Language is a human construction which we usually take for granted even though we use it all the time. Languages are used in the art of communication and unconsciously: To talk, to understand, and to think. But what if there is more to the world than your language allows you to think?
All languages have untranslatable words which need to be described rather than translated as there are no equal terms in other languages. For example, in Denmark, we have “hygge”. This is an untranslatable word which we use all the time, especially when it is winter or dark outside. It can be a verb or an adjective. It is an atmosphere which typically requires good company, candlelight, food or a hot beverage and hand-knit socks. And ideally, a fireplace. Basically, “hygge” means having a good time in down to earth settings.
Even though “hygge” is only a part of the Danish language, it does not necessarily mean that non Danish speakers cannot experience it. Or maybe it does? According to Whorf, “people can only think about those things that their language can describe or express. Without the words or structures with which to articulate a concept, that concept will not occur” (Thomson 1994, p. 81). Non Danish speakers are not aware of the feeling until they have a word for it. Their minds cannot express it; therefore they cannot experience that exact word.
With the boundaries of your language, your identity is stuck in whatever language you have. You cannot think outside of your language as your brain cannot grasp something it does not have words for. It sounds scary and limiting, and it makes me wonder; does it mean that bilingual people have a wider perception of the world than people who are “bound” by only having one language?
- BT (2016) Uldne sokker og ild i pejsen, så bliver det vist ikke mere hyggeligt? [image online], available: http://www.bt.dk/udland/internationalt-medie-hylder-dansk-hygge-saadan-goer-de [accessed 18 Feb 2017]
- Thomson, D.S. (1975). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: Worlds shaped by words. Human Behavior: Language. New York: Time-Life Books. Pp. 80-92.