The last couple weeks I have been traveling in a country where English is not the primary language. Although not fluent in the local tongue, I do speak, read, and understand enough to conduct myself successfully through the world. Plenty of people here also speak English, but part of why I came to Germany was to speak German. So that’s what I’m doing. And when I need help remembering a word, I can just ask the translator app on my phone. Sometimes the word I need bubbles up to the front of my mind in the moment, before I look it up, which is very satisfying.
An interesting side effect of immersing myself in another language is that I am also thinking in that language. I wrote a postcard home and it was a challenge to stop myself from automatically slipping-in some German sentences. A few of my English sentences were even structured a little differently than usual. Not quite German construction, but call it English with a nod to stylistically German grammar.
Thinking differently is an interesting (and enjoyable) experience. Over the years I’ve taken workshops designed to facilitate out-of-the-box thinking in various ways, but they have all been entirely in my native language. It’s been fun for the language itself to be the catalyst on this trip. A great example is the difference between how American English and German each express clock time. To describe 3:30 in English, we might say “it’s half-past 3.” In German, “it’s half to 4.” The main focus for the English structure is the past, the hour we are leaving behind. The German structure is future focused, identifying the hour we are heading toward. I don’t know enough about German culture to extrapolate a grander meaning, but it’s interesting to consider.
I have also been re-reading Ursula LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed” on this trip, which includes some interesting discussion on how language is shaped by (and shapes) the way people think about themselves, the world around them, and the people in it. The story takes place in a fictional universe 7 generations after anarchists left their home planet to create a new kind of society on the moon. The formerly-home-planet is fertile and rich in natural resources (like earth), while the moon is habitable but less hospitable.
The colonists left not only the economic, government, religious, and other societal systems behind, they also left their language. 7 generations later, when the story takes place, one of the anarchists must learn the language of the abandoned planet so he can visit to share scientific knowledge and information with the capitalists who still call it home. This character remarks that his (anarchist) language has no possessives, so they don't say things like "this is mine, that is yours." Instead, he explains, they say "I use this one, you use that one."
I definitely possess things and describe my objects as such. This is my sweater, these are my shoes. When I share the ownership of an object with another person I include that data point as well by saying "this thing is ours." This week I have been reflecting on how I also claim certain connections to other people. My father, my best friend, my sibling. I don't feel like I own any part of these people because people are not things, but I do feel like I am making a claim on the connection we share when I use a relationship-oriented title.
I don't think this is a problem, usually a person's position relative to me is relevant when I describe them in this way. But it is objectifying in a sense, so I'd like to be doing it consciously. Just like using all the relatively commonplace honorifics we use in English (or any other language you speak). It's important to consider who bestows titles like Mr, Mrs, Doctor, Professor. It's important to ask how they are assigned? And just as important to ask who is left out? When are they excluded? And why? Language is one of the many ways to uplift or oppression each other, so we should take care how we wield that power.
People are doing things differently in the different places they are living. They are using different languages and speaking differently about people, places, and things. Because language is also constantly evolving, the way we express ourselves is growing and changing all the time. Technology has connected us globally and instantaneously, so we seem to be changing at a faster rate than the humans of prior centuries. I would like us all to examine what those shifts mean and to choose as many as we can with intention.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.