“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!


a follow-up on American pragmatics

[Edit:  It took some time for me to figure out that replies weren’t being posted until they were “approved,” which is frustrating. Anyway, I encourage reading the responses.  One is longer than my post, but worth it.]

It’s been a while.  I’ve had a lot to say, but a lot has happened.  Anyway, let’s pick up where I left off.  Last time, I had a rather long rant on why I dislike it when Americans say “uh-huh” in response to “thank you.”  I’m very grateful that it sparked quite a lot of conversation, mostly with people who disagreed with me, haha!  Now, it is very rare that, after taking a rather extreme stance on an issue and having subsequent conversations with people who disagree with me on the subject, I end up at an even more extreme stance than I was previously.  Normally, I’m forced to acknowledge my oversights and adopt a more moderate, nuanced position.  But exactly the opposite has happened in terms of my previous rant on that most annoying of Americanisms: uh-huh.  It is rude, gawsh darn’t, and let me tell you why.

In part, my new stance comes from more data collection.  In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that Americans often say “yeah” and “uh-huh” not just in response to thank you, but also in response to “sorry.”  I looked around on google scholar and my university’s library research cite trying to find anything on this, and I haven’t found anything yet (Suszczynska (1999) gets pretty close, though).  I’m making a tentative conclusion that it’s either a new phenomenon, too obscure to get published, or boring to most people.  It might be obscure and/or new, but it is anything but boring.  It gives us a linguistic window into how society works, and how societies might differ, in particular with respect to politeness.

What is “politeness”?  To be more to the point, what is “rudeness”?  Last post, I said that it would be difficult to call a commonly-used phrase “impolite” because, in so many words, its use within a community determines its meaning and value.  The fact that “uh-huh” is socially accepted by Americans as a response to thank you means that, at least within that community, it does not have a negative effect on interpersonal relations and, by extension, we would have to cede that it is not impolite.  That’s not the same thing as being “polite,” because that would imply engendering positive interpersonal relations, and this “uh-huh” seems more neutral.  Now, the American “uh-huh” is noteworthy because the social need for marking deference that many theorists postulated as universal is, at first glance, being ignored.  If we look further, though, we might see that the meaning of a casual “thank you” in American usage might not imply the same types of social correlates that it does in other English varieties, and that the reason why “uh-huh” is acceptable might be because the previous phrase “thank you” is being used differently.

Or so I thought.

But then how do we explain away “uh-huh” as a response to “sorry”?  Frankly, when I say “sorry” or “excuse me” to a person and get “yep” in reply, I want to retract my apology and punch the person.  It’s not so bad that I’d go around punching people in the face, but I might punch them in the part of the chest that connects to the shoulder pretending that I meant to hit them in the shoulder where it hurts less and is considered just a joke.  No joke.

To make this abstract just for a while, Bergman and Kasper (1993) and Suszczynska (1999) both give excellent outlines of what an apology constitutes.  In essence, it is an attempt to compensate for or mitigate the perceived negative effects of a prior action for which the speaker takes at least partial responsibility.  When we apologize, we are in essence saying that something for which we are at least partially to blame was wrong, contrary to social etiquette, unintended, or any number of other vaguely negative things.  To reduce it to its extreme, we’re in a very real sense saying “my bad.”

On what planet is affirmation an appropriate response to that!?  In pragmatics research, affirming the transgression would be called an “aggressor,” which is socially a very valuable tool when we disagree with people, but it has zero politeness value.  Now, you could say, “but that’s not what I mean when I say uh-huh,” and you might very well be right, but that doesn’t shield the phrase from criticism.

The way we communicate reflects many things: the way we think about ourselves and our relationships with other people, the way we think about society, and the way society itself is organized.  If I use the word “bro” (and it is a word, not an abbreviation, when used in that context, don’t even get me started) to refer to a friend, that implies a great deal about me, my friend, and it also situates me in a time and place in history where that would occur.  There might come a time when everyone in a particular society starts using the word “bro,” even in formal contexts, and if that time were to come to pass, my use of it would indicate something different about me than it would now, and it would indicate something different about society than it would now.

Another example. The Japanese word “omae” (from 御前, roughly: “honoring that which is before me) used to be a formal second person address term (i.e. “you” when speaking to someone socially above you, and usually way above you) up until the Meiji era.  The word was used almost exclusively by the upper class, so the simple use of that word really did imply quite a lot about both the speaker and addressee.  However, it implied something very different from what it does now, because in modern Japanese, the word is extremely widespread, casual, and even antagonistic when used with people who are not friends (almost like using the word “bitch” to refer to a female friend in modern English, except it’s genderless and used by and for all age groups).  The dramatic changes that the word “omae” has gone through reflect larger social changes in Japan, and it is not controversial to talk about how the word’s journey through Japanese society mirrors changes in that society itself.  It’s no different for English.   “Uh-huh” is an anomaly; very few societies at very few points in time would use such a construction in a similar context.  That fact is emphatically not beyond the scope of analysis, or criticism.

