Thursday, May 3, 2012

Talk This Way

As far as I can tell, other countries developed their languages so that I could make an idiot of myself for their personal amusement. I’m in Paris now, butchering their beautiful French. I know a little Italian and Spanish too, and, under pressure, I find myself saying buongiorno and de nada as often as merci beaucoup. It’s embarrassing. I must say, the French are good sports. They never laugh out loud. Their smiles are rueful and indulgent, the way one might regard the naiveté of a child.

"Do you understand the words
coming out of my mouth?"
When I’m not trying to talk to Parisians, I watch them: walking in the park, kissing, holding hands, tucking a blanket around a baby. They do all that stuff the same way I do. So do Czechs, Germans, Mexicans and Italians (except, in the case of Italians, for that thing they do with their hands when they speak, which I love but am too repressed to be any good at).

Somehow, humans all over the world have evolved to do everything the same except speaking. You might think that, given our common ancestry, the genetic expression that results in so many identical physical traits would also have supported a common language. I have no idea why it did not, but the differences are startling: Mandarin is not one bit like English; Italian couldn’t be farther from Russian.

Which brings me to this question: Are our thoughts as different as our languages?

Do you remember that discussion you had with your friends when you were young about whether when you each say you are seeing the color red you are in fact both seeing the same thing? Or whether you are merely calling something you see differently by the same name? In the absence of seeing through another’s eyes (and brain), the best anyone can say about that is that there is no way to know.

So when I describe a feeling I am having as anger or sadness, how can you and I know that what I am actually feeling is the same thing you feel when you say you are angry or sad? If the parts of our brains where speech is developed produce such different languages, might not the underlying thoughts be just as different?

In America, we’re having a particularly tough time lately getting along with the Muslim world. Our languages are very different, but we think that when we speak through translators we can understand each other. We know, of course, that cultural differences will remain even after the words are known, but what if there is more to it than that? What if our differences go beyond culture, all the way down to how the neurons in our brains talk to one another. What if speaking or thinking our respective words for “god” or “wife” or “loyalty” causes fundamentally different activity in our brains? Different connections, different triggers of base instincts, different adrenal responses, different passions.

Sometimes when I’m trying to make myself understood in another language, I slow my speech and exaggerate my syllables, maybe even throw in a little Franglish. I’m sure my efforts are comical, and I’m pleased to do my part to entertain others by being a hapless American. In matters weightier than ordering a cup of coffee or finding the bathroom, though, our language barriers may be more serious. If our words don’t mean the same things to us, if they affect us emotionally in fundamentally different ways, even with the best translation we may never understand or be understood.


  1. Another great post. This is something I think about often. That is why I so much wish to speak another language-- just so I can have another way to think and feel.

    Maud Carol

  2. I think you're confusing cultural differences with language differences. You may see vast cultural changes within a country over several decades, while the language itself remains the same. Look no further than the United States.