|Social and political comments|
Language and personality
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March 7, 2008|
This past Sunday, I attended a group discussion, sponsored by the New Haven Center for Independent Study (CIS), “Speech and Self -- a conversation by, about, and with people who operate in more than one language.” Quite clear that it was only a hypothesis, our host proposed that the language you speak determines (or heavily influences) your personality. We must have had about two dozen people present, and each spoke of her or his experience with multiple languages and how it might affect them.
I found the discussion fascinating, and while I am unconvinced that the thesis for the day is valid, I find it has interesting potential, and in any event I heard a number of provocative statements. Here’s a summary of what I can remember from different speakers:
I have always been fascinated with words and their power or ineffectiveness. One day I think they have enormous power, the next day I think they have none. My dissertation was on Tudor attitudes towards the power of language (and I often had the fantasy of attaching to the final page a pin and deflated balloon etched with the thesis title, next to which would be printed, "Inflate and puncture"). I have prided myself on ever-evolving prowess in my speech and writing. I am practically a language fascist and easily get upset about English misuse (even moreso when I discover a misuse I've had for years without knowing better).
When I spoke at the gathering— our host called on me first—I mentioned only a couple of things, one of which was that while my French is very good (and my only foreign language that is), I am not fluent in it. I do decently when having an academic discussion, relatively poorly when conversing about everyday matters loaded with argot (slang), and when I watch a subtitled French movie, the dialogue is typically too fast for me to follow--though if I read the subtitles while listening to the dialogue I can identify a great deal that is left out of the subtitles. I have always wished I were fluent in French, and when I lived in Paris for six months in 1968-69 I certainly improved (though never to the point of understanding French movies). But I have always felt frustrated that I would never master French nuances and wordplay the way I can in English. Long ago I compared my facility with French, compared to English, to a watchmaker wearing gloves as he makes a delicate adjustment.
Once I finished my own comments at the gathering, I found that listening to others’ thoughts prompted more of my own memories:
- For a trip to Russia in 1965, I taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet so I could sound out words, and sometimes I could figure them out (I remember a menu word at Moscow Iniversity (into which I had sneaked) that sounded out to German “Kartoffeln.”)
- I have a few bits of Latin. When I first attended grad school in the Berkeley English department, Latin was required, and I despaired of learning it well enough to pass the same kind of exam I would pass in French and German. I attended a Latin class led by another grad student, but I couldn't get across my problem in judging how exactly to make sense of which words and declensions related to which; as I recall, the class leader dismissed this issue, perhaps because he wasn’t sure how to answer; I remember his suggesting something like, "It's intuitive, can't be explained, you'll pick it up." When I returned to Berkeley five years later, Latin was no longer a requirement. But I wish I could read it, especially Renaissance Latin. Over the years I have learned to make a little bit of sense out of Latin I've encountered.
- When I went to Italy a dozen years ago, I taught myself enough Italian that I could understand much of what was written on the front pages of Italian newspapers. When we were checking out of one hotel, I was able to have a rudimentary argument about the bill; among other things, when the clerk gradually raised his voice in frustration over my not understanding something, I was able to point out to him that speaking louder was not going to help me understand.
- About ten years ago I began reading extensively in history concerning European discovery of the Americas, from roughly mid-15th century to maybe 1530, when the European encounters were dominated by the Spanish and, to a lesser degree, Portuguese. I taught myself a bit of Spanish, enough so that often I could make decent sense out of non-esoteric written Spanish, and could often also compare a Spanish text (like Columbus’ journal) with its English translation to identify potentially problematic words. I expect to return to that research, and I will be interested to see (a) what I remember and (b) how much more Spanish I’m willing to learn.
So what do I make of the thesis that one’s language drives one’s personality? I am sceptical but not dismissive of it. I am more inclined to think that the influence is a cultural one, what the language represents to us psychologically, or the effect of being in or feeling related to the corresponding geography at least as much as speaking or reading the language—but then I’m not sure how different that re-positioning is from the original thesis. I do have vivid memories that when I have traveled to a foreign country—and this is probably still true—I have felt liberated in some ways, freed from everyday constraints. One example is what I said above about relishing my knowledge of much British usage when I lived in London, and though I am surely out of date with youthful slang I get a similar pleasure now when watching a British film or TV show and understanding specifically British terms and references (though I often have trouble following all of a dialect). I watch a lot of BBC America dramas. When I visit London or Paris, I feel I am returning to second homes.
One reason I specifically enjoy being in England or on the continent—and again, this may not contradict the opening thesis of the CIS discussion—is that I feel much more politically at home there than in the US. Here my leftish politics are marginalized; there, even when attacked they are recognized as a norm.
