How to see the world in a new light

Language reflects/affects the way we think and understand the world around us. I want to discuss this in my first ever EMBL Rome blog post- as it is a place unique for being hugely international, and because of a discussion over lunch that now became known (at least to me) as the “cherry discussion”.

Because cherries are in season, I blissfully go on a mono-diet of none other than these tiny wonderfully juicy and sweet bites of heaven.

It turns out that there are 2 types of fruits-that-look-like-what-I’d-called-cherries in Poland, and hence a word for each:

  1. Czereśnia– sweet cherries:
  2. Wiśnia– sour cherries:

While I can probably also find both types of fruits (I’m having difficulty typing this) in English-speaking countries, as you can see there is only one English word for them.

Why is there this difference?

For this I decided to look “cherry” in different languages [1]:

One word Two words
English: cherry

French: cerise

German: Kirsche

Italian: ciliegia

Portuguese: cereja

Latvian: ķirsis

Lithuanian: vyšnia

Estonian: kirss

Finnish: kirsikka

Czech: třešně

Cantonese: 車厘子

Polish: Czereśnia (Sweet), Wiśnia (Sour)

Russian: чере́шня (čeréšnja), ви́шня (víšnja)

Turkish: kiraz, vişne

Macedonian: цре́ша (créša), ви́шна f (víšna)

Romanian: cireașă, vișină

Swedish: körsbär, bigarrå

Dutch: kers, kriek

Armenian: կեռաս (keṙas), բալ (bal)

Spanish: cereza, guinda

(*There are words like Sauer-kirsche in German and ciliegio acido in Italian for sour cherries, but I would consider prefixes more as adjectives to what fundamentally are kirsche and ciliegia)

Why? My hypothesis: because both types are equally abundant in the 2-word countries.

I plotted sour cherry production against cherry production for countries that produce both types of cherries in 2014 (in tonnes, data from FAO). I’ve coloured the points based on the number of words for “cherries” the primary language spoken in that country has. While there are a few exceptions, in general, the countries that produce more sour cherries/equal amounts of both types of fruits (cringe) have two words, while those that produce mainly sweet cherries have only one word. Note that I only plotted countries with data for both types of cherries, which biased the points towards two-word countries.


(*Bolivians speak a huge mix of language – undeterminable number of cherry words for my purposes)

Why does this all matter?

  1. It means that language probably reflects the environment/upbringing of the people that spoke that language
  2. That in turns affect the way they understand the world

Learning is all about building on what we know. When we encounter new things/concepts, we compare- what are the similarities and differences between this new thing and what we knew? For example, when I see a Japanese cherry ( for the first time, I will think it’s a type of cherries, as it is similar to what I know as cherries. When a Polish sees a Japanese cherry however, probably he’s not going to call it czereśnia or wiśnia, and instead gives it another name, and all 3 would belong to some sort of bigger umbrella of cherry-looking fruits.

In linguistics and anthropology this idea is termed “linguistic relativity”, and there are active debates as to whether manipulating language can affect our thinking in different domains. Since humans built all the languages in the first place, and there are plenty of similarities between different languages, even ones that had evolved completely independently, some of our most “basic” understanding of the world must have been hard-wired in the brain. In that case, how much difference can speaking another language make to our understanding of the world?

And if speaking a different language means thinking differently, does it have an effect on scientific research, say in an environment like EMBL Monterotondo where 20+ languages are spoken?

In my primary school (grades 1-6), teaching was done in Cantonese. I was taught this that the brain (腦) is made up of 2 parts:

  • 大腦: literally means “big brain”, translates to “cerebrum”
  • 小腦: literally means “small brain”, translates to “cerebellum”

I knew this is very simplified, nonetheless I’ve always thought it was true, and big (part of) brain + small (part of) brain = brain made perfect sense!

Until I found out that these 2 words don’t seem to exist in other languages.

From Google translate:

English Brain Cerebrum Cerebellum
French cerveau cerveau cervelet
Spanish cerebro cerebro cerebelo
German Gehirn Großhirn Kleinhirn
Polish mózg mózg móżdżek
Icelandic Heila Heilabólga Heilahimnubólga
Romanian creier cerebelului cerebel
Korean 소뇌

First thing I notice is that in a number of languages, word for cerebrum=word for brain. Checking Wikipedia, it turns out that cerebrum=telencephalon, and languages like French, Spanish and Polish do have specific words for “telencephalon”. The reason there are 2 words for the same part of the brain is probably that “telencephalon” is used by developmental neurobiologists, to contrast it with diencephalon, mesencephalon and rhombencephalon in the development of the nervous system.

Here come the problems:

  1. in Chinese “telencephalon” translates to 端腦 (literally means “anterior brain”), which is different from that for the cerebrum
  2. 大腦 in Chinese includes not only the telecephalon/cerebrum, but also the midbrain, hypothalamus and thalamus (basically parts that are not cerebellum and brainstem); 大腦would translate more accurately to “forebrain”, which in Chinese has yet another word (前腦, which literally means “front brain”)

So the correct understanding of the brain should’ve been brain = cerebrum (big brain) + (midbrain + hypothalamus + thalamus) + cerebellum (small brain). At this point I feel like my life has been revolutionised.

Discussing this with my fellow EMBLers (followed by an intense Wikipedia session)- it turns out that while the Chinese are not alone in dividing the brain into two parts based on size, there are other ways to “dissect” the brain: parts that exist in pairs vs those that don’t, 5 parts based on developmental origins, etc.

In this case, maybe it doesn’t affect science or research much, beyond slight confusion over terminology for, maybe, English-speaking researchers trying to google translate a paper published in a Chinese journal. However, just as with the cherry discussion, it highlights how potentially different our “thinking paradigms” are. I would argue that an awareness of this is essential for any scientist who is working with someone else that speaks another language as their mother-tongue, even if that person happens to speak perfect English.

Enough about brains – to end this post, adhering to the spirit (pun alert) of the blog, here are all the toast-cheers phrases of Europe (from here!):

While most countries toast to “health” or “life”, it’s interesting to note that the Nordic “skål” actually translates to “bowl” [2]. This somewhat reminds me of the fact that in China, Japan and Korea we say variations of 乾杯 (pronounced in Cantonese “Gon Byui”) – translates literally to “drying the cup”. The Finnish toast-cheers “kippis” has German roots (die Gläser kippen), which means to “tilt the glass” [3]. The popular phrase in Italy “Cin Cin”/Portugal “Tchin Tchin” emulates the sound of hitting glass; in Lao the phrase “Thum keo” means to hit glasses. The Romanian “Noroc” means “good luck” and Turkish “şerefe” means “to honour”. It’s just fascinating to see what people feel most strongly (?) about toasting and the act of drinking together!




More about linguistic relativity on wikipedia

Here’s a fantastic video on colour terminology

Author: Emmy Tsang

Final year PhD student at the Gross lab, EMBL Rome, interested in high-throughput approaches to achieve systematic understanding of neural circuits underlying instinctive behaviours; runs the science and society club to badger everyone about open publishing; baker by night.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *