“It’s fine”

September 16th, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in italki Team | teachers | teachers | Writing - (Comments Off on “It’s fine”)


The limits of my language are the limits of my world” “Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt” .- Ludwig Wittgenstein; Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (section 5.6)


How often do you go through your day encountering something that creates a response of “that’s fine”? By this I mean “oh, it doesn’t matter, it’s fine, there is nothing to be done about it”.

Let’s enter the theater of the mind for a second:

A: “Hey, sorry I forgot to mention yesterday, but I can’t come to your birthday party after all”

B: “Oh, okay, don’t worry about it. It’s fine”


A: “Is that vase supposed to be cracked like that?”

B: “Oh yeah, that’s fine”


Think about this for a moment: we routinely encounter situations which we decide to ignore. “It’s fine”, “it doesn’t matter”. All of these statements communicate a mental event – the resolution of potential tension in one’s mind.

Having taken a few classes in Blackfoot as a team, we have stumbled on a particularly poignant example of how the language you speak subtly shapes your attitudes and understanding of the world: “it’s fine”.

This came about from learning the phrase in Blackfoot: “maatohkaiki”. The structure of word formation in Blackfoot is such that elements are added together to produce single words that produce complex ideas. This feature of the language is called “agglutination”, a feature present in Turkish, Japanese, Malay, Tagalog, Finnish, Estonian, and many others. Even English displays some features of this, for example in the word “un-wholesome-ness”.

Maatohkaiki, broken down by element, is roughly equivalent to the phrase “I’m not doing anything about it”.

This, of course, struck us as very indicative of what, as language nerds often do, one can derive from a closer look at the particulars of a language one uses casually.

So, what can we learn from this? The phrase accomplishes the same task in each language, but, buried deep in the deceptively simple expression, there is a window to a fascinatingly diverse worldview.


What can we tell from “it’s fine” or “it doesn’t matter” in English?

First of all it is a declarative statement about the outside world. The thing out there possesses a state: mattering or not mattering, being fine or not fine. The phrase declares a state, judged and evaluated by the subject: “it’s fine”.

That evaluation is loaded with meaning – is the state of the world “correct” or “acceptable”, or is it not? The Blackfoot interpretation is subtly, but significantly different: “I am not doing anything about it” – the distinction is not based so much in evaluation, as it is in decision of action. Action, in this case, is the vehicle through which meaning is imparted on the situation or object. Meaning is created and given to the outside world through the action of the subject.


Let’s add just one more element of complexity for illustrative purposes: Mandarin Chinese

The equivalent phrase here is “没关系” (méi guān xi) - or “no relationship”, meaning that a certain thing does not matter; has “no relationship” to another thing. The first character means “lack of” and the following two – “relationship”. The emphasis of the world view becomes very apparent here: the world is made of relationships, and the speaker is filtering the world through this model.

“Chinese culture looks primarily at relationships” is a statement that bears repeating in this case.


So, what?

It makes sense, then, that a native speaker of any of these languages would internalize their understanding of the simple phrase differently from speakers of other languages. The language of one’s thoughts shape her world in a distinctive way. Of course, a language is filled with these subtle colors, shaping our perception during the language acquisition phase of our childhoods.

The beginning example, seen through this lens, can be now re-interpreted:


A: “Hey, sorry I forgot to mention yesterday, but I can’t come to your birthday party after all”

B: “Oh, okay, don’t worry, I’m not doing anything about it”


B: “Oh, okay, don’t worry, it has no relationship to me”


A: “Is that vase supposed to be cracked like that?”

B: “Yeah, I’m not doing anything about it”


B: “Sure, it has no relationship to me”


These re-interpretations do seem to convey a contrast in attitude and perception of the world. Such subtle differences are almost imperceptible to a monolingual speaker. It is only in the learning of foreign languages do we start seeing these changes in perceptions, the way our own minds shift subtly with every new language. We learn from contrast.

Seeing the world through another’s eyes is a difficult but necessary task. In order to build productive relationships with those around us, the ability to see the the world as they do is a powerful tool. It is a tool of cooperation and understanding. It seems that a great way to do this is to keep learning no languages and vocabularies. With each new word, our world expands and becomes just a shade more flexible, a bit more capable of empathy and understanding.  


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