I think that words, like the communities and cultures those words are developed in as part of a greater lexicon, do speak to what those communities and cultures value. The sensory model a particular culture has–that is, the two or three physical senses they emphasize over others–tend to affect how they relate to and observe the world around them, and that alone has a huge impact on how language develops in one culture in comparison to another. On top of that, the way a culture defines roles and identities within its communities and how those roles and identities are enacted and expressed all determine what kind of signals need to be communicated in their community in order to effectively maintain the roles and identities they’ve established by tradition.

This means that the priorities we have as a culture might help us relate to other cultures and therefore our languages might have more in common with one another. But if our values, our traditions, and the sensory model through which we interpret the world differs greatly in certain ways from another culture or community, then there might be words that have been created in one lexicon that don’t have equivalents in another lexicon because those signals didn’t have a need to be communicated in the latter community. One language might have a lot of words describing emotional states, while another language might have more words to describe food, and yet another language might have more words to describe weather, and so on.

For those of you that speak more than one language fluently, have you noticed that one language you know seems to have more words or idioms describing a particular aspect of life or the world in comparison to another language that you speak? I’d love to hear your observations.

This post was something I originally wrote as a part of university course discussion on the topic of “Concept Carving in Different Languages” and untranslatable words.