Connecting across languages, connecting across cultures

The priest was imprisoned by the Nazis in the concentration camp at Dachau. The numbers tattooed on his arm served as an ever-present reminder.

Sculpture at Dachau Memorial Site

Sculpture by Nandor Glid at the Dachau Memorial Site (photo credit below)

Now, 30 years later, he was working as a docent at the Dachau Memorial Site. He watched as the four of us — my high-school classmates and I — stood before a poem on the wall, painstakingly translating it from German to English.

We gladly accepted his offer of help. So began a wonderful conversation in which he told us what it had been like for him. Showed us the numbers on his arm. Brought to life things that for us, up to then, had merely been information in history books.

At one point I commented on the beauty of the German language — how the poem we were reading allowed a depth of expression that I didn’t think would be possible in English.

The priest smiled and said, “That’s funny. I see it the other way.” For him, English had much more potential for beauty, nuance, and expressiveness than his native German.

Another way to view the world

I thought of that encounter recently when I read Jacob Mikanowski’s thoughts on English becoming the world’s dominant language. Mikanowski, a native Polish speaker, complains that the pervasiveness of English is squeezing out other languages — and, with them, people’s ability to communicate their deepest thoughts to each other.

To me, family intimacies long to be expressed in Polish. So does anything concerning the seasons, forest products and catastrophic sorrows. Poetry naturally sounds better in Polish.

Yet for my classmates and me, and for the priest at Dachau, poetry sounded better in a language that wasn’t our own.

Here, I think, is why.

Connections

A language reflects a culture’s way of viewing the world. A single word might tie together two concepts that, in another language or even another dialect, would seem unrelated. Here’s an example: In British English, dear means both beloved and costly. We Americans know only the first meaning. But when you see the connection — dear meaning of great value — you gain a glimmer of insight into the way another culture views the world.

Sometimes it’s just a turn of phrase. In English, the proper response to thank you is you’re welcome, which means….I don’t know what it means. You’re welcome to what? I get uncomfortable thinking about it.

In Spanish, the proper response is de nada. It’s nothing. Ah! I’m comfortable with that.

While I lack the skill in any language, other than English, to express certain complex thoughts — like Mikanowski’s “catastrophic sorrows” — I love to discover the ways in which other languages make connections I haven’t seen before. That’s true even for languages I’m only fleetingly familiar with.

So I both agree and disagree with Mikanowski. I grieve with him when a civilization passes away and its language — its way of viewing the world — passes away with it.

At the same time, I don’t want to be trapped into thinking that my native culture — and my native language — offer the only right way, or even the best way, of viewing the world.

Every culture, every language, has something to contribute.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember that poem well enough to find it again. Nor do I know if it’s still on the wall where we encountered it. But I’ll never forget the flashes of insight that came as we peered through the eyes of another culture, and the kinship we felt with the German priest who reached across from his culture to see through the eyes of ours.

Photo Credit: By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

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3 thoughts on “Connecting across languages, connecting across cultures

  1. Mark Baker

    I’ve seen a couple of passionate refutations of the language-shapes-culture idea recently (thought I clipped them, but apparently not). I suspect that the arguments on both sides focus too much on individual words.

    It is clearly true that some languages have a word for a thing that other languages don’t, and that therefore those other languages have to use a phrase or a sentence or even a parable to say the same thing. But we put too much stock in words altogether. Outside the core grammatical set, words are just shortcuts for stories. We see the formation of new words all the time, and the process is that some concept that to this point was rare has now become common and so the phrase that described it before gets shortened into a word: electronic mail to email, for instance.

    Other examples of words that stand for stories include Hollywood, Dachau, 9-11, Titanic, Sputnik.

    Languages, in other words, acquite words for stories that their speaker tell a lot. Those words then become moribund or change meaning when their speakers cease to tell the associated story (or, rather, cease to refer to the associated story because its expressive relevance has declined as the culture has changed).

    By the time you reach our age, a lot of the words we grew up with have lost their associations with stories, and thus we are sometimes at a loss to express something to our grandchildren. The perfect mot juste that evokes an exquisite emotion in us evokes no response in them. They don’t know the same stories. This seems to us like a cultural loss, a coarsening of language and feeling. It may be, too, because cultures do go through periods of barbarism. But even it is were not true at the moment, it would seem true to us, because our grandchildren don’t speak our language and we don’t speak theirs. We both speak English, of course, but we don’t know the same stories, and when you don’t know the same stories, you don’t speak the same language.

    With languages, therefore, I think it must be as it is with people. We mourn deaths and we celebrate births. Yet we know that without the deaths, there would be no births. This does not make the deaths any less bitter. But at the same time, we should not exaggerate the loss. Every loss is balanced by a gain. I would not trade my granddaughter to have my mother back.

    When it comes to minor languages, I don’t think we lose any expressiveness when we lose a language. Ultimately expressiveness comes through stories and we can still tell the same stories in other languages, even if we sometimes have to replace one word with several. The real issue is, do we lose the stories? And in fact I think we do. But as with me and my grandchildren, we don’t lose them because we lose the language. We lose them because they cease to express ideas and experiences that are relevant to contemporary lives.

    If we are losing ancient ways of life, and thus the stories that were integral to those ways of life, it is because people find they like antibiotics and painless dentistry and central heating and high speed internet. And when you have those things, your days are spent very differently, and your hopes and cares are very different, and different stories become relevant to your life.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark, for sharing your insights. I agree with you about 90 percent. The words and idioms of a language do indeed represent stories; however, I think they also reveal clues about how cultures view the world – something that goes beyond stories.

      We might find that we prefer central heating. But there’s still value in knowing how to build a fire – and in understanding how important fire was to our ancestors.

      Again, thanks for your comment. You contribute so much to this blog, and I’m grateful to you.

      Reply

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