Linguistic Shades: Why We’re Different People in Different Languages

Essays, Philosophy/Insight, Semantic Drifting

In one furious sweep after the Great Flood, God reduced the Tower of Babel to nothing. In our search for God, we came together to build the tower: one, universal communication system that would unite human kind and diffuse contention. This common link collapses, everyone disperses, and their language diversifies. A contemporary metaphor for multiculturalism, the Tower of Babel is the biblical account of the diversification of human qualities and, most importantly, our infinitely varied set of languages across the globe.

Speaking a certain language may relax us or tighten our lips; electrify us or sadden us. Articulating one consonant may make our mouth snarl. The steady rhythm of one language may subconsciously console use whereas the inconsistency and rapid rhythm of another may create anxiety. How our languages have manifested over time due to the influences of culture, language’s innate qualities, sound systems, and more, yields a kaleidoscopic variety. Linguists have largely debunked the rumors that different languages radically change our perception, yet there could a distinct influence on our behavior. When we learn a new language, we may adopt new behaviors, a new framework for perception… A different mask.

In learning a new language, we might try to connect with a different part of ourselves that’s shattered or repressed due to the cultural constraints. Learning a different language may be the only way we can compartmentalize ourselves in such way. In some cases of people with multiple personality disorder, people have assign different personalities to different languages. A sixteen-year-old boy in Nigeria woke up from a coma speaking fluent Spanish in a different persona after a head trauma injury. “Learn a language, get a new soul,” a Czech proverb declares. Though we may try to distance deviant or “shadow” identities by giving them a linguistic conduit, perhaps, deep in our psyche, the Tower of Babel remains. We may be superficially separate, but we are all one.

As infants, we are whole in ways we never will be as adults. Time narrows us. When we are that young, we have the innate and infinite capacity to learn any human language on the planet. This was never a given fact until Noam Chomsky, one of the founders of modern linguistics, pioneered his theory of an LAD—a “language acquisition device”. This “device” helps us learn our native language, and contains every parameter possible in a human language. As we go through life, we select which parameters our native tongue has: does our language put verbs at the beginning? How do we use the plural case? Do we have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ nouns? Once we know, those parameters are “locked in”—and past age nine, it’s very hard for us to learn languages with drastically different parameters than our own. We may never go back to that place of infinite openness.

When we learn a new language, we become more whole. We gain a different lens with which to view the same thing—much like the blind men and the elephant—which alters our experience of the thing itself. Research shows we are sentimental in our first language and more objective in our second. A native German speaker in a study blushed when she heard “ich liebe dich” (“I love you”) but turned pale when she heard the English translation. Research also shows we may perform at a higher intellectual level in our second language due to this psychological distance from the words we’re speaking.

Maybe we’ll discover who we are in that language. Maybe we’ll become different subjective selves in all of them, and these are the building blocks, different vehicles of the human experience that lead to one allusive point in the sky.

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

Semantic Drifting: The Story of the Word "Amazing"

Semantic Drifting: The Story of the Word “Amazing”

Semantic Drifting

Words pass through time like great works of art or literature. People once winced at Nietzche’s works, considered relics of a lunatic, and now, we revere him as an intellectual icon. As with words, which rarely mean precisely what they did at their inception. The process driving their evolution is semantic drift, the way words change meaning in their lifespan. There are many ways they do this, but the least common of them is called amelioration.

Perhaps speaking to time’s usual habit to making things worse, words will often go from meaning something positive to negative, a process called degeneration. The chances for a word to escape its gloomy, miserable, or evil connotations are slim to none. But when they come to mean something cheery or positive, they undergo amelioration–and it’s amazing.

Amazing, derived from the noun maze, meant “confusing; perplexing” around the 14th century. It’s not entirely clear how it became something so unquestionably positive in the contemporary sense (“Did you see her sing? She was amazing!”). The likely culprit is the multitude of emotional contexts in which we may be “confused” or “perplexed”. For instance, we may be confused by a cruel act, but we may be equally perplexed when we see someone so talented we don’t understand it. Amazing must have been used to express awe more often over time.

Emotional words tend to be more black and white, except for truly confusing words such as these. Words like happy or sad have not strayed that far from their original meanings (happy used to mean lucky, sad meant sorrowful). But aren’t emotions like confusion and bewilderment inherently amazing… in the original sense? Does this give them the gray area for a rare semantic process like amelioration to do its unlikely and miraculous work?

Beginning the maze of semantic drift may seem daunting. But a word’s lunacy may reveal much about our own.

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

Semantic Drifting: The complex journey of a word's meaning through time.

Semantic Drifting: The Story of the Word “Silly”

Semantic Drifting

Did you know the girl used to refer to both sexes? Or that awful meant even more awesome than awesome (some awe vs. full of awe)? Your brain in a choke hold right now? You can thank semantic drift. Semantic drift, a linguistics term, is the way words change meaning in their lifespan. There are many ways they do this, which are processes called wideningnarrowingmetaphormetonymysynendochedegeneration, and a few others (though they have not all been decided upon in the linguistics community).

Silly, right?

Silly is an example of degeneration–the gradual worsening of the meaning. At the beginning of the 13th century, silly was spelled “sely” and meant “happy, blissful, blessed.” It was derived from the noun, selth which meant “well-being” (as opposed to unselth which meant “misery”).  The word took on more religious meanings as “happy” people were seen as “taken care of by good.” The meaning of sely thus narrowed into: “spiritually blessed,” which also implied “innocent.”

Now, there’s that other flip side of “innocence”. When you’re innocent, you need to be taken care of. You’re dependent and can’t think of yourself. You’re kind of… stupid. This was the birth of its modern meaning–beginning in the 1500s, sely was pronounced in the contemporary fashion as “silly” and meant: “lacking good sense, empty-headed, senseless, foolish.” Sound a little crazy?

Indeed, “this is the silliest stuff that ever I heard”(1595, Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).