By chance, this question came up for me twice in one day, on the same day that I listened to an Inquiring Minds podcast episode about how language shapes thought. What is wisdom to you? And how does your language influence that understanding?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines wisdom as “The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement; the quality of being wise.” Merriam-Webster offers four main definitions for wisdom: “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships” (i.e. insight) “good sense” (i.e. judgment), “generally accepted belief,” and “accumulated philosophical or scientific learning” (i.e. knowledge). Without questioning it, I have always up to now thought of wisdom as this mix of qualities.
But then I was studying Farsi (Persian) and came across the terms دانا (dānā) and عاقل (‘āghel). They weren’t explicitly discussed in the text — the first was offered as the translation for wisdom, and the second happened to be used in the answer key for an exercise translating various terms, including wisdom, from English to Farsi. I love when I discover words like this, where what I think of as a single concept from English is separated into two or more words in another language. And so I immediately asked about the difference between the two.
The first term, dānā, refers to wisdom gained by knowledge or education. This is related to other words like دانستن (dānestan), meaning to know; دانش (dānesh), meaning knowledge; and دانشگاه (dāneshgāh), meaning university (literally “place of knowledge”). The second term, ‘āghel, refers to wisdom from one’s intellect or reason (from the Arabic root عقل). The distinction seems clear when I write it out now, especially after reviewing the English definitions, but it definitely took some back and forth for me to get it sorted out in my head!
And then, a hour or so later, I was reading a chapter of B.K.S. Iyengar’s The Tree of Yoga where he discusses the five sheaths of the body:
We have seen that Indian thought distinguishes between five sheaths of the body: the anatomical, the physiological, the mental, the intellectual and the spiritual. How is it that we distinguish between the mental and the intellectual body? Why do we divide the mind into two parts which for Western psychology are one and the same? We distinguish between the mind, which gathers information, and the intelligence, which has the power to discriminate right from wrong, and to reason clearly.
If I had read that chapter earlier in the day, I probably would have struggled with that division. Instead, I read it and immediately recognized that the mental sheath refers to dānā and the intellectual sheath refers to ‘āghel. (And now the question: Who came up with that division first, Persian or Indian philosophers? 😉)
This hasn’t produced some radical shift in my perception of the world, but it has opened me up to new ways of thinking about the mind and wisdom in my everyday yoga and meditation practices. And I’ll certainly feel more confident using these words when I speak Farsi! How about you — do you have any favorite examples of an English word with multiple meanings in another language?