Insights from Linguistics
by Dr. Ichak Adizes
On my recent trip to Russia to receive an honorary doctorate from the Academy of National Economy of the Russian Federation (following Stanley Fisher, who received it last year), I made a discovery that confirmed an illumination I had had thirty years ago.
I have reported about that illumination in my tapes and in one of my books. Let me summarize it quickly, explain what experience generated it and present to you what I recently learned about it in Russia.
Around 1972, I was lecturing in Monterey, the economic powerhouse of Mexico, to the top management of their industry. At that time, since I did not yet speak modern Spanish, I lectured in English via simultaneous translation.
I dislike using simultaneous translations. One reason is that I use jokes in my lectures, and occasionally, by the time the audience laughs (if they do at all), I am already on a different subject. On that particular day, frustrated, I asked the audience if they would mind if I lectured in classical (or medieval) Spanish. How do I know classical Spanish? Well, I am a descendent of the Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, during the Inquisition, because they refused to convert to Christianity. Those Jews, called Sephardim, spoke this medieval Spanish, called Ladino, at home and among themselves for hundreds of years. My grandmother did not know any other language but Ladino. So I learned to speak it from her. If you listen to it, it will sound like a mixture of Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian; apparently all these languages originated from Ladino.
So here I am in Mexico with some of the most respected and powerful Mexican oligarchs, trying to deliver 20th-century material in 15th-century language. And guess what? Something very interesting happened.
At a certain point in my lecture I noticed that the audience was not following what I was saying. So I asked them in 15th-century Spanish, in Ladino: “Did you hear me?” They replied that in modern Spanish, “to hear” is a completely different word. In modern Spanish, the word I had just used, “sentir,” means “to feel.” In a sense, I had asked them if they’d “felt” me when I’d meant to ask them if they’d “heard” me.
The word “sentir” in French means “to smell”; in Italian, “to listen,” in Spanish ”to feel”. Five hundred years ago, one word was used to signify all of them: to hear, to listen, to feel, even to smell. In effect, the word meant “to sense.” In modern Spanish there are still remnants of various older meanings of the word “sentir.” When one is hard of hearing, Mexicans describe that as “mal de sentido,” which is like saying “hard of feeling.” And a one-way street they call “un sentido,” as if to say “one-way feeling.”
My illumination was that if one word had once had all these meanings, it must mean that, back then, when one heard, one also listened and one felt. In other words, one actually sensed what was going on.
That was thirty years ago. Then, about ten years later when I was consulting for the Greek government, someone told me that the same linguistic phenomenon exists in the Greek language. In Corfu, an island a bit isolated from the rest of Greece where people speak a somewhat more classical Greek, they too use the same word to mean “to hear,” “to listen,” and “to feel.”
Now, in Russia I have found that in Ukrainian, which is a Slavic language, the word “chut” means “to listen”; while in Russian and in Serbian (another Slavic language), it means “to hear.”
These findings cannot be considered a fluke anymore. I do not believe that the Spanish, Russian and Greek languages were ever so similar that they would parallel each other in the use of the words “to hear,” “to listen,” “to feel,” and “to smell.” Thus, it seems that my illumination of thirty years ago has been confirmed: Regardless of culture, land, or language, five hundred years ago people were apparently more “together”: when they heard, they listened and felt what was going on.
Modern man has different words for these different phenomena – which means that today it is possible to hear without listening, to listen without feeling, and even to hear and listen and still not sense what is going on. A modern person needs training in order to develop awareness and sensitivity, which apparently was a natural capability for people hundreds of years ago.
With the advance of technology, we have three different words. We are disconnecting. We need psychotherapists to be our intermediaries, to help us feel what the other person who is in pain is trying to tell us. We need to take courses on how to become more aware, and we have to pay to be trained to feel. We use words that indicate an increasing insensitivity, increasing distance from each other. Listen to the words: “tune out,” “turn off,” “fade out.” An animal is more integrated than we are. Take for example my dog. When I get home, he comes to smell me, and from the smell he knows how I feel: he senses whether to go to a corner and leave me alone or that I am ready to play and scratch his tummy. Compare that to people, even those I am very close to. By the time they’ve listened to what they’ve heard – and then actually felt what I’ve said, I might have become too desperate to communicate anymore.
Are we falling apart? While we are technologically advancing, are we “losing it” as humans? Does development on one hand lead to disintegration on the other hand? Do centripetal forces necessarily give birth to centrifugal forces? Ironically, while the globe is becoming a big village, countries are breaking apart and blind nationalism is pushing us further away from each other. Are centripetal and centrifugal forces operating at the same time? Is there a balanced, zero-sum game going on somewhere?
