What’s in a Word?

4 Dec

Though I get enough Spanish in my daily life, I started taking Spanish classes today to improve my grammar and, above all, vocabulary. I only formally studied the language for two years, after all. I wasn’t planning on taking classes down here, but after thinking it over, I realized that if I want to work with Spanish, I’ll need to improve as much as I can, and it just makes sense to do it now while I work at a university and get a discount in a Spanish speaking country.

So now the plan is to take an hour of Spanish 4 days a week until I’ve reached 20 hours, and I’ll probably stop there because I don’t make enough money to be able to continue all year. Just long enough to steer me in the right direction. I’ll go straight from Spanish class to teaching English, which could either confuse me terribly or make me a much stronger linguist. Time will have to tell on that one.

But I’ve been dealing with analysis of language so much recently that I’ve started to think about the meanings of the words we use every day. Take, for instance, a very common word in Ecuador, “Chuta.” “Chuta” is used all the time by everyone, and can be roughly translated as something like, “Dang, Darn, or Shoot!” It’s a non-offensive word that helps explain frustration or anger. However, there is a worse companion for this word. “Chucha” is more like “Dammit, Shit, or Fuck!” You rarely hear people say “Chucha,” and when you say it people look at you like you’re crazy.

We have the same standards in English with our versions of acceptable bad words and unacceptable bad words. But what does it all really matter anyway? As long as you get the connotation, that something has angered you, you’re just saying the same thing. We’ve trained ourselves, and we’ve been trained by others, to understand that some words are okay to say and others are not. Why should “Dang” be less offensive than “Dammit” if it says the same thing? You’re angry and you need a word to say, and that’s as simple as it is. If we’d been told since we were children that “Dang” is the bad word and “Dammit” is acceptable, who would argue about it?

So much of language is non-transferable. I’ve come to the realization that words are just a code for a message that you’re trying to get across. It’s all just understanding and inference. That’s why sometimes a person from England will say something that an American doesn’t understand. We’re all speaking English, but there are different translations and cultural interpretations. “Pissed” in England means drunk, but in the United States it means angry. These translation differences continue in just about every language.

For this reason I sometimes say things I learned in Spain and people scratch their heads or laugh because it sounds weird. All we can really hope for is that the message gets across and everyone understands each other. Fluency is a very difficult thing to define, and by extreme standards, you could say that you’re only truly fluent with yourself and maybe your family. Misunderstandings will always occur, even within tight circles. But who knows? All of this in depth analysis of language seems to have made me cross-eyed, and I can’t even figure out what I’m saying anymore.

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