“Blwyddyn Newydd Dda” and other chances to think about linguistic relativity

For those unfamiliar with Welsh, that’s “Happy New Year,” and to my knowledge it’s pronounced /blʊ͡iðɨ̞n nɛ͡ʊiðːɑː/.  Yeah, good luck with that.

I’ve been remiss about posting for quite some time. I’ve written quite a few drafts, some of which I might finally get out soon™, but I thought at least I could get this note in first.  To me, the end of the year, or really any internationally celebrated holiday, is a great chance to think about linguistic relativity.  That sounds unforgivably nerdy, but it is actually very interesting, I assure you.

Proponents of linguistic relativity posit that the syntactic structure, lexicon, semantics, pragmatics, and other properties of the languages we speak influence the way we think about, and ultimately the way we see and understand, the world around us.  For example, people have suggested that the reason why English speakers perceive brown and orange as different colours but dark blue and light blue as different shades of the same colour is because English treats them that way.  It’s true that we have words for different shades of blue like cerulean, azure, and zaffre, but in Italian or Russian, for example, dark blue and light blue have different labels that represent different colour categories. Inversely, in many languages all around the world, orange and brown might have separate words but they are considered two shades of the same category, or even both part of a yet larger category of “red.”  Reading this post, you could ask yourself what colour you think the side border on this webpage is.  In this case, linguistic relativity is the idea that people’s answers to that question–and other, more interesting questions–may differ depending on the properties of the language(s) they speak.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, some linguists, most famously Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, went further to suggest that people who grow up learning a language where there is no word or expression for a certain concept might not be able to conceive of that idea at all, or at least until they learn words for it.  In other words, your language determines and delimits your thought processes.  That idea, which has since been called the “strong” version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, has been pretty resoundingly refuted by experimental data from studies in cognitive psychology, anthropology, and linguistics.  As for the example from above, native speakers of languages that have only three words for colour in the entire language (“light,” “dark,” and “red”), performed very similarly to Italians and English speakers in colour matching and identification tasks administered in the early 1900s, and by the 1980s, cognitive psychologists had accumulated masses of evidence suggesting that colour perception, while in fact differing between individual people, depends on factors that are more biological than linguistic. However, the “weak” version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis–that our language and our thoughts mutually influence each other within larger, neuro-biological parameters–has had quite a lot of empirical support.  In this example, the weak hypothesis would hold that you might choose different labels for the colour on the sidebar like orange or red (when in fact, of course, it is vermilion, haha), and those differences in labeling might cause you to associate the bar with different objects and events and respond to the colour differently, but the actual colour you perceive, while potentially different from the one I or other people perceive, would not be different from the one you yourself would have perceived had you grown up speaking a different language.

This all speaks to a timeless question: how do our thoughts determine what we say, and does what we say influence our thoughts in that moment or thereafter?  How are cultural differences represented, manifested, or even created through language?  Certain events, and holidays most prominently, bring that question to the forefront for me.

As for the New Year, like many major holidays, it has a set expression to celebrate it.  In English, that expression is “Happy New Year,” but in other languages, the exact wording often subtly differs.  For me, that raises the question of whether that makes a difference or not.  Do speakers of other languages have different ideas in their mind when they say the equivalent of “Happy New Year” in their own language?  I thought I’d look at the two languages with which I’m most familiar, French and Japanese. First, French:

Bonne Année – word for word: “good year.”  There’s probably no meaningful difference between “good” and “happy” here.  The “happy” we say in English is, as linguists say, semantically bleached.  We don’t really think about contentedness specifically when we count down to midnight and start chanting Auld Lang Syne.  Rather, “happy” is used as a placeholder term in that and all sorts of other situations when we wish to congratulate someone, as in “Happy Birthday,” “Happy Valentine’s Day,” or “Happy Anniversary,” and that’s actually very similar to the French “Bonne.

Also like French, some English expressions obligatorily use synonymous adjectives in combination with other holidays, as in English’s “Merry Christmas” or French’s “Joyeux Noël.”  Is it really because we feel merriness at Christmas and happiness during other holidays that saying “Merry Valentine’s Day” or “Joyeux Année” is impossible?  Not really, no; it’s just a set expression. Further, in Britain and several other English-speaking countries, you can say “Happy Christmas” and not sound like you messed the expression up.  These are arbitrary, fixed chunks of language that can be reduced to [positive term for congratulations]+[name of the event], and you could say that the underlying semantics of both expressions are very similar or even no different in any meaningful sense.

“But wait!” you say. There is, of course, the matter of “New.”  The French expression is, linguistically at least, ambiguous. The “Année in “Bonne Année could refer to the current year that just ended or the year to come, but from talking to French-speaking people, and from celebrating one New Year’s in Montreal where the signs said “Bonne Année 2006” on January 1, 2006, I think the latter is much more likely.  Does having the “new” in English really make the newness of it any more salient or important?  Do French people not think about the year to come as new or think of it as somehow less new because they do not say the word “nouvelle” at midnight?  As my former syntax professor would say, “I’m not sure we’d want to say that,” by which he really means “That’d be flat-out wrong.”  So let’s move on.  What about Japanese?

