my sojourn in Holland. The Dutch language has some kinship with the German language. I could make out what was "bushalte." Even if you use common sense, bushalte could be translated as “bus halt” or bus stop.

Being a disciple of Syed Mujtaba Ali has the added advantage of developing a liking for words. I like etymology, which is the search for the root of the word. For example, the English word for "tetul" is tamarind. The word tamarind comes from tamar (dates) and hind (India). Tamar is the Arabic word for dates, which the Arabs thought tetul to be, and it was from India. The Arabic word ended up in the English dictionary.

English is a global language, not only because it is used globally, but it is also a product of globalization. See how many English words are drawn from Latin, French, German, Greek, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, etc. Approximately, 60% of English words have origins in other languages.

You approach the object with your world and then create a word to describe the object or thing. Similarly, when the French saw the potatoes, which were unfamiliar to them as it was brought from South America, the French called them "apples of the earth," pomme de terre.

When Bengalis first encountered tomatoes, another historical import from Mexico or the New World, some of them called it "Bilati begun" or "brinjals from Britain." In the world of many Bengalis, the world outside their familiar world is "Bilat" or Britain. The Bengali word Bilat is a loan word from the Persian word "vilayati," which originally meant "Iran" and later "Europe" or “Britain."

When we see a fat, very hot chilli, we call it “Bombay morich” or "chili from Bombay." Several hot chilies originated in different parts of South America.

Words are our keys to open new worlds. The word salary comes from the word salt. What's the connection? In the past, standing armies were not the norm in Europe. Battles were fought by mobilizing an army. The soldiers often showed up with their weapons; they were often paid a small allowance to buy salt or salt money. In French, "sal" is salt, and the root word for salary.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

Top Brokers


Popular Links