There is no Taiwanese word for “road trip.”
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. But it did take my father a considerable amount of time to come up with a way to express, in his native language, the idea of traveling long distances over several days by car. I asked him because I found it easy to tell my grandmother that I was going to “drive a car to Portland with my friends, and take three days to do it,” but I didn’t know if there were a more concise alternative. His reply was that if you wanted to talk about travel via car, you could say 開車旅行 (saichhialuhêng in Taiwanese, kāichēlǚxíng in Mandarin), which gets the message across but isn’t as idiomatic as the American equivalent.
I was more interested in the second phrase he offered: 環島旅行 (huântòluhêng, or huándǎolǚxíng). The first two words together literally mean “around the island,” and thus this kind of trip can only be called as such if it takes place on an island. Keep in mind that the nation of Taiwan is surrounded on all sides by the Pacific Ocean. My dad remarked that it’s difficult for a Taiwanese person to imagine a road trip in the American sense, partly because it now only takes a day or two to drive from the northernmost point to the southernmost point and back, circling about 700 miles of highway1.
And besides, “road trip” hasn’t even been around for very long in American English2; Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that its use in books only really took off in the mid 1980’s. Before the word came into common parlance, could Americans even comprehend the idea?
The idea that words and ideas are so deeply connected that not to have a ready word or phrase for something causes it to be conceptually different in our minds is an interesting and controversial one. Those who support this claim, also called linguistic relativity, might argue that the Taiwanese people think about travel or distances differently from Americans, especially when the subject is a cross-country automobile excursion. Although to some this bit of logic might seem like a no-brainer, linguistic relativity was actually the focus of fierce debate a few decades ago, and research on the link between language and cognition continues even today.
All of this was born of just one announcement I wanted to make: I’m going to go on a road trip with a few friends from my cohort! We’re traveling to Portland, Oregon to attend the 2015 Linguistic Society of America conference, where I hope to learn a lot and meet awesome fellow linguists from around the country and around the world! Because it’s a road trip, of course, we’re going to stop along the way to see pretty nature things, like redwood forests and Crater Lake. Here’s to a fun week ahead!
Have you ever been on a road trip?
Word of the Day: a caliper is a tool used for measuring an object’s dimensions, usually thickness or width. I found this out when I was looking for the etymology of the brand of the Japanese car I will be driving, an Acura. Because the car’s logo is a stylized caliper, the source of acura is possibly “accuracy” or its Latin root cura, which means “to take care”.
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