Double meanings across cultures and languages

2023-08-28 08:39:00 +0700 by Mark Smith

This is my first attempt at writing about this so it might not make a lot of sense. Mixing cultures is complicated, especially when there is a language barrier. One thing that makes it very confusing for everybody is double meanings. Double meanings are just part of a language, sort of unavoidable, but as well as causing confusion they can create amusing situations, but also arguments. The point is it’s important to be aware of them, which isn’t easy, but over the course of a lifetime your brain gets better at it.

The other thing to remember is that in any interaction where people are at different levels of understanding of a language, the focus of attention and comprehension of those involved will often be at different levels of abstraction. When traveling in Asia, I notice again and again that people here understand many english words but they often concentrate on syllables and sounds of the words. This makes sense because they are not writing the words so the word boundaries aren’t so obvious.

Anyway what happens is confusion much of the time but actually you also end up learning double meanings in your own language(s) that you had never noticed before. It's unbelievable how many of these you miss when growing up, how often this happens. Much of the time this is in fact interesting, though it does sometimes get rather annoying being stuck right at the lowest level of abstraction. I'm constantly amazed at how often in english the meaning at high levels ofabstraction is so very different from the meaning of the individual words. It's often the exact opposite!

No doubt there is some technical reason why this happens, due to how languages evolve, cultures shift, meanings change, even get reversed. If you know two or more languages, especially of neighboring countries that have historically been at war a lot, you'll notice lots of oddities that can't possibly be entirely by chance.

Something else to remember is that the way some other languages are structured will affect how people interact with the language. The sounds you make have totally different meanings in other languages, and it’s difficult to not see those other meanings, which can lead to people being offended. Also you have troublemakers (on all sides!) that think it’s absolutely hilarious to play tricks with these language double meanings. Others that will use it as an infinite source of metaphorical things to hit you with.

In short it’s quite a minefield but can be a source of joy and fun and learning, especially when there is some trust and a little understanding that these dynamics exist.

Update: As I was converting the note that started this thought into this blog post, an elderly, somewhat beligerant, vietnamese chap in his mid seventies sat next to me. I mived my bags so tgere was room for him. He was going for his morning walk, exercising what looked to be a leg injury, but perhaps brought about by a stroke.

We had a nice chat in english, even if it was short sentences, with some ideas that went nowhere, disapearing into the void. Some very long pauses, which isn't so bad, sometimes it's actually a good thing, gives you time to sense each other's presence. His son is a doctor, working in a hospital, which I think is nearby. Also vietnam is #1. He was pretty clear about that :)

Eventually a couple of elderly ladies passed by and picked him up, helping him on his way to his next destination. Quite fitting such an encounter should happen as I'm blogging about cultures and language.

For enquiries about my consulting, development, training and writing services, aswell as sponsorship opportunities contact me directly via email. More details about me here.