Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Concepts on the chopping block, Word Trade, and Rock-star Linguists…

Danko Šipka

English speakers are always in the driver’s seat. They use phrases like I am bored, I am cold, I feel like doing something, I like something or someone, etc. In contrast, the Slavs (Russians, Poles, Serbs, etc.) use the phrases with the mysterious it that rules their lives, so they will literally say: Boring to me it is, Cold to me it is, It does not do itself to me (e.g., I do not feel like running will be Running does not like itself to me), Something does not like itself to me. So, speakers of Slavic languages do not own their feelings, sensations, etc., they receive them from those mysterious forces that rule their lives. This is paralleled in other situations, e.g., English speakers would own their tardiness and say I missed the bus. Slavic speakers, on the other hand, will say The bus ran away from me, as if the only purpose of any bus is to flee from its passengers.

The differences of this kind are most prominent in the lexicon. Each culture develops its own set of concepts and each language chops it up into words differently. It is important to keep in mind the formulation by Roman Jakobson, a famous Russian-American linguist, who said that languages differ not in what they may express but rather in what they must express. Thus, speakers of English have to differentiate between hand and arm, foot and leg, etc. while Slavic languages by default use one word for each of these. Distinctions of this kind, the way the words are connected by word formation, association networks, their use in the idioms constitute the deep lexical layer of cultural identity. Our language gives us various choices and we choose from what is offered to us.
We are also defined by the cultural history of our language and the cultural circles from which we borrow words. Both English and Slavic languages are primarily defined by Graeco-Roman heritage. In consequence of the Norman Conquest, English is considerably more Romanicized than Slavic languages, and then Slavic languages differ in their level of readiness to adopt loanwords. I call this the exchange lexical layer of identity, which situates us as speakers into certain cultural circles.

Finally, most speakers of English will find it curious that in Slavic countries linguists have a rock-star status. Their blogs and television shows are extremely popular, there are constantly discussions on the acceptability of certain words in the standard language, the speakers are always keen to check the normative status of the words they use, etc. The nature of this constant negotiation between linguistic elites and the general body of speakers constitutes the surface layer of cultural identity that we get from our language.

Without answering the chicken-and-egg question if thought influences language (which is generally accepted) or language influences thought, one can say that our language definitely gives us a certain cultural identity profile in the three aforementioned layers.

Click here to enjoy complimentary access to Lexical Layers of Identity, ‘Part V – Synthesis’ until the end of July 2019.


Lexical Layers of Identity by Danko Šipka

Lexical Layers of Identity by Danko Šipka

About The Author

Danko Šipka

Danko Šipka is a Professor of Slavic Languages and Applied Linguistics at Arizona State University. His research interests include lexicography, lexicology, morphology, and comput...

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