On Language

A while ago one of my cats caught a lizard, but the lizard’s tail popped off. The cat was so confused the lizard managed to escape.

I tried to catch lizards when I was a kid. My friends warned me “hey, the tail might pop off and the lizard will escape.” Eventually I caught a lizard and held it in my hands long enough to show it off to my parents and toss it back into wild suburbia. I knew the trick to catching lizards before I had the chance to fail like my cat.

I wish I could’ve told my cat “hey, the tail might pop off and the lizard will escape.” I guess the lizard is glad I can’t spill the secret across the species-barrier. Worse still, my cat can’t tell other cats. My cat might see another cat chasing lizards and remember that the tails pop off, but he can’t warn them about it.

I wanted to tell this story because my mom and I had a vacation in Japan. In Hokkaido I have a host-family I visit every few years and I was glad to introduce my host-mother to my biological-mother.

The host-family cooked takoyaki, balls of octopus-pastry. My mother bravely served herself a few.

Atsui,” said the host-mother, meaning “it’s hot.” I nodded as I served myself.

Atsui,” said the host-mother’s daughter-in-law. I nodded again. The octopus-balls must have been super hot.

Atsui!” said the host-mother again, with increasing urgency.

I nodded again. They were hot. I got it.

“Ow!” My mom spat octopus-ball. “These are hot.

I face-palmed. My mom didn’t speak Japanese.

Translating had challenges I hadn’t anticipated. I’m fluent in English on a good day and I understand Japanese like a trained chimp, but translating from English to Japanese and back sometimes broke me. Aside from the usual issue of ‘not knowing what the heck someone just said,’ I would absentmindedly translate my host-family’s Japanese into simpler Japanese to my blank-faced mother who couldn’t understand it any better coming from me.

I think there’s a Thinkstr video in here somewhere about how language creates understanding which exists in a bubble with a semipermeable membrane. Since I can speak roughly two languages I can access meaning on either side of English and Japanese—but the language-barrier messed with my theory of mind, causing me to misinterpret how other people viewed the world. Like a toddler who hasn’t realized other people have their own perspective, I thought my mom had information because had that information.

Properly translating would require understanding my host-family and repeating the information in English. I could barely do the first of those, and that occasionally led me to forgetting the second.

Have you ever had any funny problems with language-barriers, maybe involving cats? I’d like to hear about them!

Back

PS. The latest Thinkstr is about Godel Escher Bach, a treatise on formal logic, and Rick and Morty, which features a character named Mr. Poopybutthole. Give it a watch!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s