National Characteristics Show Up in Languages (2)

Beyond the structural differences I faced in Vietnamese and Chinese, the underlying thinking in each was dramatically different from anything I’d learned in western languages. In Vietnamese, for example, there are no tenses or grammar or parts of speech that form the basis for languages in the west—any word can act as any part of speech. Meaning depends on word order and context. The word for the personal pronoun “I,” for example, depends entirely on the relationship between the speakers. The word used for it can mean literally “your servant,” “older brother,” older sister,” “younger sibling,” or something else. The same is true for “you,” “he,” “she,” “it,” “we,” and “they.”

So as a student of languages, I thought in terms of two main branches, western and eastern. But within those branches I found characteristic differences that seemed to me to reflect the personality inherent in the culture from which the languages sprang. German, for instance, is specific and meticulous in its grammar and vocabulary, where French is languorous, romantic, and condescending. Italian is the most passionate of all the languages I have studied, and Spanish shows a kind of easygoing relaxation. Latin has the most complex grammar of any of the languages I know, so I can guess at the personality qualities that must have been common in ancient Rome.

Vietnamese and Chinese Mandarin also seem to me to express temperament. Vietnamese is precise and orderly, like the Vietnamese people. But Mandarin is more easygoing and friendly, like the people I met in China.

Like all generalizations, my observations about the quality of language are subject to error. That said, I can express my preferences for national character. Those I enjoyed most and felt most comfortable in were the Chinese and the Italian. I guess that tells you that the human qualities that appeal to me most are friendliness and passion.

Come to think of it, that does describe me pretty well.

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