Language, in fact, defines the way we think. Stop. Think about that sentence. The idea really blows my mind… although it seems so simple at first. But it is really hard to grapple with an issue when you can’t name it. In fact, often, naming something is seen as giving it power or giving the experience power.
Let me give you a few examples of how languages have people see the world a bit differently:
- In Japanese, you cannot simply count to ten. Rather, you must know what you are counting or know that you are counting an unknown or abstract item. For example “Hitari” is one person while “Ippiki” is one small animal. While there is a whole grammatical explanation for the counters, just stop an think about how different life would be when you need to know what you are counting in order to count.
- The Sami languages spoken by indigenous people near the Arctic Circle in northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway have hundreds of words for snow. For example, in Lule Sami the word vahtsa means “one or two inches of new snow on top of old snow.” Bulltje means “snow that is stuck to a house” and åppås refers to “virgin snow that has not been walked on.”
What does all this mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t understand something if you can’t name it… however, you can certainly see how our language colors our understanding of reality. What if you grow up in a place where there are no words with positive connotations for queer people? What if all you ever hear is either a slur or a medical sounding word? What does this do to your self perception? What does it do to your identity?
The truth is, I don’t know the answers to these questions. But thinking about how different people think and then thinking about how different languages talk about LGBT people and concerns, it makes me wonder.
Last week, my post focused on welcoming people to our website in as many languages as I could. Creating this post, which included reaching out to many for help, was illuminating.
For French and Wolof, I asked a queer Senegalese friend for help. For Wolof, she said it was impossible for her. She was not aware of a word for lesbian and transgender. She considered translating an approximation. “Woman who loves woman” for example. But, transgender got trickier because “gay” in Wolof is actually, literally, “man-woman”… As she pointed out “We’ve got our gender and sexuality concepts crossed from the get-go.” Furthermore, she was worried about how to write it using Roman letters and said anyone looking would speak French so that should suffice.
She did point French speakers to some additional resources, which I thought was nice and wanted to include here:
If you want to direct French speakers to some resources, there is an org for gay parents in France here, another one for gay parents and future parents and from Canada, this link with a few resources: including the Council for LGBT families (unfortunately many of the links on that page aren’t active anymore…). Of course there are other countries. The Wiki pages for homoparentalitéand transgenre have some links.
For Russian, I reached out to a friend in Kazakhstan who has her MSW from the States. She replied “Gosh, Clare, you gave me a really difficult task.” Most of the language to name LGBT people is extremely negative. In fact, she had to go read multiple different articles and online resources to try and find an appropriate, non-offensive, way to say both lesbian and gay. Ultimately, she choose to use more scientific and neural terms.
In Albanian, a local organization actually published a mini-dictionary so that people can talk about LGBT issues using correct words. Historia-Ime, a local NGO focused on human rights and LGBT rights, helped me to translate the piece.
For Kyrgyz, I reached out to another friend from social work school, a Kyrgyz woman who had studied in the states with a scholarship from the Open Society Institute. While an ally and able to discuss LGBT issues in English, she was unable to say this in her native tongue. She, subsequently, put me in touch with the Bishkek Feminist Collective, a local feminist organization, that did the translation.
I reached out to Faiqa, another contributor here, for Arabic and Urdu. After a while thinking about it, she wrote:
So, it turns out that there isn’t a word for lesbian and the words for gay are all derogatory in usage. It’s a difficult situation in Pakistan and Arabic speaking nations because “homosexuality” is a punishable offense – jail, flogging and even death. The concept of families? That’s a far reach I think. Interestingly, in India and Pakistan the language of the Internet is English. If one has access to a computer in Pakistan, there’s a really good chance they speak English.