It’s Maybe in the Language: Linguistic Relativity


“Maybe.” came my answer, much to his frustration.

“Maybe? What is maybe?” he would reply. “Yes is yes and no is no.”

My daughters’ father and I regularly use the Arabic word for ‘maybe’ in our conversations (‘imken’ in the Moroccan dialect), yet it never occurred to me that ‘maybe’ could be quite an abstract concept, a prime example of linguistic relativity.

For me the word ‘maybe’ speaks of possibilities, keeping one’s options open and looking out for chances. It’s about not ruling anything out.

Conversely, he was continually exasperated by my maybes.

I’m Mercurial and live in my head, occupying a land of dreams and ideas and a million maybes. To spend enough time with me is to be party to those ideas – whether or not they surface as tangible realities in the physical world is another matter entirely.

I enjoy the process of exploring new ideas and brainstorming logistics, often wondering out loud to those who happen to be in my company at the time, utilising that company as a form of feedback regarding the potential viability of a venture.

I may then completely discard the original idea and move on to the next distraction, leaving more earthy types floundering like fish who find themselves in a deserting riverbed. My girls’ father is one such flounder, precisely the sort of man who should never have pursued a Gemini woman.

Yet the idea of things only ‘maybe’ happening seemed to fit the relaxed Moroccan lifestyle quite well – you’re never quite sure something will happen until it actually does, with so many exchanges left hanging under the banner “insha allah” (“God willing”).

Eventually, I compiled a list of words I initially wanted to learn in the mother tongue of my daughters’ father, a mixture of Tashelhit and Tamazight, examples of the indigenous Imazighen languages of North Africa. These languages, now predominantly spoken in Morocco and Algeria, are thought to be the closest surviving languages to Ancient Egyptian (more about that in Helene E. Hegan’s book The Shining Ones: An Etymological Essay on the Amazigh Roots of Egyptian Civilization).

Upon asking him the word for ‘maybe’ he replied, “There is no word for this in my language.”

Well, that could explain a lot.

We think of our language as being capable of explaining all the realities and facts of the world around us, and yet there remain many concepts that are not succinctly contained within a single word – if the concept exists in our culture at all. Here are some examples.

Even though the English language has a vast amount of words compared to most others, it goes to show that they still don’t necessarily capture everything effectively, and that languages with less populous vocabularies will almost certainly not reflect our own lexicon.

Guy Deutscher explores the issue of language shaping our world views in his book Through The Language Glass, a fascinating insight into the way our vocabulary moulds our perspective.

Whilst some extol a need for a single world language (usually English) for business purposes in a global market, a monolingual world would be a dull world indeed. A single language quickly becomes a single culture, and with the loss of each language (thought to be about one per fortnight) comes the loss of world heritage.

Each and every word enshrines a wealth of history and preserves cultural artefacts in much the same way as a piece of pottery or an item of artwork. A word may not be palpable but it has undergone the processes of conception, growth and evolution, always reflecting the point in time in which it exists.

Deutscher explores such history in The Unfolding of Language, an inspiring read that led me to question my own snobbishness when it comes to topics such as grammar and ‘textspeak’. So much of what we consider ‘proper English’ is but a contraction of what it once was. Why, there even maybe grace in an ‘ain’t’.

The single word ‘maybe’ was itself, originally, two individual words . . . But to contract it out of existence to ensure we are only ever faced with the path of ‘yes’ or the path of ‘no’? Forget textspeak; within the broad spectrum of the English language, to get rid of the possibility of possibility would be tantamount to Newspeak – with a very big maybe dangling over the chances of such a phenomenon taking place given some of the other Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque goings on of late.

As if the act of learning a new language is not enough of a challenge, the skill of fluency really comes to the fore when you can interpret rather than just translate. Yet true interpretation relies heavily on cultural and linguistic knowledge that it can take years to acquire and perhaps a whole new mindset to truly understand.

So, it maybe that my “maybe” may not be as basic and self-explanatory a response as I once thought, but I hope that this piece goes to show the potential of a simple ‘maybe’ – maybe?

Other titles that explore translation and the interlinking of culture and language are:

And, as always, please feel free to share your thoughts about my thoughts by commenting below.

Title image courtesy of Prawny.

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