Of language and society

How does language shape and fedine society? Different languages have words that have different synonyms that don't exist in other languages (related or not). Do such synonyms tell something of the society and people and/or do they shape the people and society in to some particular direction?

An example: Finnish word "tuomittu" has basically two different meanings in English. It can either mean "judged" (as in receiving a punishment from a court of law) or it could mean "doomed". What does that tell of Finns? That we are terribly afraid and obedient of the authorities? I have no idea to be honest.

Besides synonyms, there are other things as well. In English we have words like "he" and "she", that differentiate genders from each other. In Finnish, we don't have anything like that. When we refer to someone, we use the word "hän", which can be either man or a woman, it doesn't make any difference. Now, Finland is usually regarded as a country where both sexes are treated equal. Does our lack of "he" and "she" reflect that fact, or has it somehow, in some miniscule way, helped shape the surrounding society towards equality?

Of course we have words for "man" and "woman": "mies" and "nainen". And even there you can see something interesting. In English, the word "woman" is an extension of the word "man". It reminds me of a joke in a tv-show I saw several years ago: What do you get when woman liberates herself from man? Answer: "Wo".

Anyway, in Finnish, the word "nainen" is not related to the word "mies", like they are in English. Again: is this a reflection of the society? In English, the genders are differentiated, and woman is an extension of man (paradoxic, yes). In Finnish, the genders are not differentiated and man and woman stand on their own (again, paradoxically).


dr witmol said...

I think it depends on how the language develops and I'm no etymologist but I think that English derives its roots from languages that have a dichotomous base so if one is not a man, one is a woman (which plays to social politics as you've pointed out). However, I think I prefer English over Latin-based languages that imbue all their words with gender, mostly because I can never remember to which gender a word belongs.

Janne said...

I never really understood why "things" need to have a gender. Is "car" masculine or feminine? Why? Sure, there might be rules for this, but there are always exceptions to the rule.

In Finnish, there are exactly three words in this context: "mies", "nainen" and "se". "Mies" is "Man", "Nainen" is "Woman", and "Se" is "It". No more, no less. Things (things that are not alive that is) don't have genders, since things don't have genders in real-life either, and I don't understand why language needs to make things more complex than they already are. Why provide complexity when there is no such need for complexity? "make things as simple as possible, but not simpler"