I am a total geek when it comes to language. Well, I’m a huge geek when it comes to a lot of things, but right now I’m geeking out about language, so that is going to bear the brunt of my geekiness for the time being.
I have been fascinated by language ever since I can remember. Not only foreign languages, but the concept of language as a whole. I remember sitting in the middle of the living room in my grandmother’s house, playing with toys and suddenly stopping and wondering to myself while certain things were called what they were. Where did words like “chair” and “nose” and “booger” come from?
Although my grandmother used to curse at us in Yiddish, my first real exposure to other languages came in school, where I learned German, Spanish and French. I learned with an ease that was envied by many of my classmates who did not share my aptitude for the subject. It just made sense to me. It was like a code, and I managed to crack it with very little effort.
I was willing to accept that just because we phrase things in a certain way in English, my mother tongue, there is no reason why it should be so in other languages. While my classmates insisted that “yo tengo diversión” was the way the Spanish express their enjoyment of something – a literal translation of “I have fun”, which sounds ridiculous to anyone with an intermediate or better grasp on the Spanish language.
Over the years, I’ve attempted to learn my fair share of languages. In college, I even attempted to create my own language. However, nowadays there are only two, beside my own, that I feel like I truly speak. One of them (Portuguese) was acquired in Portugal, where I went as an exchange student several times and then lived for several years when I first finished college. The other (Spanish), I’ve learned on the job. Working in the social service field, I had many opportunities to sharpen my skills. I suppose that for an American, that’s rather impressive, as we are typically thought of as linguistically- challenged, when it comes to any language other than our own! However, in studying languages in the past, my goal was not to become fluent or even conversational as much as it was to dissect the language from a scientific point of view. See? I told you I was a geek! You didn’t believe me!
I was intrigued by research and literature published on the effect one’s native language has on one’s world view. For example, anyone who speaks Portuguese is familiar with the concept of “saudade“. While there is no exact equivalent in English, or in any other language that I am familiar with, it can be roughly translated as “longing” or “nostalgia”, though it is not necessarily tied to the past, the way these concepts tend to be in English. Saying “tenho saudades de…” is much like saying “I miss…” however, one can have “saudades” for a place he or she has never been, a time that is yet to come, or an abstract state of being that has not yet been experienced. After enough time living amongst the Portuguese, absorbing the language from every angle, I came to realize that I had been feeling saudade all my life, I just hadn’t realized it because I lacked the word for it!
The Pirahã live in Northern Brazil, but they don’t speak Portuguese. They speak their own language, aptly named Pirahã. They are what some may call a “primitive” culture, meaning that they don’t wear pants, live in cities or use money. Their language lacks words for numbers and they are incapable of conceptualizing exact amounts. The first time I heard about the Pirahã, I was in a child development class and I nearly fell out of my chair. My mouth remained agape for days!
Just as saudade existed for me even before I was aware of a word for it, exact quantities of things exist for the Pirahã. However, since their language lacks cardinal and ordinal numbers, they do not distinguish between quantities such as 5 or 8 or 15, the way we would.
But how much does the language we speak really influence our behavior? Perhaps more than we think.
In this video, behavioral economist Keith Chen shares a rather interesting hypothesis that the language we speak impacts our attitudes toward saving for the future!
And then there’s this article, also from TED Talks, highlights other examples of the ways in which our mother tongue influences our thinking. It makes sense, right? I mean, language is the building materials we use to assemble our thoughts, and the way in which the parts are assembled determines the structure of the final product, right?
I have noticed that certain ideas are easier for me to express in one language than another. For example, when I’m being creative, I prefer English because I feel like the language lends itself well to new words to describe new ideas. However, if I’m talking about politics, I prefer Portugese because I feel like there is more vocabulary I can choose from to concisely express my opinions.
Anyone want to weigh in?
And congratulations to you if you’re still reading!