Four Words for Friend

Marek Kohn is a science writer on evolution, biology and society, and today at Hay Festival he spoke with author and translator Daniel Hahn about his latest book.

Kohn supplied some compelling arguments, including the idea that language doesn’t belong on a spectrum (in fact, we have a very complex relationship with it), that people tend to make more rational decisions in a second language, and that language diversity is at its most dense in areas where the population is most self-sufficient.

Kohn gave the astute oversight that “languages are designed as much to prevent communication as they are to enable it”, in addressing how we ended up with so many of them in the first place.

“The most successful language learners have a portfolio of cognitive attitudes,” Kohn told his audience, referring to some people's natural ability to acquire new languages. He agreed that much is reliant on memory, but that “It’s never too late” to pick one up.

The writer told Hay that the title of his book, Four Words for Friend, addresses the concept of language variegation, in that we have many more words for ‘friend’ in English than there are in Russian, for example. He said we should “embrace the idea of linguistic diversity”. 

If you're interested in language please also see Event 106 at 5.30pm on Sunday 26 May. If you like watching Hay Festival events digitally please sign up to the Hay Player for more from the world’s greatest thinkers.  

Picture by Chris Athanasiou