Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Joy of Babel II

Yesterday, when we were watching the news about the Italian election, Mr Monti appeared on the screen. "What's the Italian for 'boring'?", my husband asked. "'Noioso,'" I said, 'or possibly 'fastidioso', although I think that means more irritating and tedious than dull exactly."

"What's the Italian word for 'fastidious' then, if 'fastidioso' means annoying?" my husband asked. We looked it up in my ancient and rather useless dictionary (so useless that when you look up 'boring' in the English section, all you get is an engineering term) and also in the electronic dictionary that came with my e-reader.

What we found illustrates one of the things I love about learning languages - the way in which underlying differences in the outlook of the speakers of another language are revealed in the language itself. In this case, almost all the words listed to translate the English concept 'fastidious' into Italian - 'difficile', 'esigente', 'schifiltoso' (which presumably comes from 'schifo') and 'incontentabile' - were negative.

The Italian language clearly assumes that its speakers will see someone who is fastidious in their approach to life and work - (the kind of person that I, as an editor, would regard as the apex of humankind) - as difficult and hard to please. The thing that interests me is whether this detail suggests that Italians actually regard the fastidious as a bit of a pain or whether it is just their language that prevents them from viewing such people in a more positive light. Do we shape language or does language shape us?

4 comments:

  1. Or is this simply an example of how English "makes nice" and ignores the roots of its words. Compare the definition of the Latin adjective "fastidiosus" in Lewis's Latin dicstionary(http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0060%3Aalphabetic+letter%3Df%3Aentry+group%3D3%3Aentry%3Dfastidiosus) "full of disgust, squeamish, disdainful, scornful"

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    1. 'makes nice' or expands the possibilities of expression? I think the latter, which is why I don't entirely object when words start to shift their meanings, provided it isn't in a way that diminishes our ability to differentiate between subtleties (and therefore I do object to 'disinterested' becoming 'uninterested', which is what is happening in Australia at the moment)

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  2. I think, should we have to split hairs, that there's a world of difference between fastidious and pernickety

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    1. I wonder what the German is for pernickety?

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