Amongst the various genetic, cultural and personal characteristics that together make us what we are language must be significant. But how significant?
As many readers of this blog will know, I am German by birth. I was born in Northern Germany and lived in that country until I was seven years old, speaking only German. My father came from Silesia, which was German at the time of his birth but is now Polish. His family home was near Opole (which he knew as Oppeln), which was interesting because the language commonly spoken there was a dialect that mixed Polish and German. I have early memories of him using Polish expressions or creating composite words that were both German and Polish. That, together with his liking for Polish cooking, tempered what was otherwise a very German personality.
In my own case, I arrived in Ireland at the age of seven, and over the next six or so years gradually adopted English as my main language – I was 12 when I became aware that I ‘thought’ in English. And just as that had been established, a year later my family returned to Germany, where I finished school and stayed for another two years to the age of 20. Then back to Ireland, and since then I have lived in Ireland and Britain. The reason I am explaining this – and apologies for the rather boring personal history – is because what all this did for me was the create a certain cultural ambivalence. I still think in English, but just occasionally something may happen that will let loose some exclamation in German in my head. Or in other circumstances, I may be driven to some typical Westmeath expression.
In my mid-20s a then girlfriend told me that I was relaxed, witty and unflappable when I spoke English, but when I spoke German I was tense, serious and determined; and to cap it, she thought I was charming and rogue-ish when I spoke French (which I did occasionally). So she clearly saw me as reflecting certain national stereotypes as I spoke the respective languages. But was that what she was expecting, and therefore determined to see, or was she right? What does language do to us?
Clearly languages are something more than equal or equivalent communication tools. Their very different constructs, the different size vocabulary, the expressions that draw on unique geographical, climate-based or cultural influences all have the capacity to convey something more than just objective meaning and can invest certain apparent cultural characteristics in the speaker.
But what happens when individuals or groups of people are deprived of vocabulary? A study I read recently of a group of socio-economcally disadvantaged people in an English region suggested that their active vocabulary was as low as 1,500 words (the English language is generally thought to have around 200,000 words in common use and over 600,000 words with a current meaning). How far would such verbal deprivation affect the people concerned, and what would be the impact on their cultural experience?
As was noted by commentators to a recent threat in this blog, language constantly evolves and adapts. But that is not necessarily a progressive trend; language can retrench and be impoverished as easily as it can expand. So it seems to me that we should be concerned when language becomes less sophisticated, or banal, or coarse; because in the end, at least in some measure we are what we speak.