Does anyone else have examples of this phenomenon in their language? Whether yes or no, what is your reaction to this illumination?
Here is another observation:
In some languages certain words have no translation, which to me means something: If the word does not exist in a particular language, perhaps the speakers of that language do not recognize or appreciate the phenomenon that the word signifies. The more they articulate a phenomena with different words , the more it means to them. Eskimos for instance have many words for “snow”: soft snow, hard snow etc., while we have only one word: “snow”.
Now note this: I have reported in almost all of my books that the word “management” has no translation in any of the 52 countries I have lectured in so far. Except for Hebrew, all the languages use the English word “management” because their own languages have no literal translation. Even the French, who tenaciously insist on using French words nevertheless when they want to talk about management they use the English word. It is the same with the Spanish language: it has words which translate as “to direct” and “to administer,” but these are only aspects of the managerial process and do not encompass the full role of management. When the Spanish want to speak about management, they use the English word. And as I discovered on this trip, this is also true of Russian.
Why is this happening? Is it because the managerial process as we know it is a Western/American invention rather than an indigenous process that the rest of the world recognizes as its own?
What do you think?
Here is another insight I got from watching how words get translated.
When one of my books was being translated into Swedish, I recieved a call from an editor who told me that there is no Swedish word for “entrepreneur.” The editor wanted to use the word “creative” instead. He added, however, that during the Middle Ages, a Swedish word meaning “entrepreneur” actually did exist. How interesting this is. Could it mean that since the word died out over the years, then maybe the phenomenon also died?
In France, the word “entrepreneur” (which is a French word) is used to describe a real estate developer. It is not a generic word signifying anyone who builds any business, as we use the word in English. It is possible that the French narrowed down the meaning of the word “entrepreneur” because the phenomenon of entrepreneurship is also dying in France – while the word “administration” is flourishing: There are dozens of schools for administration but not one for entrepreneurship. Can we further say that the decline in the use of the word and of the prevalence of entrepreneurship might partially explain the economic woes of the French economy? I know this argument is a bit of a stretch, but what do you think?
Another interesting finding from my trip: In Russia today, there is no word in their language for the concepts of either “accountability” or “privacy.” How might this affect the development of market forces, competition, and managed entrepreneurship?
Here is another one: Not all languages have a translation for the English words “effectiveness” and “efficiency.” Hebrew, for instance, has a word for “efficiency,” but not for “effectiveness.” They translate “effectiveness” as “purposeful,” which might be acceptable to describe long-term effectiveness (to have a purpose is long-term effectiveness), but does not describe short-term effectiveness.
This missing word for short-term effectiveness explains to me a phenomenon that I’ve observed both in business and political meetings in Israel. The participants in these meetings can get very Talmudic: lots of arguments and vocal disagreements. But after a while you wonder: What are they disagreeing about? What is the agenda? This would not happen in the United States, where the short-term focus is maintained and the meetings end with decisions that are effective.
In Sweden, too, the language is missing one of these words. I cannot remember whether it was “effectiveness” or “efficiency,” but knowing the culture, I would bet that the absent word is probably “effectiveness.” The Swedes are very organized and thus efficient – but effectiveness is not a strength. This is just the opposite of the Norwegians, who are “effective” but not “efficient.”
Does anyone have other examples of words that exist in English but not in other languages, or words in a different language that do not exist in English? Take the Japanese word “Hi”: It does not exist in English. It is often loosely translated as “yes.” Many Americans doing business in Japan have gotten into trouble because of this translation, because they believe that their Japanese counterpart, in saying “Hi,” has become fully committed to a plan or idea, when in reality that is far from being so. “Hi” is translated as “yes” because it is as close as the translator can get in English to the Japanese language; while in Japanese it means: “Yes, I hear you. Tell me more.” It is not the real confirmative, binding commitment that “yes” means in English. In Japanese, “hi” is better translated as “I am not saying ‘No.’ Yes, let us continue talking.” The word “hi” reflects the Japanese cultural preference for non-confrontational negotiations, while for us in English, “yes” is “yes” and “no” is “no.” It’s much
more black and white.
As I lecture around the world, I pay attention to how words are used and translated, and in doing so I learn a lot about other cultures and their managerial process. I also pay attention to folk expressions – what the grandmothers say. There is much to learn from old wisdom, but let us leave that for another Insight.