Multilingualism Good for Maximum Tweeting Power

You might have heard of Digital Natives, a jumbotron on the Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge that broadcasts specially selected, user submitted tweets (with a soft spot for those of First Nation peoples), which like Indigenous Tweets, is using social-media to mass publish statements made by Natives.

Translating or cross-examining both English and Native language tweets gives one a good idea of how much culturally Native statements can differ in construction, meaning, and elocution per the Native language and English, given the 140 character restriction of tweets. What is possible to express in Lakota may not be possible to express in English under the word cap, and vice versa. What a Lakota speaker could describe as ikpáge – the g is uvular/fricative – (6 characters, using the most succinct orthography) would translate into English as notch at the end of an arrow (22 characters).

Although sentences (outside of Twitter) are theoretically infinite, most have 15-20 words and succinctness is a virtue in many languages, so the same reasoning can be applied loosely to conventional discourse. Many bilinguals claim they think different thoughts when talking in alternate languages and come to different conclusions in reasoning. There are several mechanisms underlying this intuition, but the basic idea is, if a concept cannot be expressed quickly and easily in words, speakers are demotivated from invoking that concept in conversation. This is not to say the concept cannot still be expressed, it’s just that speakers are less likely to bother. On the other hand, if a term for that concept exists speakers are predisposed to invoking it as opposed to a circumlocution (way of describing a concept using a series of words). For example, a speaker is likely to be reminded of ‘karma’ in an ethics discussion about the reciprocal nature of immorality, but in absence of the word ‘karma’, the circumlocution “the notion one reaps what one sews” would be less likely to come to mind.

Once a change in lifestyle or worldview (rationalization of life) causes people to discuss a certain concept more frequently, speakers generate and adopt a new term for that concept, often through borrowing. For example, whereas mechanics know the names for all the parts of a car because they work on and talk about cars all day, car-illiterate individuals are less likely to talk about car engines, on account they have to refer to each part as ‘that thingy’. Words can also fall out of use this way. Elderly Lakota have trouble recalling the word ikpáge since it has become mostly obsolete as the majority of Lakota do not practice fletching today.

Consider philosophical terms, which are not motivated by differences in lifestyle per se, but rationalizations of natural phenomena. If concepts are the building blocks of philosophy, and different languages identify different concepts through words, it comes as no surprise bilinguals experience discrepancies in philosophical reasoning between tongues.

The example of ikpáge was taken from Sacred Language by William K. Powers.

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2 Responses to “Multilingualism Good for Maximum Tweeting Power”

  1. mathias says:

    When dumbed down the argument seems a bit cyclical, but there are numerous dynamics at work that are too difficult to explain here.

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