The basic building blocks of languages

8/14/18 1:10:23 PM

As I was learning Spanish, I stumbled upon a very interesting verb - convencer. It means to convince. The prefix con-, I noticed, may symbolize the interior, or spiritual, manifestation of the verb it is affixed to. Without it, vencer means to overcome, or to win. So vencer - the “regular” verb is an act that is happening outside, the defeat of something exterior-ly. And adding the prefix “con” turns it into an inward experience. You don’t defeat outside, you convince - you defeat it inside.

In any case, as you can see the English word convince is of the same family as the Spanish word convencer, and they both stem from Latin. I was wondering whether vencer exists in English, and was happy to find it in the verb invincible. I.e .the one that cannot be “vencer”, or defeated. (I think I once found another word, but I forgot it).

As I was thinking about these words, I suddenly realized, to my surprise, that in Hebrew the words are also connected! להכניע (le-hach-ni-a) means to overcome, i.e. vencer. לשכנע (le-shach-ne-a) means to convince, i.e. convencer. In Hebrew it’s 1 or 2 letters difference, depending if you write the vowels or not (Hebrew can be written without vowels, but only with diacritic marks called “Nikkud”). After short investigation between friends, it turns out the same is true for (all?) latin languages, (all?) slavic languages (Russian - убеждать vs. побеждать; Serbian - убедити  vs. победи), Hungarian (Meggyőzni vs. Legyőzni) and even Chinese (說服 vs. 克服).

I was stunned that so many cultures understood a connection between convincing and defeating. This does not mean that they all conceptualized it the same. In Chinese for example, the 2nd (and common) character means “to obey” or “to master”. The 1st character in convince means “to talk”, i.e. together it means bring into obedience through talking. The 1st character in defeat is “to overcome”, i.e. together it means to bring into obedience through (external) overcoming.

German, however, is one of the languages where there is no connection between the words. German word for convince is überzeugen. Zeugen is to testify. Über- prefix means above, or over. I.e. the word can be understood as “to give a proof above all others”. So to convince someone, in German, is not to overcome him internally, but rather to give him an outstanding proof of your argument, above all other proofs of other conventions.

This makes you think of the basic building blocks of languages. The basic ideas and notions that we possess. How they are all somewhat similar. But how every culture takes a slightly different approach, and how it affects the way the people of that culture thinks and act and understand the world.

As I’m now studying German, I find many cool similarities and diversions of these basic conceptual building blocks.

Take for example the verb to publish, in English. German has both publizieren, (which is the same verb from the same stem, so can be disregarded for now as it’s not interesting), and veröffentlichen. Publish comes from public. And veröffentlichen comes from öffentlich (public). Now public means open to people. But Latin public comes from the same root as people, while German öffentlich comes from the same root as open (offen). So you can see that the basic understanding of public is the same, but one language named it after one building block (open) and another after another (people).

Another example: Zusammenfassung means summary. Summary comes from sum, which in Latin means total. So sort of a total view of the entire object. The German word Zusammen means together, or combined, and fassung means “grasping” or “framing”. I.e. grasping and taking parts of different things and putting them together. So the German notion is quite different than the Latin one. While the Latin notion looks at a summary as sort of a totality of one unified object, the German Zusammenfassung looks at it as some sort of a patchwork of different objects (different chapters or topics in the report, for example).