Thursday, September 9, 2010

Our Mother Tongue and its Influence

I often ask myself if and how our first language influences our way of thinking. My German self is more serious, deeper, gloomier and more complicated than my American self. I am a different person speaking and writing in English— simpler, lighter, and funnier. Perhaps that is why I have become a published writer in the English language first.
Our mother tongue forces us to think a certain way, to be precise about certain information, to pay attention to aspects of our experience that is not required by speakers of other languages. In English, a teacher can be either male or female; in German, the gender is clear: I am either taught by my “Lehrer” or “Lehrerin.” In English I need to spell out if I meet or met my husband, if I will meet him, or I am meeting him. Other languages do not force us to specify in this manner; in Chinese, the same verb form stands for past, present, and future.
When the English language borrows words from the German, as in leitmotiv, schadenfreude, wunderkind, weltschmerz and realpolitik, is it difficult for the native English speaker to understand the concepts behind those foreign terms? Two psychologists, Lisa Irmen and Astrid Köhncke conducted experiments to find out if the grammatical use of gender influences our notions about the objects. To Germans, the bridge, “die Brücke,” is female: They attribute qualities like beautiful, elegant and slender to it. For the Spanish, the bridge, “el puente” is male. The Spanish think of typical male attributes as huge, strong and solid. Do Spanish and German architects therefore design different types of bridges? I wonder why the moon is male and the sun is female in German, while it is the opposite in French. Having grown up near the Rhine river, “Vater Rhein”, the river is always male to me as is the forest, the mountain and the ocean. The meadow, color, crowd and revolution on the other hand is always female. The child, “das Kind,” is an “it” in German as is the girl, “das Mädchen.” Does this reflect the belief that they are not yet sexual beings?
If the habits of our mother tongue impact our thoughts, perceptions and experiences in the world what happens to the English-speaking people who do not assign a gender to their nouns? Linguists argue about the validity of linguistic relativity, the fact that different languages give us a different picture of the world. David Sedaris’ contributed the funniest comment to this debate in his story “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” the hilarious account of his struggle with learning the French language. It is assigned reading in all of my writing classes and often the text my CCNY students—most of them immigrants or the children of immigrants—enjoy the most.
“… I managed to mispronounce IBM and assigned the wrong gender to both the floor waxer and the typewriter. The teacher’s reaction led me to believe that these mistakes were capital crimes in the country of France…. I find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself. Why refer to a Lady Crack Pipe or Good Sir Dishrag when sex implied?”