Speaking, Listening and Culture

My first trip to Africa (Harare, Zimbabwe) educated me on things expected and unexpected alike.

Expectedly, few could stop me from experiencing local cuisine. I love food. I love the process of preparing and consuming good food while being with good company. If there is a local beer or wine to accompany the experience, usually all the better. No matter the destination, language or people group, most people like to eat and it is ordinarily a positive social event. One can observe and learn a lot by preparing and consuming food and drink with others. I look forward to more of these opportunities.

Expectedly, I enjoyed learning about the country and local histories, languages, preferences and vision for the future. Everyone has history; and history ordinarily forms or influences the future of people and culture for multiple generations whether we all readily admit to it or not. To understand said cultures it demands spending time in conversation with a heavy preference towards listening to what is said, and hearing what is meant or implied contextual to individual, local, regional and country histories.

One intriguing unexpected experience occurred while studying the Shona language. I always love hearing and watching someone speak their natural first language and Shona was no exception. In fact, Shona has many voice patterns that were new to me so I listened all the more intently. It is my opinion that the language in which someone naturally speaks and thinks is also the language in which they more naturally express the multi-dimensions of themselves. Expression is far more educational than words alone so I naturally watched while I listened.

While on this trip, I heard someone mention that the Shona language has no explicit word for 'future'. While there are word combinations and phrases that imply such an idea, there is no explicitly independent word to articulate 'future'. I wondered what, if anything, that might mean to behavior and choice.

Not being even an amateur in the language, I asked a couple of people who's first language is Shona. Looking at each other while mentally searching themselves and seeing if the other guy would think of something first, their body language answered my inquiry before their words. So, I did some key-word studies and arrived at the same implied conclusion -- there does not appear to be an explicit word for 'future' in the Shona language (CBC, 2008) (Shona) (Wikipedia). A single word articulates meaning. Combinations of words re-shape meaning in a revised intended or unintended direction. The absence of a word stood out to me as something not only important to this language, but as a universal problem contextual to language itself. Let me explain.

Howard Rheingold discusses a challenge of understanding whether culture creates a word, or a word creates a culture (Rheingold, 2000). Following that thought path then, it makes me wonder if the absence of a word suggests an absence of a concept in a culture. And if the concept does not exist, how does it influence behaviors?

In other words, if a language does not have the word 'future', does it then suggest the associated culture has or practices no concept of planning for the future? And if yes, given language changes with generations, does this create a generation gap between those who have never had such a word and those who clearly understand such a need? And then, how does that manifest itself in society today?

One could reasonably deduce that in our original nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures, the concept of 'now' carried more importance than 'future' (Nicolle, 2009). I need to find food now in order to have a meal. I need to find supplies now for shelter, addressing a wound, defending against a predator and so on. Spoken and written languages only contain the words relevant to them at that time. The natural evolution or next step from always focusing on the now is to be storing up supplies such that one is not always searching for these items just-in-time. There is comfort in knowing one has food for the next multiple meals rather than just the current one. Enter the agricultural society which led to the industrial society.

The question remains, does the absence of a word then imply the absence of a concept and subsequent behavior? Is planning ahead an innate or a learned behavior? If you have a word for a concept and I do not, is it really a surprise we misinterpret and miscommunicate between individuals, sub-cultures, cultures and general societies?

The American-English and Japanese languages are estimated to add 2000 new words to their vocabularies every year. In fact, language in general evolves at such a high rate of speed, we spend time discussing ways to manage software word processing dictionaries through probability theory rather than attempting to keep up with all languages and their associated evolutions all of the time (Ricoh, 2004 ). In addition to the numbers of new words and phrases added, what of the languages and words that have disappeared annually to be replaced by something else or not replaced at all? We have evidence to prove that if a language does not have a word to articulate a particular meaning, it will; and that meaning will likely change through time and eventually even be replaced (Quinion, 1997). New generations create new words and mangle, eliminate and/or replace old ones as a part of creating generational identity contextual to current events and needs.

Anecdotally, in July 2006 Wikipedia added 30M words to their site. How many of those were unique and of those unique how many were new words to any particular language? We don't seem to know. In response, Wikipedia recommends understanding the art of statistics to better grasp such a question (Wikipedia:Statistics).

For those societies that do not have a word for 'future', the language set will evolve as will the associative culture (in which order I do not know) just as all cultures and languages in the world have through time. This is the common history of humanity. Should the absence of the word 'future' suggest a people group is not yet experienced or purposed at planning for the future? Does the absence of the word 'sandwich' mean said people group does not understand something about food? Maybe this particular language's word articulates the idea quite differently than I comprehend given my own personal context. We need a method of communication enabling us to interact with others and to meet the needs of ourselves, our friends, families and societies.

Some cultures do not have words for some things while other cultures have multiple words and meanings for the same thing. Some languages have disappeared while others have mixed together. Many words are added to languages annually while other words quietly slip away (United Nations). If any single one of us wants to communicate to someone else, it is squarely our individual and collective responsibility to figure out how to listen, understand and convey meaning. It is squarely our individual and collective responsibility to figure out how best to contextually communicate.

This all seems to point to a single idea: the skill of listening may be our most important method of communication.


[CBC] CBC News. "A Country in the Midst of Change". September 16, 2008. http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/zimbabwe/

Nicolle, W.H.H. "The Bushmen Tribe of the Zambesi (Zambezi) Valley in Zimbabwe". August 6, 2009. http://tinyurl.com/nvdyw9

Quinion, Michael. "Tourism's Lexical Legacy". March 28, 1997. http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/tourism.htm

Rheingold, Howard. They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases. August 1, 2000. Sarabande Books. ISBN-13: 978-1889330464

[Ricoh] Ricoh Software R&D Group. "[Column 13] Language and Words". July 28, 2004. http://www.ricoh.com/technology/voice/column/013.html

[Shona] Shona Language Dictionary. http://www.mashumba.com/

[United Nations] "Atlas on Endangered Languages". United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. August 23, 2004. http://tinyurl.com/yl77cww

Wikipedia. "Shona People". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shona_people

Wikipedia:Statistics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Statistics

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