As soon as I saw the new book by Robert Lane Greene You Are What You Speak, I know he and needed to speak. Not just because we both speak Danish (we didn’t even talk about that). It’s mainly because the book takes on so many of the same issues that I do in The World in Words podcast. It’s like the pod on steroids, done with proper research.
Underlying You Are What You Speak is a love of the relative chaos of language. We can’t predict, let alone control how language evolves, Greene argues, so why try? Well, it seems we can’t help ourselves.
Sometimes it’s governments that issue linguistic admonishments: France and Turkey have been especially active. Sometimes it’s individual armchair stylists: Cicero (“At some point…I relinquished to the people the custom of speaking, I reserved the knowledge [of correct grammar and pronunciation] to myself”); Strunk and White (“Do not join independent choices by a comma”); and Lynn Truss (“Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”). Of that lot, Turkey’s switch from Arabic to Roman script appears to have been the most successful. In France, the Académie française is admired but largely ignored. And most of the archair stylists lose out to common usage. The more free, open and democratic a society is, the less it is likely to follow anyone else’s language rules.
This is just one way in which language is bound up in identity. Another is via the power of our mother tongue: how much does our first language set and restrict how we think, and how we perceive the world? Think of all those people who write in a second or third language.Lijia Zhang, who grew up in China, but writes in English, is convinced that her English self is different from her Chinese self. For one thing, Zhang says, she’s ruder in Chinese (the Big Show’s science podcaster Rhitu Chatterjee says the same of her native Bengali self).
Not only does English have words that don’t exist in Chinese, says Zhang. Also, writing in English frees her to say things that in her native tongue are taboo. She recalls a time in the 1980s when she met a young Chinese man “who I rather fancied.” She said to him, in English, “you look cool.” It was somehow OK to say that in English; had she said it in Chinese, it would have meant instant rejection and humiliation.
Now, that may have as much to do with memory and custom as it does with the instrinsic nature of English vs. Chinese. The words in Chinese were available to Zhang. They were just freighted with expectation and fear. In English, Zhang could be irresonsible, and blame it on the language.
Greene deals with this question of language and personality by citing a number of recent studies, some of which we’ve talked about in previous pods (here and here). In linguistic circles, the pendulum has swung back and forth between those who believe that language shapes thought, and those who argue that thought forms language.
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