View from the terrace of the family's Brooklyn Heights apartment

Monday, February 28, 2011

It's not me--it's the language!

"Do you know, Jim, you have a different personality when speaking German?” my wife Bobbi asked with a smile. Two months before, we’d moved into a tiny house in Trüdering, a village just outside Munich, and she was struggling to learn enough of the language to buy groceries at the Lebensmittel across the street and to chat there with cheerfully plump Ingrid.
“A different personality? How so?”
“In German you’re more peremptory, more abrupt.” 
“Maybe that’s because with you I use simple sentences and speak precisely.” I made an effort to use cognate words and speak clearly with Bobbi while helping her learn the language. But Bobbi wasn’t buying that explanation.
“No,” she said, “It’s the same when you talk with Hermann or Rudi, or in the city--at a restaurant, for instance.” Herman was the college-age son of the imperious Frau Wendler, who rented us our one-room house, once a dentist’s office, and Rudi Maier was Ingrid’s husband. We got to know the Maiers since they had a little girl the same age as our two-year-old son Chris. Could I really have a different personality when speaking another language?
The first thing I considered was what Bobbi had said about my behavior in restaurants. I’d learned that slinking into one and sitting at the first available table didn’t work. You could sit at that table for fifteen minutes or more before a waiter came by to dispense menus and then disappear or become oblivious for another twenty minutes or so. Observing natives, I learned you had to walk in, nose in the air, parade about, and then sit at a serious table, as if you were an important personage, used to the best of everything. A sharp command--“Herr Ober!"--if pronounced with the authority of a colonel, would usually stop the waiter in his tracks. This maneuver violated my egalitarian sentiments, but it worked.
Bobbi once again said that my silly routine in restaurants wasn’t what she meant either. 
Could it be languages themselves, I wondered, or even dialects within a language that have personalities of their own? When a colleague of mine returned after a summer down home in Carolina, he seemed different. Was it the lingering pleasant drawl? My Yiddish-lilted New York pronunciation was schmoozier, I felt, than the plumy variety of an Oxford don. Even at the university, where I was (belatedly!) doing research for my Ph.D., there were differences. The precise, baroque Prussian contrasted with the rougher, more rustic Bavarian, so much so that it took our babysitter, a student from Hanover with a von before his surname, all of two elaborate sentences to intimidate the overly curious, formidable Frau Wendler! These, of course, were impressions. Was there any objective evidence that languages had personalities?
Yes, I realized. In multi-lingual directions for using gadgets, in announcements, and in   signs addressed to the public--on trains, for example. At the train station on the border between France and Germany a sign asked/ordered patrons not to cross the tracks: In French it said, Please do not cross the tracks; in German it said, Crossing the tracks is strictly forbidden, with an exclamation point! On Swiss trains, passengers are cautioned not to stick their heads out the window--in three language. In French it says, Please don’t; in German, once again, It’s strictly forbidden! But the Italian made me smile, as it said that it could be dangerous to stick your head out the window.
When it came time for us to return to New York, Bobbi and Ingrid said goodbye with a tearful hug, and we made our way to the M.S. Berlin at Bremerhaven the long way around, via Paris, where we stayed at the same inexpensive hotel and the very same room we’d had five years before on our belated honeymoon. The hotelier remembered us, patted Chris on the head, and engaged Bobbi in a lively conversation. “You know, Bobbi,” I said, “you have a different personality in French.”
 “You’re much more animated--and convivial!”

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