By the sounds of it… Language and National character

My misadvadventures in cyber-land this week led me to this Copy Cat Channel video on the Huffington Post Canada site about how German compares to other European languages. A selection of words, presumably hand-picked for their ‘foreign-ness’ in German – including aeroplane, surprise, butterfly, pen, daisy, ambulance and science – are used to demonstrate what an ugly and aggressive language German is.

Or am I being too harsh?

It reminds me of the quote at the beginning of Guy Deutscher’s wonderful book ‘Through the Language Glass’, which he attributes to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, king of Spain, archduke of Austria, and master of several European tongues: I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.

Thus, Spanish becomes the language of devotion and faith, Italian the language of love, French the language of thought, philosophy and rule, and German fit for commanding beasts.

Although I suppose the sentiment all depends on the relationships Charles had with God, women, men and his horse really… I don’t wish to put words in his mouth!

I suppose it is just too easy for us to read that “French is not only a Romance language but the language of Romance par excellence. English is an adaptable, even promiscuous language, and Italian – ah, Italian!” and accept it without question.

It puts me in mind of John Cleese and Charles Crichton’s 1988 film ‘A Fish called Wanda’. Jamie Lee Curtis’ character is sent into paroxysms of lust whenever Kevin Kline’s Otto speaks Italian to her. When she falls for John Cleese’s English barrister, Archie Leach, she asks:

Wanda: Archie? Do you speak Italian?
Archie: I am Italian! Sono italiano in spirito. Ma ho sposato una donna che preferisce lavorare in giardino a fare l’amore appassionato. Uno sbaglio grande! But it’s such an ugly language. How about… Russian?

Aside from being funny, it is a clever play on our expectations. The humour works because it challenges our acceptance that Italian is the language of love. (I have to wonder: do Italian men feel empowered or oppressed by this expectation of them being superior lovers? And, if there is a link between language and national character, is it because language reflects the character of its speakers or influences it?) Or as the film posits it: could Russian really be the language of love?!

Perhaps beauty is in the ear of the beholder…

There is an uncomfortable undertone to all of these examples; the notion that the character of a language expresses something about the character of the people who speak it. Are we keen to interpret the way German sounds ‘different’ in the Huff Post video because of some pre-conceived, rather-jingoistic ethnocentricity of our own?

It is a view Deutscher pastiches cleverly, ironically positioning German “as a particularly orderly language, which is why the German’s have such orderly minds. (But can one not hear the goose-step in its gauche, homourless sounds?)”

In fact, Deutscher questions our ready-acceptance to see German like this: “If Germans do have systematic minds,” he says, “this is just as likely to be because their exceedingly erratic mother tongue has exhausted their brains’ capacity to cope with any further irregularity.”

What do you think? Does language reflect or influence national character? What do our judgements say about us? Tell us! What language do you love to hear? Do you think the language(s) you choose to learn indicates anything about your own character? Let us know!

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