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Why do so many languages not use the verb "to be" when talking about being hot/cold?
Thread poster: Thomas Seligmann

Thomas Seligmann  Identity Verified
Luxembourg
Local time: 02:16
French to English
+ ...
Mar 30, 2016

I have noticed that many European languages change their basic form completely when referring to a person being hot or cold.

Mir ist kalt.
Мне холодно.
J'ai chaud.
Ho caldo.
Estou com calor.

I find it curious that two such simple adjectives cause an otherwise very basic sentence to change construction completely when it is a person talking about being hot/cold.

I find it interesting that this notion spans many different languages which are not always closely related.

To me, the two adjectives in the sentences below are used consistently and mean the same thing each time, but in many languages the bottom one would sound stupid or funny if translated literally from English.

The fridge is cold.
The sun is hot.
The food is cold.
The ice is cold.
The fire is hot.
I am cold.

Why can't you say "I am hot/cold", like you say "I am ..." with any other adjective? I know in certain languages you can do this and it means something different, like a cold personality, or sometimes quite amusing or sexual meanings.

Does anyone know why this is, and how so many - sometimes unrelated - languages share this way of thinking? Why can you be big, small, rich, poor, friendly, impatient. clever, fast, slow, male, female, funny, cynical ... thousands of other adjectives, but you can't be hot/cold?


 

Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 03:16
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Because English is so unprecise Mar 30, 2016

English is a very ambiguous language with rudimentary grammar. How do you think "I am cold" is really what the person means? How cold is "I". Less than 37 degrees? Hopefully still above zero? What they mean is "I feel cold".

 

Andrea Halbritter  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 02:16
Member (2014)
French to German
+ ...
Erich Fromm: To have or to be? Mar 30, 2016

Maybe you'd be interested in reading the book

Erich Fromm: To have or to be?


 

Tim Friese  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 19:16
Member (2013)
Arabic to English
+ ...
All languages have ambiguity Mar 30, 2016

Heinrich Pesch wrote:

English is a very ambiguous language with rudimentary grammar. How do you think "I am cold" is really what the person means? How cold is "I". Less than 37 degrees? Hopefully still above zero? What they mean is "I feel cold".


Almost. You're right that English merges two senses of 'cold' here, but every language collapses lots of ambiguities that other languages maintain. To make blanket statements about English being a "very ambiguous language", I demand a higher standard of evidence, and let me just tell you that generations of linguists have looked into questions like this and decided they cannot be meaningfully answered. We can certainly identify when one language uses the same word/structure for what in another language would be two different words/structures, but how are we to measure ambiguity? In ambiguity units? Is there an SI unit for that?

To Thomas: on the one hand, the five examples you gave are a start towards compelling evidence, but on the other hand, they are all Indo-European, so actually they are all related. Furthermore, they are all spoken in Europe and their speakers have been in continual written and spoken contact for literally thousands of years. Three of them are even in the same subfamily, Romance, and descend from the same ancestral language, Vulgar Latin, spoken 1500-2000 years ago.

If you really want to collect convincing evidence of what a more 'normal' or 'weird' approach is for describing things being cold versus a person feeling cold, gather examples from *completely* unrelated languages. Add in a few of, for example, Arabic, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Bahasa, Swahili, or K'iche' Mayan to really get a sense of how human languages treat this concept.

I can tell you that the two are different in Syrian Arabic, my dialect:

il-2akel baared
the food (is) cold

vs.

ana bardaan
I (am) state-of-cold


 

Kristina Cosumano  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 02:16
Member (2015)
German to English
Not the same thing Mar 30, 2016

The fridge is cold.
The sun is hot.
The food is cold.
The ice is cold.
The fire is hot.
I am cold.


The first 5 describe our perception of something. The last is only really the same if you are talking about your skin being cold to the touch, or if you are dead, or in terms of your demeanor as perceived by others ("you are so cold to me.") . English does not note this difference between the above condition and how one -feels-.

This is a common beginner's mistake in German, as "ich bin heiss" does not mean you are feeling hot, it means you're aroused. I know of one case where this error led to the somewhat quick establishment of a relationship during a Christmas party...

(Edited: because "ich bin warm" means something else altogether!)

[Edited at 2016-03-30 15:41 GMT]


 

Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:16
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
Hamlet Mar 30, 2016

This must play havoc with the first line of Hamlet's famous soliloquy.

"Or not? That is the question."

No, it doesn't quite have the same impact somehow.

