Image via WikipediaLast Sunday's N.Y. Times Magazine published an interesting article by an English linguist on how our native language influences our perceptions. Here is the concluding segment:
The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.
Source link (emphasis added).
The first language I spoke as a child was Spanish, which was the language spoken exclusively at home at least whenever an adult was speaking. The powerful, intangjble ways in which language influences our visceral and emotional reactions to facts can be shown by looking at one risqué linguistic example from my Spanish upbringing.
I recall comments by the Spanish-speaking adults, especially the women, about other women and their dalliances. The rhetorical question would be asked in a somewhat sardonic, Yiddish-like way about an unmarried woman who had a sexual partner or a history of more than one sexual partner: "¿Quién es el marido?" or "¿Y qué marido tiene ahora?" These phrases can be roughly translated, respectively, as, "Who is the 'husband'?" ; "And what 'husband' does she have now?"
Of course, the unmarried woman had no legal husband; but her being the compliant "bed-mate" of a male and thereby treating the male for all practical purposes (and certainly in the most significant emotional and physical way possible) as if he were indeed a legal husband needed to be expressed. Such a woman could have many such "husbands" (maridos) at different times.
The implied and abundant sarcasm that dripped from this way of describing unmarried sexual partners is hard to articulate explicitly. Such sarcasm struck and strikes a profound emotional core--what is profoundly marital is in this situation a flagrantly casual, recklessly easy, and outrageously dishonorable reality.
Certainly, premarital sex is now so common-- serial sexual partners before marriage are so common--that merely to note the reality is nothing spectacular today. What is noteworthy in this Spanish idiom is the profound disdain traditionally expressed for such easy and casual behavior. That cultural disdain is why for many of us from immigrant cultures it is hard to accept the unacceptable with the calm, puzzling indifference that is so absurdly common in America. This linguistic difference highlights the contrast between a more traditional culture of sexual honor and a rootless, vanilla culture of sexual indifference. It's a big difference, and language shows the difference. Such linguistic differences, rarely expressed to outsiders, quietly and privately shape how many, here and abroad, view American culture.