Captainess Kirk: Musings on language and culture

Captainess KirkBy Kathleen S. Kirk

In my experience with language, nothing is exactly the same when you translate it. Direct, literal translation is impossible to accomplish in many languages without corrupting, or downright destroying, meaning.

For example, in English, we can say, “He has a ball.” This is a simple idea to us, conveyed by possession and ownership, in what we believe are simple, universal terms.

And, yet, when translated into certain languages, it becomes something much different.

In Finnish, “He has a ball” becomes “Hӓnellӓ on pallo.” To translate this literally would be “He is ball.” The form of the verb “be” used here takes this phrase from a state of being to a state of ownership. It gets more complicated in Russian. That same phrase gets translated as, “У него есть мяч,” which is, in English, “At him there is ball.” This is how ownership, or the closest thing Russian has to ownership, gets conveyed. To further complicate things, let me point out that “ест” (in this circumstance “there is”) is also a tense of the verb “есть” (“eat”).

Effectively, this also allows us to argue that “У него есть мяч” can also be directly translated as “At him to eat ball,” but that is a linguistics battle for a different day. I will point out, however, that while this may appear to imply that in Russian consumption and possession are similar ideas, this is not the case.

To get more to the point, I firmly believe that a society’s language structure is a great reflection on a society’s culture. At the most basic overused example, we have gender in language.

Finland, for example, is a very egalitarian society privately and publicly and its language is completely neuter. It does not have gender-specific personal pronouns. As I’ve probably mentioned before, amongst my Finnish friends, I became very used to being called “it” because they would quite simply forget about the existence of “she” in English.

Finnish women have rights equal to men in both principle and practice. In 1906, Finland was the first country in Europe to allow universal suffrage, and, in 2007, Finland’s first female president installed the world’s first female-majority government.

The Russian language, and therefore their culture, is much different. A distinct gender separation is very visible in the language, with male and female personal pronouns and, going further, also gender-specific occupational words. This is prevalent in Russian society, which has, despite a very vocal egalitarian stance in government, personal culture enacting distinct gender separation and limitations.

For example, while both men and women can legally obtain a license to drive in Russia, the vast majority of Russian drivers are male. Russian companies can still legally advertise for secretaries with physical attractiveness as a job requirement.

English is a language whose culture is caught on the periphery of each world. English’s relation with gender is a perfect example of the inverse of what I’ve just described. Here, culture is reflecting on language. Please note, when I reference English, I am referring specifically to American English.

Our language is gendered, but we also have a neuter pronoun (“it”). For a long time, we had some gender-specific occupation names, but nowhere to the degree that Russian has them. We have had waiters and waitresses, hosts and hostesses, stewards and stewardesses, and actors and actresses. The 19th century even produced a host of words that are, quite frankly, a doozy; lawyeresses and professoresses abounded.

With the push for women’s rights, fueled by both internal and external cultural sources, came the push for the elimination of gender-specific occupational names from the English language. It wasn’t politically correct anymore to call women waitresses; they were now servers. The general argument behind this line of thinking was that gender-specific titles promoted workplace sexism, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Regardless of why, it was altering and evolving the English language. I am neither brave enough or stupid enough to argue that the English language was moving to do away with gender and become entirely neuter.

However, I will argue that something came out of this evolution that a truly neuter language’s culture will likely never successfully  actualize: a complete demonstration of gender appreciation. Women began celebrating the fact they were women with a “girl power” movement that would further redefine the culture associated with the English language.

There was still a shift in equality and perceptions in gender, but it was recognized. Women were no longer forced to tone down their gender to be accepted in a male-dominated world. They could flaunt their femininity and they did so via creative uses of the English language, which curiously encouraged female empowerment while identifying and exploiting gender differences.

In this way, culture altered language, and then further used language to advance culture in an arguably successful attempt to bring about humane and necessary change. All these examples have served as proof of language and culture’s symbiotic and chaotic relationship, from the broad depths of the Chicago dialect to the Finnish twang of the Ostrobotnian accent.

This relationship follows a predictable pattern by which we can track the evolution and degradation of language via culture, and vice versa. This effectively means we can track the future of the English language, which means we could predict the future of our culture.

Now, the next time you find yourself confused about the newest slang, just remember it’s just a side effect of a potentially degraded aspect of culture, and don’t feel so bad about it.

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One thought on “Captainess Kirk: Musings on language and culture

  1. Kate Torgovnick says:

    Thank you so much for this amazing lesson in linguistics!

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