I guess the thesis about language and personality seems too sweeping. Perhaps I’d be more comfortable saying, “Language drives some personality” or “alternative language can open us to alternative behavior.” (Is this why groups--e.g., the military, beatniks, spy agencies, hippies, the theater--produce a private jargon?) Even with what we normally consider languages—speech based on everyday communication—the effect of speaking a second (or third, or whatever) language may vary greatly for different people. Changed behavior may say at least as much about a person’s underlying psychology and neuroses as about the power of the language itself. But that still leaves open the question of whether (and if so, why) a foreign language "changes" us more than some other learned talent like, say, bungee-jumping or preparing a meal.
Then there’s the interesting though not necessarily make-or-break question about other kinds of "language" (which I suppose, for those working intensively with them, are also a kind of everyday communication), like film or dramaturgy or mathematics or computer programming languages. Is a director different on the set and off (for example, are notoriously abusive on-set directors actually pussycats at the dinner table)? Does the focused language and sequence-of-events of a play (or film—or for that matter, poetry or fiction or social-science writing) produce a “different” writer or audience member?* Does a brilliant (or run-of-the-mill) mathematician (or chemist or physicist…) become a fundamentally different person when studying or fashioning equations? (Renaissance thinkers, especially in the 17th century, often cited mathematics as the language in which God "wrote" the universe.) Is there a reason why computer programmers are so often identified with nerdiness? And so on.
Translation raises interesting, related questions. I won't pretend to resolve issues about how translation should balance literalism, cultural context, the spirit of the text, subtext of the original, sounds, or imagery, nor can I say how well any given translator masters the author's "intention" in one or more of these areas. Rather, the very fact that such questions cannot be avoided by the sensitive translator and reader is indicative of how elusive not only precise textual meaning (or narrative spirit) is but also the degree to which translator and reader can (or should?) be drawn into the "world" in which author and text were originally framed. The interpretive problem is only a bit less awkward if one is able to read the text in its original, especially if the author inhabited a different time and place than the reader's.
A bright side of kindred issues (if, indeed, the issues I've addressed so far reflect a dark side) is that reading, whether in the original language or translation, whether with deeper or shallower (to the extent we can agree on such terms) insight into the text, is akin to travel, which for many of us surrounds us with new possibilities about life in general and our own lives in particular. Different people will explore such possibilities to different degrees and in different way, and some may be profoundly changed forever, some for the moment, and some only a little; I doubt anyone can remain totally unchanged, though one may claim otherwise.
If a language does (or can) drive personality, so can other things we experience. Indeed, learning to talk and expanding one's expressive abilities in general all start in imitation of other personalitties. We start by imitating speech we most hear, then come to try out different modes of expression that appeal to us (like softness or sarcasm or bodily emphasis). As I used to tell students when coaching them in oral presentation, aside from the primary rule of finding commitment to one's subject and letting that commitment show, trying out specific modes of expression (e.g., a theatrical pause or an arch look) may start out as nothing more than imitation, but if embraced and integrated over time will become one's own, altering one's "personality" to that extent. If planned novelty in thought and behavior doesoccur in the individual or society, it begins as a tiny variant on what is familiar. To paraphrase an undergraduate mentor, Paul Fussell, one learns to oscillate back and forth between the familiar and invention so fast as to give the illusion of simultaneity.**
Then there is the nurturing of an image of what one should be, "acting" as though you "belong." After watching a couple of students ahead of me, I got past a turnstile guard at Moscow University by looking straight ahead and moving casually. Crossing Red Square against traffic, I sauntered on without looking towards a distant cop who was whistling frantically at me but could not, I assumed, leave his post. When I taught at Harvard Business School, before entering the classroom I typically made a conscious decision to act as if I belonged there despite my inner feeling of charlatanship. When dealing with a very troubled person (angry, upset, depressed) I have learned how to speak in a focused, low, soft voice and find the place in me that can let genuine concern show in my voice and body. In public groups, I long since learned to recognize that I am avoiding true engagement when I retreat to continuing (as opposed to momentary) stand-up comic interaction (a version of the class clown, I suppose--the antithesis of what I was like as a child), at which I fancy myself pretty funny.
Certainly oral and written style reflect specialized personality. Language, of course, is intrinsically manipulative, and when speaking in public, acting, or crafting written communication, one is fashioning a highly filtered self to which, one hopes, others are responding with empathy and interest--and admiration for one's imagined talent.
*In theater and film, one ever-useful rule for writer, director and actor is: “What is crucially different about this scene from any other moment in the characters’ lives?” And what I consider the basis of the best acting for most people involves drawing on, opening oneself up to, one’s own deepest feelings and experiences. What about improvisation? Theater of the Absurd? As an actor I have seen, and heard of, very peculiar, typically unpleasant out-of-the-scene behavior in other actors—and sometimes in myself, I imagine—and I have never been sure if it’s their “real” selves coming out or idiosyncratic behavior from stresses associated with rehearsal or performance; since trust among actors is vital, this uncertainty has sometimes been sometimes scary.
**Fussell used this image in a 1962-3 literary criticism course at Rutgers to explain a critical principle that I can, alas, no longer remember.