明けましておめでとう – akemashite omedetou – a word for word translation is tough, but I’ll start with the second word. “Omedetou” straightforwardly means “congratulations,” and in this context it has the same function as English’s “Happy” or French’s “Bonne.”  The only difference is that, in Japanese, you can connect the word omedetou directly to the event worthy of congratulations to make a whole phrase.  You can say “tanjoubi omedetou” (birthday congratulations) to mean “Happy Birthday,” or “gosotsugyou omedetou” (graduation congratulations) to celebrate someone’s graduation.  In English and French, the phrase “Congratulations” is usually said on its own as a complete utterance.  We could in principle, I suppose, say “Congratulations on your birthday,” but most people functioning within normal parameters wouldn’t.  On the other hand, we couldn’t just say “Happy!” and be done with the sentence.  “Bonne” and “Happy” are only used as part of larger expressions almost as if to make up for the ungrammaticality of “Congratulations” (or Félicitations) in that position, whereas “Omedetou” can be said on its own or as part of a whole.  In sum, we could say that the word “omedetou” is similar enough to English or French where we wouldn’t predict any differences in the underlying thoughts and feelings it represents.

Akemashite,” on the other hand, is quite a bit different.  It’s the participle form of the verb akeru, so a preliminary translation of the whole expression would be “Congratulations on (the) [akeru]ing.”  Akeru can mean “to reveal,” as in the following expression:

  • 真実を打ち明ける
  • shinjitsu-o uchi-akeru
  • truth-ACC forceful-AKERU
  • “to reveal the truth,” “to divulge the truth”

Akeru can also mean “to dawn,” as in the following:

  • 夜が明けた
  • yoru-ga ake-ta
  • Evening-NOM AKERU-past
  • “dawn has come”

As you can see, here’s where it gets tricky.  Yoru means “evening,” and it is the subject of that sentence, but we don’t think of the evening as “dawning,” because the evening is ending, not beginning, when the sun rises.  Rather, just like “the truth” in the first example, the verb means something closer to “opening up to reveal something new.”  For New Year’s, we can think of 2012 as unfolding, dissolving, or even better, giving way to the next year.  The Japanese expression then, is something close to “Congratulations on [the previous year’s] giving way [to the new one].”  Going back to the “New” from the English-French comparison, in this case, one might even say that the Japanese expression is explicitly referring to the year that is coming to a close, except that wouldn’t be entirely correct, either.  In Japanese, you can also say the following:

  • 年が明けた
  • toshi-ga ake-ta
  • year-NOM AKERU-past
  • “a new year has dawned”

So, instead of being limited to the past, it refers to the transition between the period that is ending and the next that is beginning.  In other words, it refers to a specific transition event–in this case, the turning of the calendar–and that’s analogous to the Western versions.  Now, the Japanese expression is perhaps much more illustrative than the French, English, or Welsh versions, but I’d doubt that Japanese people are much more likely to wax all poetic about the year that is closing as a result of those linguistic differences alone.  In fact, there’s linguistic evidence to suggest otherwise.  First and foremost, on January 1st, Japanese people often extend the New Year’s greeting to say 新年明けましておめでとう (shinnen akemashite omedetou), where “shinnen” means the “New Year.”  This, I think, constitutes strong evidence of semantic bleaching, as it seems more likely that the phrase commemorates the event itself in an abstract sense and not that the phrase is literally referring to the new year and the past year together consecutively in some incoherent jumble.  Given, the grammaticality of the longer phrase is the source of some debate among Japanese people, but its widespread use is undeniable.  Second, the verb akeru written 明ける is also homophonous with other verbs like 開ける which means “to open” or, figuratively, “to begin,” and Japanese children commonly confuse which akeru belongs in the New Year’s celebratory address.  In other words, people know what the expression is, but that doesn’t mean that they’re analyzing it for its deeper meaning, including what time it specifically refers to, every time they utter it, just like we don’t inevitably think of happiness per se.  Again, I’m tempted to reduce the whole utterance to [positive term for congratulations]+[name of the event], and I challenge you to suggest otherwise!

So, that was probably a lot more information than you wanted about collocations for New Year’s celebrations, but hopefully the message you’re taking away from this is similar to the one I have: there are subtle, interesting distinctions between the ways that different peoples talk about the New Year, but the underlying sentiment behind many of those expressions is remarkably similar.

That’s not to say that English, French, and Japanese people have the same associations with the New Year or even with that expression, of course.  Our customs, traditions, and vicariously our personal experiences are vastly different.  Compare, for example, this:


with this:


The bottom picture features an event called 除夜の鐘, joya no kane, “The New Year’s Eve bell.”  On New Year’s Eve, monks ring the largest bell in the monastery 108 times to signify the 108 sins of Buddhism.  New Year’s as a whole is a more somber, family-oriented, quasi-religious holiday in Japan, something starkly different from the festive, youth-oriented, mostly secular Western tradition.  I’d even go so far as to say that it’s remarkable that our customs can differ so much and that the language is, in many ways, so similar.

Having experienced New Year’s in France, Japan, and various places in the US and Canada, my personal associations with the holiday are diverse, so using one of those perfunctory expressions might just be confusing and esoteric.  Instead, I’ll be more explicit:

A very happy 2013 to you and yours.  I wish you the very best!


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