Monday, 30 June 2014

Language, Culture and Identity

"Change your language and change your thoughts." - Karl Albrecht

Language is rooted in our genes, an ability embedded deep within each and every one us, and is just as much a part of our personality as any other of our unique traits.

In the same way that it affects our own personality, language also shapes the personality of a community. There are just over 7000 different languages spoken around the world, and each one of them has its own unique identity. At face value, they sound different, they look different written down. Some even use complex symbols which for those unfamiliar with them can seem totally baffling. But studying them closely, each language also feels different. Speakers of different languages express themselves in different ways, use words in different contexts, and use phrases which when translated into another language make absolutely no sense. It's fascinating. Different societies are shaped by the languages they use; a language is as much a means of communication as it is an integral part of a country’s culture, traditions and identity.

If we think about the usual stereotypes associated with different countries, we can see how largely shaped by language they are. I immediately think of the Italians.  The language of opera, Italian itself almost sounds as if it's being sung. It's an expressive language, closely linked with the visual; the fashion, the art and the food all associated with Italy's rich culture. For example, when I speak Italian, I suddenly find myself gesturing with my hands to convey emotion which I wouldn't do when speaking English; it's an emotive language, vibrant and passionate just like its speakers. Just as Italy is connected to beauty - its picturesque countryside towns, its deliciously colourful food and the designer fashion of Armani and Prada - Italian is a beautiful language. It manages to make even the most mundane of English words sound romantic: dirt becomes sudiciume, gossip transforms into chiacchiera and a simple toothpick becomes the rather more beautiful stuzzicadenti. 

What about the French? The country of love, France's language is immediately associated with romance, passion and sex; it just sounds romantic. Think about the phrases we've stolen from the French: ménage à trois, lingerie, liasons. We've even named a style of kissing after them! 

Then we have the Britts. Renowned for our eternal politeness, sorry and excuse me are some of the most frequently used words in our language. We're decidedly less emotional than the French or the Italians and this is shown in our language. We've had to borrow phrases from the French because we simply can't find our own word to describe a déjà vu or a tête-à-tête. The English language however is also very much associated with literature. When we think of Britain we think of William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and while these writers used the English language, they also enriched it and added to it.

Language therefore is inextricably linked with culture. A language is as much a part of a country's identity as its customs, its cuisine, its literature or its politics. This isn't surprising since language is after all, the tool with which we describe and make sense of all of these things. When you learn another language, you don't simply learn how to communicate with its speakers, you discover how to exist in and appreciate their culture.

Just as our society changes, as it develops and evolves with new technology and fashions, language is constantly changing too. And this is why it is such a compelling subject to study. 

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