Sing it!

June 7, 2010

There is a catbird who hangs out on the street light right outside my home office window.

The other day I sat at the computer, mute and mesmerized, and listened to him for a full 15 minutes: he warbled and tweeted (the real kind), burbled and sang, chortled and crooned. This little avian dude went through an operatic literature that would have made Pavarotti verde with envy.

What held me captive was this: he never repeated himself. Not once.

It sounded like he was finding thousands of ways to say the same thing, over and over:

Ain’t life grand?
Damn fine day!
Lookit me — can I sing, or what?

People do the same thing. Tens of thousands of years in, and we’re still finding all sorts of new ways and words to say the basic human messages.

This morning in the shower I noticed the label on a bottle of Paul Mitchell Instant Moisture® Daily Treatment. It says, “Hydrates and revives dry hair,” and then goes on to repeat this message in French, Spanish, Italian and German. Let me give you just the first word, Hydrates, in those translations:

French: Hydrate
Spanish: Hidrata
Italian: Idrata
German: Feuchtigkeitsspendend

Hang on — Feuchtigkeitsspendend? Yes, you read that right. That’s practically one separate letter for each hair.

This is a great word to know. The next time I’m on hold for 45 minutes with the Customer Service department of my local telecom, as I hang up in wretched resignation with my issue yet unaddressed, I will mutter loudly, Feuchtigkeitsspendend!

As Steve Martin said of the French on a comedy album I heard years ago, “They have a different word for everything!”

The other day Ana and I went to shop at the local Whole Foods here in Tampa, Florida. On a sign above the main road, the smaller print reads, “Painless Hemorrhoid Treatment • Saturday Colonoscopy Appointments.” And the headline above, in big bold letters?

You Rectum, We Fix ’Em

You Rectum crop

Again: right across the street from the Whole Foods. One street, two distinctly different approaches to staying digestively ship-shape.

All of which brings me to Lera Boroditsky.

Lera BoroditskyMs. Boroditsky is a brilliant and controversial cognitive scientist at Stanford who has spent the last decade embroiled in research demontsrated a hotly contested scientific assertion: that the way we use words (and the words themselves) shape the way we experience the world.

In English, for example, if you knock over a cup and it breaks, we would say, “You broke the cup” regardless of whether it was intentional or an accident. In Japanese or Spanish, however, intent changes the verb: if it were accidental, we would say something that would more accurately translate, “The cup broke itself.”

Now, think about those nuances of language in the context of a court trial. Hmm.

Boroditsky (whose passion for argument earned her the nickname “Red Fury” in high school) is a fascinating figure. My dear friend Josephine Gross, editor in chief at Networking Times, sent me this article about Boroditsky and her work.

Did you know, for instance, that about a third of the world’s languages do not rely on words for right and left? Instead, they use what are called absolute directions: north, south, east and west. The upshot of the need to constantly stay oriented in order to communicate the simplest concept, says Boroditsky, is that in communities where these languages are spoken, everyone is constantly aware of their spatial relationships to their larger environment — and even small children can perform phenomenal feats of navigation.

Fascinating stuff.

Have to run. The catbird is singing again.


  1. Ann Carter

    Hi John — Great stuff about the beautiful singing of the catbird. Now maybe you can tell me the origin and real meaning of the old expression “sitting in the catbird seat”. I’m sure it had a positive connotation, but I wonder if you know anything more about it. Haven’t heard it in years, but your journal article reminded me of it and set me wondering. Do we all want to be “sitting in the catbird seat”???
    My best, Ann

  2. John Ineson

    Are you sure that there bird wasn’t a mimic thrush, better known as a mockingbird? Catbirds pretty much sound like cats mewing, although sometimes they Do sound like yet other cats mewing.


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