Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
The Words We Know by Heart, Part I: Brillig
July 25, 2011 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on The Words We Know by Heart, Part I: Brillig

The language of the heart is jabberwocky, the sounds of the senses, the nonsensical whimsies of Lewis Carroll.

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves” means something by its sound, if not meaning, the shape or words evoke a flavor on our tongue. Would “rose,” unknown to someone who does not speak our tongue, smell as sweet to her ear as it does to ours, just by sound alone? Those of us who have studied another language know that we can feel a word by its sound, long before we know its meaning.

Scientists are beginning to think so too, David Robson wrote recently in New Scientist. Studies suggest that we seem instinctively to link certain sounds with particular notions, bringing to mind a spiky appearance, a bitter taste, or a sense of swift movement. And when you know where to look, these patterns crop up surprisingly often, allowing a monoglot English speaker to understand more Swahili or Japanese than you might imagine.

And the Carrollian whimsies that trip across our tongue like jubjub and bandersnatchs may even hold the keys to the original language, spoken pre-Babel-istically by the first human speakers.

That ancient language of the heart seems onomatopoetically obvious. English words that begin with “sn” are often associated with our organ of olfaction: think “snout,” “sniff,” “snot,” “snore” and “snorkel.” Also turns out they get top priority in mental processing, since back in caveman days, what was on the wind often required a quick response. The scientist who discovered this priority processing, Benjamin Bergen at UC San Diego, was whipsawed when he discovered that “wh” words associated with words that describe the production of noises such as “whisper,” “whine” or “whirr,” and those beginning with “fl” that tend to signal movement in the air, such as “fly” or “flail,” also enjoyed this fast track in the brain’s processing. Bergen calls it sound symbolism. Snuff said.

It’s the same in most languages. For example, Japanese “mimetic” words, which by definition are particularly evocative of sensual experiences. Gorogoro roughly translates as “large object rolling,” while nurunuru is meant to evoke the feel of a slimy substance. “If you ask a speaker of Japanese, they will say [the words] evoke an image of an expression,” says Sotaro Kita at the University of Birmingham. He found that English-speaking kids learn the Japanese words more easily when they follow the Japanese rules for making the sound than if the rules are contravened.

Glimpses of an ancient language as through a looking glass. . . “‛It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!’” More to come.

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