I’ve created a Google alert for language related articles, so that instead of searching for something to write about each week, the stories come to me. Sometimes if the articles are interesting, but I really have nothing to add, I’ll just share them on LinkedIn or Facebook. But several times a week, I’ll come across something that I felt needs an extra comment (or two. Or ten).
The point of that explanation has to do with the topic of this week’s article. Last week was about babies’ sound preferences, this week is about the words different languages use to describe pregnancy: “Do the words we use to describe pregnancy reveal our feelings toward it?” from Public Radio International.
The article talks about how in some languages, there are several words that can be used to describe pregnancy, and that these words sometimes have alternative meanings. For example, in Russian, beremenaya can be used to mean “pregnant,” but it literally translates to “burden.” And in Chinese, the characters that make up “pregnant” individually mean “to have” and “happiness.” Ultimately, there’s a discussion about whether these differences in language give insight into how different cultures view the concept of pregnancy, and how language shapes thought in general. According to a well-known linguist, John McWhorter, this doesn’t really hold true. He uses the various meanings of the word “pregnant” in English as an example (having a child, or full of meaning, in the case of “a pregnant pause”).
But in my opinion, this comparison is missing something. Several of the examples mentioned early in the article are different words that can be used to describe the condition of pregnancy, and also mean other things. By only describing how the word “pregnant” can mean multiple things, they’re not making a true comparison. Pull out your handy thesaurus, and you’ll see that common synonyms for pregnancy in English include words like “expecting,” or “with child,” plus euphemisms like “bun in the oven.” So English speakers can say things like “I’m expecting” or “I’m expecting someone” and have them mean completely different things.
(Plus I’m sure several cultures may have something to say about comparing an unborn child to a baked good!)
I for one believe that in certain circumstances, word choice CAN be a clue to a person’s way of thinking, on an individual level. Expand beyond an individual, however, and the waters get a bit muddier.