Monday, February 14, 2011

When there are no words...

A couple weeks ago at an internal strategy meeting at Madura we were talking about the connotations of the word ‘transformation’. Transformation meant change that was dramatic and rapid, not slow and gradual. To transform, we agreed, required taking bold risks, a leap of faith. How do we say this in Tamil? I asked. We work largely in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu and the room had at least 25 native Tamil speakers. There was a moment of silence and then arguments erupted, online dictionaries were consulted. There was no equivalent word in Tamil for transformation. No equivalent word for risk. No comparable idiom to a leap of faith. It took several sentences to explain each word.

For all the richness of the Tamil language along other dimensions, the closest word for ‘transformation’ was urumaatram, which means, more specifically, physical change. Yet as English speakers we all know implicitly that the connotation of transformation is positive, for instance in the contexts of socioeconomic transformation or business transformation. The Tamil translation does not carry that implicit connotation. According to the Tamil dictionaries risk was explained with words that more specifically meant dangers or obstacles. The English dictionaries do list these same words as synonyms, but also positive ones like ‘possibilities’. In English we see risk with an element of positivity, even excitement, because it also carries with it, well, possibilities. The closest Tamil equivalents were implicitly negative and carried a sense of foreboding. Hindi does better with these words but I suspect many Indian languages are similar.

With a largely Tamil speaking work force and a transformation agenda, I have to wonder - how do we even explain to our employees in positive terms what we are taking on when there are no words?

Language evolves as a reflection of culture, of conversations. When something is important and talked about often, a great many new words creep in to the language to describe it, each a little different, to reflect the various nuances of a similar concept. The Masai tribe of Kenya for instance, have many words to describe cow horns, because they are so important to their livelihood and diverse in their use.

Conversely, culture is constrained by the language available to us. If there are no words to describe something, we are less likely to think about it, talk about it and hear about it. And if we are less likely to think, talk and hear about something, we are far less likely to act accordingly. In this case, take risks or a leap of faith. No wonder then that people say that you are a different person in each language you speak. And so also, learning a new language can expand the possibilities of your mind.

For widespread transformation to occur, the words of transformation must be ubiquitous and common, part of the collective psyche. So what do you do when there are no words? We have to invent them or borrow them from another language and find ways to infect conversations with them. I would venture to bet that if we were to take every language and count up the occurrence of these words of progress and transformation in daily conversation, this would correlate to measures of actual innovation and progress. Simply having the words circulating often in conversation, I believe, may be half the battle.


  1. Very interesting. And, it leads to the point that languages have to be open to outside influences if they are to remain relevant. May I suggest you've also made a case for the English language, and why we need English more than the other way around.

  2. Uru Matram is transformation, idioms are usually in the local language and equivalents are difficult to get, just the way you will not find English equivalents to tamil idioms

  3. Possibilities is sadhiya koorugal

  4. If you think uru matram is inappropriate you can consider matri amaithal