How to read across the world?

By Sophie Shields

What does it mean to read? As a teaching assistant for a course called “Read the World” this semester, I was inspired by a class activity in which students gathered idioms about reading from all the languages they spoke. This led me to wonder – is “reading” understood similarly or differently across the world?

Let’s start at the beginning with the etymology of the verb to read. Many Latin languages derive their word for read from the Latin legere which originally meant “to gather” and, in time, came to mean “to gather with the eye” or “to read”. Legere inspired modern words such as the Italian leggere, the Spanish leer and the French lire. English, on the other hand, took its verb from the Old English rǣda, “to advise or counsel.” This original meaning is still preserved in the German raten, “to advise or guess.” These different origins make us wonder: does the legere/rǣda (gather/advise) distinction still affect how these languages use the verb to read?

Regardless of etymology, the power of reading has inspired expressions in every language! A Korean idiom tells us just how important reading is: “halulado chaeg-eul ilgji anh-eumyeon ib-an-e gasiga dodneunda,” meaning “if you don’t read once a day, you’ll grow thorns in your mouth.” This is reminiscent of the Romanian ai carte, ai parte (you have a book, you have a share), which tells us that you gain power through reading. Ukrainian reminds us, however, that to fully absorb a book’s knowledge, we need to do a close reading: “ne na korist kneshku chetat, kole vershke leshe hapat,” meaning “it is not enough to read a book, when we only grab at the cream,” its surface. Finally, other languages emphasize that reading goes beyond books, with a similar idiom to English’s “read the room” found amazingly enough all the way across the world in Japanese with “kuuki wo yomu,” meaning “to read the air.”

So next time you feel like being a ratón de bibliotheca (Spanish for library mouse) or a bookworm, why not think about how your language might influence your reading? And remember knowledge from reading is power – ai carte, ai parte.


Sophie Shields is a Carleton graduate working on her MA in Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. She loves writing and learning languages, and she speaks French, Ukrainian and German


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