We are what we speak; or are we?

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.

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5 Comments on “We are what we speak; or are we?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    1500 words, that is just wrong. If they had names for everything within 150 yards of their house they would surpass that number. And as to the notion of active words. Active how, exactly, as I’ve just had my four-year injection of Curling can I define this brain space as active. And is it active in an Irish person to have to want to dream up words for the action of inserting a cowbell via the ear. Further, who the hell is so economically deprived these days that they haven’t a telly.

    What is interesting is that mood change with different languages, I think it’s based on the context of how one learned it. I certain that my version of French with its mix of Poitiers and Carcassonne is a thing of terror to the French, I’ve seen the look of pure horror when asking for a clip of bus tickets. But who cares, the when and where was good fun.


    • Vincent, that is why the notion of the ‘active’ vocabulary is significant: i.e. the words they use themselves in speech, as distinct from the ‘passive’ vocabulary (the words they understand).

  2. Vincent Says:

    The same could be said for socio-economcally advantaged people in an English region that do three-day eventing. And I have encountered knuckle-draggers that hold tenure who have difficulty shaping their mouths to order coffee.

    Any closed society will have a reduced active vocabulary. The question is if they can communicate with those outside using what is normally the passive words.

  3. Wendymr Says:

    But what happens when individuals or groups of people are deprived of vocabulary?

    This point interests me because in my job I work with many people who are in just this position: not through lack of education or intelligence, but because they are having to operate in a language that isn’t their own. Probably 60% or more of my clients are ESL-speakers, at varying different levels of comfort with the language, and about a year ago I interviewed a number of them, with their permission, for a talk I give occasionally on communicating with second-language speakers. These people are, for the most part, very highly educated (up to PhD in some cases), highly experienced in their professions (accountants, engineers, finance professionals, and in one case the former mayor of his city) and in their own language would have a huge vocabulary at their fingertips.

    In English, they told me, they feel ‘paralysed’. When they can’t express what they want to say, they feel stupid, and they feel the people they’re trying to converse with think they’re stupid also. Even worse when it’s prospective employers, and they feel they lack the language to explain their professional experience.

    Language can be a great enabler; but it can also be a considerable barrier to opportunities – and to self-confidence.

  4. Aidan Says:

    I am very interested in this area too because of living in a highly multilingual environment. The language in my head is continually evolving as the degrees to which I am exposed to various languages changes.
    I am fascinated by multilingualism because of the fact that the total vocabulary of multilinguals is almost always greater than that of a monolingual. If a monolingual English speaking child uses 2000 words how does their overall brain structure compare to that of a trilingual of the same age who ma have 5000 active words in total from the three languages?
    On the point of the link between language and national chracteristics I think that that is almost always a projection. Very few languages are spoken in only one country (German speaking Italians are more like Italians than German in my experience, I met a German speaking Belgian one time who I assumed was French…).


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