Language does not match reality

What time is sunrise in Cabo?

If you ever want to ask the above question in Spanish, here’s one of the options you can use: “¿A qué hora sale el sol en Cabo?”. This question in Spanish literally says “At what time does the sun come out?” It doesn’t really make much sense when translated into English. It is, of course, in a figurative way that this expression is used. Why? Because according to scientists the sun cannot ‘come out’ or move. This is a phenomenon that occurs in every language, and there are many components involved in it.  The environment plays a big role, but traditions too; historical events, your personal point of view about the world and/or the language structure itself.

The snow debate

Language is a reflection of a particular style of living in a specific culture. To exemplify this, consider the ongoing debate around anthropologist Franz Boas’ theory, which intends to illustrate how language embodies different local concerns in different parts of the world. He explained that Eskimos use different words for snow. If it’s falling snow, fallen snow or snow on the ground, a different term would be used for each case. On the other hand, linguists state that there is no such difference in the Eskimo vocabulary if compared, let us say, with English terminology. Instead, they affirm that words are constructed with word roots that allow a variety of word formations to refer to snow.

It’s a never-ending debate and regardless of what the conclusion might be, if any, one thing is true: Language does not match ‘reality’. Let me clarify what I mean with this statement. Let’s go back to our original example. In Spanish we say that the sun goes out to refer to the sunrise. How about sunset?

We say El sol se mete”the sun goes in or comes in“.

In English we say, on the other hand, that “the sun goes down“, but in ‘reality’ the sun does not move at all; and yet, a message is conveyed. Communication is performed.

I always point out the difference between how language works (verb conjugation, grammar rules, and all that) and how language is used (the way language is unconsciously manipulated by its people in order to perform communication). The words or expressions used in one place or community may not be suitable in a different part of the world. It all depends on the cultural context and the environment. If something is significant to a specific group or community, then that “something” is more likely to have its own local name or term.

My conclusion is that grammar is important (ALWAYS), however, the use of the language is something that should be taken into consideration if you are learning a new language for communication purposes. You will find that in many cases the way language is used may not make much sense from one’s tongue perspective, but a message is still transmitted. Let me finish with one more question: In Cabo, we usually talk about sunrise, sunset, the beach, the ocean. This is what’s around us, so if you are, say, in a hotel and want to rent a room with ocean view, how would you say “Ocean view” in Spanish? We say Vista al mar, which literally means “View to the sea”, and not ocean. Why? I don’t know. That’s how language is used. It works and I just go with it.

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