At nineteen, I decided to learn Italian and move to Italy. As a native Spanish-speaker, two things caught my attention: first, many words were written almost exactly the same but meant different things in both languages (pronto means soon and ready, burro means donkey and butter). Second, certain words and idioms revealed connections to greater meaning. The expression for taking care in Italian is prendere cura; Curar, in Spanish, means to cure. To care is to cure. Both verbs come from the Latin cura: to care, to tend, to heal. Accurate, curator, and secure also share such roots.
Words, like people, have a lineage—a family tree that can be traced back and mined for clues as to the full meaning held in language. Working between, or across, two or more languages can reveal deeper meanings and additional insights through the relationships between words. Tending to words, and what they unveil, is a way of understanding language more deeply. The Latin tendere—to stretch, to tense—provides the root for the ways we say that we care, that we try, and that we are soft and easily injured. It’s the origin word for ‘tenderness,’ ‘intent,’ and ‘attention.’ But what does it mean to tend, and where does it come from? How have tending and attention changed over time and across contexts, and what might that evolution teach us?
Looking toward action verbs may offer a clue. Languages have different action verbs to accompany certain gestures, which in turn tend to reveal how different cultures value and measure things. In English, attention is something you pay. In Spanish, it is something you lend, and in German, something you gift. You “do” attention in Italian and French. Does our relationship with attention change depending on whether we do attention, or gift it, or lend it? In day to day language, paying attention is often interchangeable with taking care. To announce that the stairs are potentially dangerous, you say “be careful going down the stairs” or “pay attention to the stairs.” The quest for attention is an invitation to care. These parallel expressions are similar in other languages. Words recognize that attention—as a gift, a loan, or payment—is a form of care.
Research has shown that the language we speak influences our relationship with the world around us and our perception of it. But it isn’t a one-way relationship: our experience of the world changes language just as languages change our perception of the world. Language, fed by everybody, changes and is shaped by people's needs. When asked about the impossibility of acquiring humanity in solitude (that is, to become human without communicating with others), Hannah Arendt said “Speech is also a form of action.” Is it through conversation, listening, and careful attention that we build our humanity?
Since the late 14th Century, tendere has transformed into a word to define the devotion of our time and concentration. The word “attention” was rare in English before the 1700s and in the mid-1700s meant “consideration, observant care” and “civility, courtesy.” A bit over a century later it was defined as “power of mental concentration.” Before landing on the action verb ‘pay,’ the word attention was used with a variety of familiar verbs: gather, attract, call, and draw. Merriam Webster’s current first definition of attention is as wide as it is poetic: “the act or state of applying the mind to something.” Can there be a more careful act than that of applying the mind to something?
The term “false friends” refers to a pair of words in two languages that look and/or sound similar but have different meanings—like with pronto and burro, which first confused and then charmed me when I was learning Italian. False friends are present between most etymologically connected languages. They are seeds that hint at words' legacy, even when —and precisely because—they don’t mean the same thing. In Spanish, bombero is a firefighter, not a bomber. Idioma is a language, not an idiom. Embarazada means pregnant, not embarrassed —though the mix-up has embarrassed plenty.
In the beautiful Translator’s Note from Dante's Inferno, John Ciardi uses the metaphor of languages as instruments: “When a violin repeats what the piano has just played, it cannot make the same sounds. It can, however, make recognizably the same “music,” the same air. But it can do so only when it is as faithful to the self-logic of the violin as it is to the self-logic of the piano.” Each language’s logic carries a world of cultural understanding that often eludes the capabilities of our most advanced technologies. To explain the inability to mimic the subtleties of a language, we say we are ‘lost in translation.’ There is no better word for the feeling of attempting to convey the untranslatable: lostness. Language requires context. We have words for tremendously complex feelings, yet we are often particularly infatuated with the untranslatable. We are charmed to learn that Ancient Greek has παροινεὶν to describe the act of saying silly things when you're drunk, or that Pascuence has tingo for when one steals objects from a friend's house by gradually “borrowing” them.
The fascination with the untranslatable —the unattainable language—is what captivates us most. We were a species without a word for “attention” for hundreds of years. We created it relatively recently, and have since shaped it. Time enhances the magic of the vernacular. Historically, attention has been a courtesy. Something you offer as a gift, as a caring act. But today, it’s a commodity, an asset distributed to the highest bidder in our daily lives. Ensnared in the cycle of having our attention hijacked, we’re losing the agency of the offer.
Attention is a desirable asset. As it’s increasingly wanted by billionaire corporations, some would argue that it’s the most sought-after thing a human can offer. However, attention-seeking is poorly perceived, considered tasteless, and often socially punished. In his most recent book, the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips explores and justifies attention-seeking as an examination of ourselves, our interests, and our desires. In its familiar sense, Phillips writes, attention-seeking “is a way of wanting something without knowing what it is. A social ability, an appeal to others to help us with our wanting.” To be and make others comfortable with our attention-seeking, we transform it into art, or success, or likable public snippets of our lives. If we were to take these gestures in the literal sense, maybe all we’re trying to communicate is that we want to be cared for.
While a person seeking attention is rarely celebrated, attention-seeking technologies are ubiquitous, incredibly effective, and socially normalized. The more these devices know about what we choose to pay attention to, the more they are able to shape our desires. It’s not surprising that America—which uses the language of “pay” for attention—coined the term “attention economy.” Attention economics is an approach to information control that assumes human attention is a scarce good. Data-driven technologies are masters at behavioral manipulation systems that not only drive and maintain and keep our attention, but that shapes it for monetary purposes. There’s no language of care in the attention economy. The gesture of consciously offering of our time is lost in the sea of manipulation and behavior shaping. We lose sight of the word's lineage, and, in a way, our own.
In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell argues that given the contemporary politics of attention, to actively choose who or what to hear or see “forms the ground not only for love, but for ethics.” As people and corporations discuss and capitalize on the monetization of our attention, I want to reclaim attention as an act of care. Maybe, if we borrow from other languages and treat attention as a gift or an action—rather than a payment or a loan—we might be able to better communicate what we need and care for what others offer. Besides, at the heart of the word is its legacy: to tend to someone or something. Perhaps this is a rare instance where the past can be our guide on how to move forward, with a little more gentleness and care.
Juliana Castro V. is a Colombian designer and the founder of Cita Press. She cares about internet freedom, language, and translation. Juliana currently works at Access Now, a multinational organization devoted to human rights and technology.
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