As I’m sitting at the dinner table with my Serbian host family, I see signs of a familiar dilemma. My host dad Peđa is preparing to serve a new dish, which the family always describes in English. More often than not, these efforts are accompanied by a flurry of pointing interspersed with the familiar phrase: “kako se kaže…?” (how do you say…?). Usually I am quick to come up with the English name for the various foods I find in front of me. Tonight, however, I am at a loss for words. The fruit my family is showing me looks exactly like what I would call a cherry. Every time I tell them that I think the fruit is a cherry, however, they show me another fruit that also looks exactly like a cherry. The second fruit, they insist, is a cherry. The first fruit, however, is entirely different.
After a few minutes of debate on the topic, we discover the root of our misunderstanding. In the Serbian language, the two fruits have their own names. In English, however, no such distinction exists. This same phenomenon has come up multiple times during my time in Serbia, with one language or the other lacking sufficient nuance to convey what a person wants to say. These seemingly minor differences propelled me down a philosophical rabbit hole. I started thinking more critically about words and how they shape the way we experience the world. For example, my host family insisted that the difference in the flavors of these fruits was stark enough that such a distinction was obviously necessary. I, however, utterly failed to detect any difference.
I kept wondering how it could be possible that we were interpreting these tastes so differently. One explanation could certainly be my underdeveloped culinary palate. However, I was intrigued by the possibly that there might be something larger at play. I started to think about colors, which lie on a spectrum separated by lines we’ve drawn arbitrarily. For example, what makes something a “shade” of gray versus an entirely different color? Or why isn’t gray a shade of black?
In the example of colors, these distinctions are largely inconsequential (although I wouldn’t recommend wearing the wrong shade of blue at the Duke-UNC game). In other areas, however, these distinctions can have life-defining implications. In spite of the widespread scientific consensus that the social concept of race as it exists today is not meaningfully supported by genetics or science in general, these socially-constructed boxes have shaped and continue to shape American history.
On a more positive note, in the same way that words can pigeonhole or divide people, they can also allow them to connect more meaningfully with each other and the universe around them. For example, we learned in our orientation about the Norwegian word “dugnad,” which is used to describe the spirit of will to work together for a better community. Although it was coined to describe this behavior in Norwegian contexts, dugnad’s universal relatability has inspired service-oriented groups and individuals across the globe. I only hope that we can continue to choose words that unite us in pursuit of a better world, instead of letting them be a force that drives us apart from each other.