Yes, my punches would be misdirected. When I think about it, I don’t mean to blame the person who says “uh-huh” in response to the speech acts of thanking or apologizing.  That person, who is likely American, is equally likely to harbour no ill will against me, and likely does not intend to communicate something akin to “you’re right to be sorry.”  I absolutely do mean, however, to criticize the society that tolerates and promotes the use of that construction.  It gives the (in my opinion, largely correct) impression that American society tolerates a passive indifference and even disregard for the person who is thanking or apologizing, or in the very least the act of thanking or apologizing in that context, and I take issue with that.  There’s an excellent discussion by a hip-hop artist on the use of the word “bitch” among other things here that I think is really apropos.  It’s another example, and I encourage you to read it, but that’s a different rant.

So.  I’ll have to amend my earlier position to one that’s way more extreme than the previous iteration.  Right now, when I say that I think it’s rude to say “uh-huh” to acts of thanking or apologizing, I am in fact saying that American society is rude, and I’d go further to say that I don’t think criticism of society should be off the table.  I sincerely hope that, over future discussions, I’m forced to retreat from this position, but for now, I’ll just offer an apology to any Americans who might be offended by this post, to which I imagine you might respond:


on expressions of gratitude and politeness (or: an Americanism that bothers me)

As a proud Canadian, I’m happy to boast about my home country, and when travelling, it’s always nice to know that saying I’m from Canada usually elicits a positive reaction.  People seem to have, on the whole, a positive image of the Great White North, at least when they have any image at all, but not all of what people perceive is based in reality. 

One of the positive stereotypes of Canadians that I have trouble backing up is the notion that Canadians are “polite.”  If it were a simple dichotomous choice between “Canadians: if polite, yes; if rude, no,” then I’d have an easier time choosing, but what people most often mean by that statement is not that Canadians are or are not polite in absolute terms, but rather that Canadians are allegedly more polite than others, and in particular more polite than their much-maligned neighbours.  Now, I’ve lived in the United States for more than a third of my life, and despite its panoply of flaws, I truly have a deep respect for this country, its history, and its people.  That respect does not preclude me from thinking critically about the country, and even from sharing the gut feeling that Americans are, in fact, less polite on average than the common Canuck.  But what evidence could one even construct to show that?

A linguist would have difficulty arguing that X or Y society is any more “polite” than any other.  I’m not saying that it’s impossible or even untrue, but it would require meeting a very complex set of criteria.  From a language perspective, for a statement to be polite, at least as it’s often conceived in the literature on pragmatics, it would either maximize the positive social value of an utterance or maximally mitigate its negative effects through different uses of language devices.  What language choices are optimal for a given situation depends on the status of the speaker, the interlocutor (or addressee), and the social and linguistic norms of that culture regarding the situation.  Let’s take a look at my personal pet peeve: responses to “Thank you.”

Saying “Thank you” is a rather complex act.  Eisenstein and Bodman (1993) break down the many different ways a person elaborates an expression of gratitude for social purposes.  For example, if someone buys you dinner, you could say, “Thank you.  You’re too kind.”  In linguistics terms, we’d code that as [expression of gratitude] + [complimenting the giver].  We could alternatively express our affection for the giver, or express our own pleasure resulting from the giver’s actions, or any number of different things, each of which would be more or less appropriate in a given situation.  One common theme, though, is that expressions of gratitude often include some level of “deference.”  Deference as a technical term means the appreciation expressed by one person to another.  It is, in one sense, analogous to admitting debt.  Of course, as a speaker I want to maintain dignity and respect, but in expressing gratitude, I have to show deference to another person.  I therefore need to find words that are mutually satisfying–that is, not overly self-effacing, but properly acknowledging the person to whom I am showing gratitude.  That’s a fairly difficult negotiation, given that the means of doing that differ widely between different cultures.

In Japanese, for example, arigatou, which is the standard, dictionary “Thank you,” literally means “there has been (ari) difficulty (gatou).”  In other words, arigatou acknowledges that the addressee was inconvenienced or otherwise pained by doing something for the speaker instead of for him/herself.  It is also common to say sumimasen (“excuse me” or more literally, “this doesn’t settle”) or even gomennasai (“please forgive me” or more colloquially, “sorry”) as an expression of thank you.  Even in very casual speech, a very widespread expression for gratitude is warui/warukatta, which means “that is/was bad (of me).”

