Every language manifests a set of concepts. There are things we can say with some languages that just don’t exist in others – which makes translation an interesting challenge. English, it is worth noting, is not a good language for emotion which is why we so often have to resort to metaphors. Without the word, and the concept, certain lines of thought may never be available to you and by this means your culture and language inform what you are able to think. The philosophical and practical implications here are vast.
‘Ponyo’. It’s a Japanese word, and I encountered it because it is also the title of, and a character in, a Miyazaki film. What it means is ‘chubby’ or ‘plump – but not with the connotations of criticism those words have in English. Ponyo indicates cuteness. Something adorable.
As a child, I had round cheeks. Some children do. I wasn’t excessively fat by any stretch of the imagination, but my body tended towards softness, roundness. From as far back as I can remember (somewhere before being three) this was a source of shame and misery to me. My chubby cheeks and rounded child body ruled out attractiveness and, as I understood it, made me difficult to love. As a consequence, I spent my childhood, and teens, and twenties painfully self conscious about my body shape eating. I wanted to be skinny and thus loveable. I feared being blamed for the shape of my face. I still find social eating difficult and I worry about what people will think of me, especially if I am hungry. Dainty, bird-like picking at food never came naturally to me, either.
If the word ‘ponyo’ had been part of my childhood reality, I would have been an entirely different person. Simply to have known that for some people, in some contexts, childish plumpness could be a form of cute, would have started me in life with an entirely different body image. One word, and I would have been a different person. Growing up, I had no idea that anyone, anywhere could find something tubby endearing. Ponyo would have given me hope. Looking back over my teens and twenties I’m aware of how many of my less-good choices had everything to do with poor self esteem.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is such utter rubbish as a statement. Words shape our interactions and inform our life experiences. The presence, or absence of a single word can shape your world view. The language you experience colours your life. There is a lot of difference between being exposed to angry and aggressive language, and being exposed to gentler, more sympathetic language. If all you hear is the language of commerce, all you know to look for is the money. We tell each other stories all the time about what matters. Our social exchanges are usually made of words, and the availability of words shapes the conversation. One word, can change everything.