Saturday, July 31, 2010


There was an interesting article in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal about how language influences the way we see the world: 

In the article, Charlemagne was quoted stating, “to have a second language is to have a second soul.” After reading the article, I thought about this for a long time. My conclusions are that: maybe another language doesn't supply a second soul, but possibly a mirror into another aspect of one’s soul.

The Italian language, above all, is a romance language (sounds better than Vulgur Latin, doesn't it?). Living in “Italian,” I am seeing myself as more of a romantic then previously. By romantic, I don't mean that I make candlelit dinners and place rose petals on the duvet. Not at all. What I do mean is that in Italian, everything appears more beautiful- a sunny day has now become squisito (exquisite), a nice dress is stupendo (stupendous) and a good lunch is meraviglioso (marvelous). My sentences have dreamier tones to them when I speak and there is a slight possibility that some of my rough edges seem more tender. My extreme Passion, on the other hand, has always been a bit exaggerated. Yet in Italy, it’s normal- and accepted- and no one blinks twice.

The entire language is like onomatopoeia: “a word or grouping of words that imitates the sound it is describing.” It’s like whatever you are feeling- is right there in the sounds that are coming out of your mouth. Ugly is brutto, beautiful is bello, love is amore and war is guerra. To walk across the street is to attreversare and a before dinner drink is aperitivo- and all these words have rolling r’s in the middles and end in vowels that softly tumble instantly into the next words. Italy is probably one of the most beautiful countries, aesthetically speaking, in the world. So it makes sense that the language would reflect that.

I would be exaggerating if I said that I am fluent in Italian, but I think that I’m almost there. More importantly, I live my life in Italian. Meaning: when I remember them, my dreams are in Italian- when I play scrabble, the first words that come to me Italian- and when I get angry, I curse in Italian. Naturally.

I have heard that the Native Americans believe that humans are the only animals narcissistic enough to actually believe we have souls. Although we are the only animals intelligent enough to form a concept of a soul, and beyond that- the only animals with sufficient language to communicate the concept of the soul, I think that the Indians had a point. So to say that I have a number of souls due to the languages I speak, as Charlemagne would have noted- I think it would be going a bit overboard.

What I can say is that thinking in another language has broadened my thought process. The way that I look at things changes through the words that denote the meanings of objects and events. Italians, like in the business they do, always leave open ends- the meanings of phrases can always be interpreted in one of 100 ways. And although this can be frustrating at times, I’m finding it quite useful. “Ci vediamo,” literally means, “we see each other.” In daily discourse, it means, “see you soon.” But it can also mean, depending on the person you are speaking with and the context, “see ya sucker,” “I’ll see you tonight,” “I'll see you around,” “I’ll see you later,” “or “I’m being polite but I truly have no intention to ever see you again.”

Going back to this mirror into the soul that I mentioned, I have repeatedly wondered about how the words I use shape my thoughts- and not the other way around. Therefore, by broadening the expressions I use to describe things through an entirely different language- my world has been expanded. A sunset is not just a sunset- it can be, in English- sundown, dusk, nightfall, twilight, the day’s end- and in Italian- tramonto, sera, crepuscolo and calare del sole. See what I mean? I now have 10 ways to refer to the setting of the sun. And that, in turn, changes the image that comes to mind when I describe a sunset.

On another note, rather than a second soul, or even a mirror- languages help us to understand our souls…being that it would seem somewhat obtuse to ascribe only one language to each soul. In understanding my own soul, I have noted that I spent years with Spanish. From growing up in Miami, to taking hours upon hours of the language throughout high school to doing my MBA in Spain- I should speak Spanish better than English by now. Not the case. Spanish never stuck with me- it didn't agree with my character. Yes, it’s useful. Yes, it's a simple language to learn. Yes, it’s very similar to Italian. Yet with all that- I never “took to it.”

I can speak Spanish. But I don't like to. Whereas, speaking Italian, for me, is like singing. I find joy in it. I find that I am more capable of expressing my true feelings in my limited Italian than I was ever able to in Spanish. Sometimes, I find that when describing something- I describe it more aptly in Italian than even in English. So as some friends like to say that I have become “italianizzata” (Italianized), I think that maybe I have always had an Italian soul- and the language has only helped me to become acquainted with it. 


Antonia said...

verissimo! every word in italian has so much feeling, so much emotion behind it. e' in assoluto la piu bella lingua del mondo!

Anonymous said...

[onimonopea] The word you were looking for is onomatopoeia (ονοματοποιία). Thanks for the interesting read.

Morgan Witkin said...

Antonia- Hai ragione! Un bacione...
Anon- thanks for the correction!