It’s pretty easy to see that the threshold for deference in Japanese is probably a lot higher than it is in English.  It’s not that Japanese people are “more polite” per se, but that the social norm for expressing gratitude in that context usually involves the mandatory expression of a higher degree of deference than would be needed in North American English.  Inversely, in English, saying “I’m sorry” or “That was bad, sorry” to someone who passes you the salt shaker wouldn’t be more “polite” by any stretch.  It’d just be weird.  That’s not the optimal match in our context, and so, if we can conceive of politeness as the optimal language form for creating positive feelings between giver and recipient of the act, then if I begged forgiveness when you gave me the salt, I would fail the politeness test.

The key, though, is the response to this.  Imagine a simple scenario with two Japanese guys at a bar.  Hypothetical Speaker A asks for the salt.  Interlocutor B gives A the salt, and A says “warui” (my bad) to express thanks.  What does B say next?  There are a few choices.  Most often, he would defuse the situation, either by saying “ya ya” (meaning “nah” or “no big”) or maybe by a simple hand wave that dismissed the statement (body language is language, after all).  In a more formal setting, the person responding to thank-you might say iie (“No”), nan/ton-demo nai desu (“It’s nothing”), or a similar negator.  Notice there that B wouldn’t be dismissing the expression of gratitude, but rather the deference in it, reaffirming that both speakers are on equal terms, which helps to reaffirm the positive social relationship between the two bar mates.

Imagine instead what would happen if B had said ee or hai (meaning “yeah” or “yes”).  It doesn’t take a genius to see that that would go over pretty poorly.  He would be acknowledging and even affirming the fact that his friend is in debt to him, implying that he is somehow above his friend, and that would be socially inappropriate.  Perhaps because of that, some of the most common responses to “Thank you,” not just in Japanese but in most of the world’s languages, often use negators like “No problem,” or “Think nothing of it,” and so on.

Now, for some reason, American English speakers seem to think that “Yeah,” “Yep,” and “Uh-huh” are appropriate responses to thank-you.  I have, on a very rare occasion heard this from Canadians, usually in Toronto (in all seriousness, actually, haha!), but it’s by far more common to say “No worries” or “No problem” or some other negator.  When I express my annoyance with this to Americans, I most commonly get denial.  “We don’t say that!  You must have heard wrong.”  Frankly, yes, they do say that.  Luckily, they do this so often that I have innumerable opportunities to catch them in the act, so to speak.  If I point out to American friends when someone says “Yeah” to me in response to thank-you, I usually get one or more of the following:

“It’s no big deal.” / “You’re too picky.”  (I’m not saying it’s the end of the world; I’m saying it’s impolite)

“That’s totally fine/cool/normal/acceptable in America.”  (Well, yeah!  That’s the problem.  That’s exactly the problem, in fact.)

“She said it with a friendly face.”  “It’s all about how she said it, and she was friendly enough.” (Uh…. how exactly?  If I smile while saying something rude, it changes what I said very little.  In terms of what speech act she performed, her facial expression doesn’t sway that one way or the other.)

So, is this definitive cross-linguistic proof that Americans are in fact ruder than Canadians?  As much as I do hate that habit, probably not.  The American custom of responding in the affirmative instead of negating the deferment might have another explanation.  In a fairly old but oft-cited study of expressions of thanks, Rubin (1983) revealed that, when we really look at spoken data, American English speakers very rarely just say “Thank you” alone except when the act is very small, and then only just as a “social amenity,” which he called “bald thank-you.”  This “bald thank-you” doesn’t seem to carry any meaning of deferment.  In fact, it seems to be almost entirely semantically void.  This special type of thank-you might have lost its connotation of appreciation in America while still retaining it in most of the rest of the English-speaking world.  If that’s the case, then responding to a bald thank-you with “Yeah” wouldn’t be acknowledging the deferment so much as completing the social expectation of responding, almost as if the original thanker had said “Hello.”  That’s certainly one possible explanation.  Although for me with my own cultural expectations, it’s hard to imagine what semantic role “yeah” or “uh-huh” could be fulfilling, if I try to look at it on its own terms, it could certainly be less rude than it appears on the surface.

To answer the question of which nation is more polite, it would hypothetically be possible to assemble a list of these instances where certain speech acts are realised by Americans in a way that breaks some sort of pragmatic principle while the Canadian version follows the same politeness principles.  If that’s borne out, it would indeed constitute evidence that Canadians are genuinely more polite than their southern neighbours.  As you can see with the above example, though, that’s tough to do.  There may be reasons to suspect that the stereotype might have some minor element of truth to it, but there are always complications that make it hard to pin down.  I would, however, strongly recommend to Americans that interact with anyone other than their compatriots that they abandon their uniquely annoying habit of responding to thank-you in the affirmative.  It genuinely, linguistically speaking, makes you sound rude.