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Do the words we use to describe
something powerfully influence what it is we actually experience? Years ago, when I was first studying
German, I was amazed to learn their word for the taste of a hot pepper was
‘scharf.’ It made no sense to
me. In other contexts scharf
translates into English as sharp, like the blade of a knife. Why not the word ‘heiss‘ which is
German for hot, as in the weather is hot?
Years later I had several close
German friends and colleagues who were as fluent I English as I am. I got curious, and asked them whether,
now that they were fluent English speakers, they agreed with me that ‘hot’ made
more sense than ‘scharf‘ as a word for the taste of an jalapeno pepper. Unanimously they answered “no.” One elaborated that he found the word
‘hot’ used in that context the strangest thing he had to get used to after
coming to the US.
Both ‘hot’ and ‘scharf’ are
metaphors, words with more basic meanings which are adapted to describe
something else because of an important similarity, and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have effectively argued that, at bottom, most of our thinking is metaphorical,
ultimately rooted in bodily experience.
So words derive their meaning from their relationships with other words.
But on first take most of us would assume that the world to which words
ultimately refer is itself in some sense just what it is.
At this point the question of how
peppers taste begins to get very interesting to me.
The metaphorical similarities that
‘hot’ and ‘scharf‘ identify with the taste of an jalapeno pepper are different,
so different that it is only with a significant effort of the imagination that I can see how ‘scharf‘ applies to a
pepper’s taste, and apparently my German friends have a similar problem with
‘hot.’ While most languages I have
inquired about tend to use their equivalent of hot or sharp, not all do.
Spanish uses the term ‘picante‘ but in Spanish the weather is never ‘picante’ and the blade
of a knife isn’t either, although maybe its tip could be- I dunno. Friends
who speak Spanish tell me that ‘picante’ has reference to experiencing pointed things that
Now, for me, here is where it gets even
more interesting. Let’s say
there is this experience we have when tasting jalapeno peppers. We use metaphors to describe the taste,
because that is what we and the Germans do. Each metaphor points to some aspect of the experience, but
they point to different aspects. A child learning a language simply
accepts that this is the term, and integrates it unquestioningly, and as their
fluency grows the word takes on the shades of the other words with which it is
metaphorically connected, what my friend Jim calls “The Dance of the
In the process of gaining fluency
that dimension of the experience becomes perceptually dominant. Young German and young English speakers
learn to live in different worlds, even
if their pre-linguistic experiences were presumably identical. Once learning to experience peppers in
that way, they continue to do so and in time have difficulty understanding how
the other metaphor could apply. Socialization and hypnotization have a lot in common.
If something so basic to our encounter with the world as taste can
be so strongly influenced by the subtleties of language, what else can? Speakers of different languages to some
degree live in and experience different worlds. Becoming fluent in another language involves learning to live
in a different world, although if the experience of my German friends
is indicative, one may never be able to live equally completely in two
worlds. One will always be home.
So far as I know, powerful
spiritual experiences are universally said to be beyond words. People try and put them into words when
they talk about them, but seem always to say that ultimately words do not do
their experience justice. Certainly
that has been my experience.
When we combine this widespread
testimony with the fact that we learn to live in different linguistic worlds
that can importantly shape even how we experience such basic phenomena as
taste, I think the implications for learning about spirituality are
profound. The one I want to close
on is that there can never be a complete translation of a spiritual experience
from one language to another, because the experience is never able to be
completely incorporated into the experiencer’s language. That language
takes its meaning from living within the complete linguistic world of the
writer. Outsiders reading a
translation are at least two steps removed from what the original writer was
trying to communicate.
It is easier to translate a
detached description of someone else’s experience, but that is even farther
removed from accessing the originally experienced reality. There is even more room to get it wrong because the person doing the initial description is not the person having the experience.
We Pagans do not have sacred texts. Some people, particularly many scholars,
see that as a shortcoming. A
sacred text would certainly make blogging easier: how does verse 23 of chapter
4 in The Book of Gerald apply to my situation today? And to yours?
Increasingly though, I see it as a