Missing Words
How can we communicate across language lines if we don’t have words that match our feelings?

April 1st, 2009
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] v7-4-My Voice

In George Orwell’s book ‘1984’ the main character is employed in the ‘Ministry of Truth.’ He works for the state creating ‘newspeak’, editing words out and substituting them with simple terms, removing all shades of meaning from language.

Concepts that the State decided should no longer be used are erased from books and old newspapers. Words such as science, democracy, empathy are erased from conscious and immediate vocabulary. For citizens of the State these emotions still exist, but cannot be easily described and a growing number of emotions can only be described by a collection of words creating a language whose vocabulary becomes smaller every year.

The premise of this policy was that people that have no words to describe how they feel cannot aspire to rebel against their condition, they can’t even describe what is missing from their lives. Concepts without specific words to describe them don’t exist in the immediate psyche of a person.

That is sometime the problem in the Bay Islands. Here, we live in a society that is divided linguistically and culturally. One major gap between us is our inability to describe ourselves in universal terms that have the same meaning in English, Honduran-Spanish, and Garifuna.

One day, speaking in Spanish, I found myself trying to explain to a Honduran-islander what motivated the people to enrich themselves at the cost of damaging the environment, a collective patrimony of this society. I found myself looking for a word that best described this… and I could not find it. I was looking for the Spanish equivalent for “greed.” (Greed: A selfish or excessive desire for more than is needed or deserved, especially of money, wealth, food, or other possessions.) My Honduran friend didn’t understand my attempt at describing the concept either. It was as if the concept of “greed” didn’t exist for him.

Yet greed, fear and conformity are three elements of human psychology that dictate all human behavior. Fear- “miedo,” and conformity- “conformidad” exists in the fairly common Spanish- Honduran vocabulary. The closest word sometime used by Honduran-Spanish to greed is “avaricia,” better translated as avarice, or “jodeoso,” better translated as stingy.

The fact that such an important concept doest exist in one word, but has to be described, is particularly disturbing as greed is all around us. The reason for the current world financial crisis can be described with two words: unchallenged greed. In Honduras, like in most societies, people are driven by greed and conformity. They desire material things: new cars, 600 dollar cell phones, super fast boats. They surround themselves with material things as a mark of their status and success. As long as these things were not stolen, the society justifies them.

Living on this island people use different vocabularies and words to describe their reality and challenges around them. Their failure to communicate comes from both a lack of words and lack of effort. On Roatan, there are English speakers who after decades living here don’t know but a few words of Spanish. There are Spanish speakers who after 20 years on the islands don’t speak a word of English.

These societies live parallel lives, unable to breach the boundaries of relating to each other beyond a superficial “need something” basis. Needs of water, medical attention, work, are often the limits of conversations between them. Without a common language, or a common vocabulary, different linguistic groups on Bay Islands are unable to at length discuss their aspirations.

A person unable to name his ailment is unable to correct it. A society that doesn’t live in an understanding of basic mechanisms that drive it is not in tune with itself. That society cannot understand itself, nor make changes, corrections to its own condition. [/private]

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