Language Learning Faultlines : When Words Diverge

I had a language learning breakthrough this week. I finally got a handle on the two verbs for ‘to think’ in Greek: νομίζω (nomízo) and σκέφτομαι (skéftomai). Unlike the all-purpose English term, Greek is more discerning. It uses the former for general, more superficial matters of thinking and and opining. The latter, however, refers to the more serious business of deep cognitive processes.

The matter of different kinds of thinking is a distinction I should be used to, mind. Students of Norwegian must also get used to English ‘think’ spreading out across multiple translations. There is tenke – the actual process of thought. But then you have synes, to have an opinion about something. And tro, to believe, pops up where we might be tempted to use that catch-all think in English, too. That’s a hefty three-way split!

Well, all this thinking, it got me thinking. There are a fair few cases where English collapses meanings into a single lexical item, while other languages distrubute the nuances across different terms. Could English be a bit… woolly?

Woolly Friends

Woolliness of English certainly does rear its head from time to time. Just look at the word friend, which is a tricky one for English speakers learning Polish. It is tempting to head to the dictionary and lift przyjaciel as a direct word-for-word translation. But przyjaciel is a lot stronger than the pretty wide-ranging catchment of friend. Rather, znajomy or kolega are more appropriate choices in Polish, however cool and detached the literal translations acquaintance and colleague might sound to anglophones!

That said, it is impossible to make judgements when comparing these imperfectly aligned terms. The differences just are. Language learning discoveries like this do allow us to look at our own language critically, though. Do we overuse friend in English? Perhaps. But sometimes that ambiguity is quite useful – especially when hedging our friendship bets. And what of Icelandic’s multiple words for animal tail? We might scoff, but someone, somewhere must find that a useful division!

Knowing Me, Knowing That

Of course, we have to mention the classic terms mismatch. This is the one most school linguists will get to know through French, German or Spanish. And it is extremely common in Indo-European languages. It is the infamous know vs. know faultline, and a Twitter discussion on this pair is probably what got me thinking (yes, back to thinking) about this whole topic a few weeks ago.

Plenty of languages distinguish between knowing a fact and knowing a person. We have savoir / connaître (French), wissen / kennen (German), wiedzieć / znać (Polish) and saber / conocer (Spanish), to name but a few pairs. Others, conversely, collapse the two kinds of knowing into one, just like English does. Greek simply has ξέρω (kséro). Russian has знать (znat’).

Shaking hands and language learning. Image from

I know you, but do I know you? Image from

English, of course, used to make a distinction, as did other languages which lost the split. Before today’s know, Old English had witan and cunnan. Elsewhere, English has quietly dropped other nuanced pairs in this way. Take ask and ask for, referring to slightly different actions, but using the same verb. Look to a close cousin of English, like Norwegian, and they are separate terms: spørre (to ask, for example, a question) and be (to request, ask for something). Needless to say, Old English had both āscian and biddan before the former encroached upon the space of both.

Time to Come Home

We can round off this little wander through mismatched pairs with a couple of fairly fundamental human concepts with a lot of variation: time and home. Now, full-on linguistic determinism has had a bit of a drubbing. But while we may not experience these concepts differently from human to human, we still like to talk about them in different ways.

In English, we simply have time. That can be a period, a length of minutes, hours, days, or the general concept of the fourth dimension. Or it can be an occasion, a moment. I saw him three times, we say – just single points on a continuum.

However, many languages split these ideas up. We observe the passage of Zeit (German), καιρός (kairós, Greek), tíð (Icelandic), tid (Norwegian) and czas (Polish). But referring to a single moment, we talk about one Mal, φορά (forá), sinni, gang or raz. For fellow Greek learners and dabblers, this nice recent video sums it up well. (The channel is a fantastic language learning find, incidentally!)

And finally, to home. Whether you are going there, or are already through the front door and on the sofa, English uses the same term. But frequently, other languages use multiple terms to specify direction or position. Icelandic even has three – heim (homewards), heima (at home) and heiman (from home). This should be no surprise, since it also has hér, hingað and héðan for here, and þar, þangað and þaðan for there. That is three directional alternatives where English has dropped all of its hithers and thithers to favour just one. Is English poorer – or just simpler – for it?

The Lesson for Language Learning

Maybe the woolliness of English is not such a bad thing. The traction of English globally could partly be down to these multiple meanings bundled into single terms. Or perhaps broad sweep words like these even arose as a consequence of global use, collapsing categories and precise terminology that would otherwise add a fair bit of learning mileage.

All of this singles the language out a little unfairly, of course, given that English has more than its fair share of precise and verbose jargonese. And, on the flip side of the coin, plenty of single terms in other languages have multiple translations in English. Take the Greek word γήπεδο (yípedo) which can variously mean stadium, pitch, field or court.

But whatever our take on it, it is useful to remind ourselves of the patchwork of mismatches and poorly overlapping translations. Why? Because it is vital to our learning approach to grasp that different languages – even closely related ones – never map onto each other perfectly. As language learners, we never deal with simple, substitutive, one-to-one relationships, despite the apparent authority of dictionaries, phrasebooks and vocabulary guides.

My own takeaway from this? A reminder to rely less on learning via translation and using my native language as a crutch. This is one reason that my 2000 Polish words experiment was not exactly the path the fluency, for example. (Disclaimer: I went into that expecting the outcome, and have done plenty to remedy it since!)

Instead, it is good practice to seek out ways to internalise structures directly in the target language, so you can use them without having to compare them mentally with your own on the fly. Read plenty, and listen to lots. The less often you leap from your target language, the better.

And that brings us right back to thinking. When those interlanguage differences become so insignificant that you no longer notice them, you have really started to think in your target language.

Richard West-Soley

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