[Edited at 2016-03-30 13:54 GMT]


 

Merab Dekano  Identity Verified
Spain
Member (2014)
English to Spanish
+ ...
It's not about "why", it's about "how" Mar 30, 2016

When you learn a foreign language, the worst approach you can take is to ask, and keep asking, "why". There is no answer and there is no need for an answer either.

Better ask "how do they say this and that" and accept it without questioning it. Example:

We say in Spanish "comprar algo a esta empresa" (to buy something from this company)

Some people keep asking me "why is it "a esta empresa"? It should be "de esta empresa", because the Spanish for "from" is "de".

Well, we do not say "comprar algo de esta empresa" in Spanish, period. You want to speak good Spanish? Accept it and stick to it. After all, you are learning the language. Let the scientists do the investigation work.


 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:16
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Not for the tax authorities Mar 30, 2016

Heinrich Pesch wrote:

English is a very ambiguous language with rudimentary grammar. How do you think "I am cold" is really what the person means? How cold is "I". Less than 37 degrees? Hopefully still above zero? What they mean is "I feel cold".


You're wrong. English is very precise, on condition that you fully understand it.

"I is cold" would either be Jamaican patois for "I am cold" or a situation in which something denoted by the capital letter "I" is at a low temperature.

Alternatively it could refer to someone known simply as "I", who (a) does not have a warm personality or (b) is dead.

English is a wonderful language, but it requires exactitude.


 

jyuan_us  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:16
Member (2005)
English to Chinese
+ ...
Why does it matter to use or not to use to be in any language other than English? Mar 30, 2016

For Chinese, "I'm cold" has been literally "I cold" from ancient times. This is because there is no need to use "be" between the subject and the adjective. In fact, it is wrong to add "be" between "I" and "cold" in Chinese.

[Edited at 2016-03-31 05:44 GMT]


 

Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 02:16
German to Serbian
+ ...
Some backtranslations from my language. Mar 30, 2016

He is cold = He is a cold-hearted person.

We still use the verb "to be" when expressing we are hot/cold, only by using different word arrangement in the sentence:

Hladno mi JE = It IS cold to me.





[Edited at 2016-03-30 23:21 GMT]


 

Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:16
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
Cold Mar 30, 2016

"L'anglais avec son sang-froid habituel" can be translated as what I am at the moment, unfortunately:

"The Englishman with his usual bloody cold".


 

Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 05:46
English to Hindi
+ ...
But don't they say that? Mar 31, 2016

I am hot, is said in English - it means I feel hot (of course the other sexual meaning is also there).

Similary, we do say in English - I am cold (meaning I feel cold).

So what is the question or the confusion here?

As far as Hindi is concerned, which is another Indo-Aryan language like English, German, etc. we have these phrases:

मैं ठंडा हूँ - It means I am lukewarm or I am not much interested.

If you wanted to say I am feeling cold, you would say,
मुझे ठंड लग रही है - which is a literal translation of I am feeling cold.

Similarly,

मैं गरम हूँ (literal translation of I am hot) is not a valid construction in Hindi, unless it is pidgin Hindi. To say I feel hot, you would say -

मुझे गरमी लग रही है (literal translation - I feel the hotness which in proper English would be I feel the heat or I am hot).


 

Elizabeth Faracini  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:16
Member (2010)
Italian to English
+ ...
hungry Mar 31, 2016

Thomas Seligmann wrote:

I have noticed that many European languages change their basic form completely when referring to a person being hot or cold.



This pattern also applies with "hungry".

I am hungry

Ho fame
Estou com fome
J'ai faim

etc. There are probably other examples as well.

In general though, I agree with Merab and Tim. That's just the way it is. There is no reason to believe that other languages should necessarily behave like English, or vice versa. That's part of what makes foreign languages so fascinating, isn't it?


 

Michal Fabian  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 20:16
Member (2012)
Dutch to Slovak
+ ...
A better question to ask... Mar 31, 2016

...is why English uses 'to be' in such constructions. English is the odd one out here icon_smile.gif

 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:16
Member (2008)
Italian to English
The new problem Mar 31, 2016

Michal Fabian wrote:

...is why English uses 'to be' in such constructions. English is the odd one out here icon_smile.gif


The new problem in the use of English by television news reporters is their elimination of the verb "to be" and its replacement with the present participle (only) of any verb, for example

Instead of saying "dozens of people were injured"

- now they say

"dozens of people injured"

or instead of saying "the Prime Minister will be chairing a meeting tomorrow"

- they say

"the Prime Minister chairing a meeting tomorrow"

- and so on. I have no idea why or when the TV reporters decided to start talking in this strange way. Nobody talks that way in real life. I find myself shouting the correct English at the television!

[Edited at 2016-03-31 14:12 GMT]


 
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