By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

My father has often told me the following anecdote, a piece of black humour, about the initial days of the German occupation of Poland in World War II, a period of time that he lived through as a boy. A German soldier is patrolling the streets, accompanied by his extremely large, long-haired German Shepherd. A Pole walks up to the soldier and asks the soldier in Polish: “What does such a dog eat?” The German responds back to the Pole (in German) with a quizzical look on his face: “Was?” The Pole jumps back, absolutely startled: “Was?” For those who know both languages – the joke is evident. In German, the word, ‘Was’ – means ‘What?’; in Polish, the exact spelling, and exact pronunciation of ‘was’, means: ‘You’.

William Harmless wrote in his seminal work, Mystics, that: “All of us learn to express ourselves, for better or for worse, with a language we did not invent. We all begin speaking a borrowed tongue. Over time, we take the language we inherit as children and gradually make it our own. We draw upon its vast repertoire of words and phrases, its syntax and sounds, and somehow make of this stuff a vehicle for our own self-expression. However much we may complain to one another about how hard it is to talk about this or that everyday experience, we do somehow find a way. We do somehow, by some miracle, communicate with one another and bring the ineffable stuff of ordinary life to speech.” (Harmless, 2008), p. 236).

We all come into this world physically with a unique myriad of DNA and spiritually with a unique soul. Few of us, if any can recollect a time when we did not have a language to interpret our surrounds. We cried out for ‘Mama’ and for ‘Dada’, and within a very short time, the language of our parents became that of our own. As our parents wanted to communicate with us, high on their priority was the task of giving us enough words in order for us to make known to them what our needs were, and for our parents to make known to us, what they wanted from us. Not only did we acquire their words – but because of the rudiments of the language our parents spoke, we acquired a certain way of thinking – conveyed to us, by the syntax and semantics of a particular language. Words give us the power to form ideas – sentence construction, the power to give these ideas, refined meaning. According to the rules of a particular language, comes the shape by which we are able to express our deepest yearnings. Each language has its unique ability to take from what is within a person’s soul and share it with the world.

As a child, I grew up speaking English, but also Polish as my Grandmother refused to speak to me in any other language. In addition, at Church, I would sing in Ukrainian – and I also attended a Ukrainian language school on the weekend. Thus I acquired knowledge of Cyrillic script. As an undergraduate I thought it would be useful to learn another language, so I took an intensive German language course. Later on, I travelled to Sweden for my doctoral studies, and I learned Swedish. Having learnt Swedish, I was able now to converse with the Danes and the Norwegians, as all three languages are very similar. What learning these languages taught me, was that the same man in terms of biology, was a different person according to the language that he spoke. Some languages have more adjectives, and so you communicate by having recourse to this treasure trove. Other languages are more direct or blunt in their nature – and by using these languages you become so as well; you take on a different persona. Other languages seem to ooze with passion – and so you become more passionate and animated when speaking them. Some languages have polite forms, such as the German ‘Sie’, others don’t even have a word that corresponds with the English, ‘please’. Some languages use titles as part of everyday usage, such as ‘Mister’ or ‘Herr’ – others have long since cast these out from general usage; introducing even the elderly, in a social context, by their first name. Some languages, have people greet one another with a curt “Hi”, while others use a greeting, such as in Ukrainian: “Glory to Jesus Christ”. This being said, an interesting debate could be had as to whether any one of us are the master of a language; or whether it is language that really holds mastery over us. Language has the power to form identity; it has the power to either free the soul or to silence her, because of the liberation or the limitation of the particular language we use. We are different people not only because of the DNA that comprises us – but because we are separated by languages. We may share the same feelings – but how we interpret these feelings, and internalize them, has much to do with our mother tongue.

One of the critical areas of language lies in how we tell another person that we love them. Even this emotion can be seen as a construction of language; for we are taught this word, initially by our parents’ actions. We connect the word ‘love’, by way of a parent’s smile or their hug; or by whatever actions they choose to show us that they love us. But does this word ‘love’ translate universally – fluidly, from culture to culture, for cultures, as we know, can be either more open or constrained in how they show emotion, from our own. We assume too readily, that when we say in English ‘I love you’ that that is what is exactly meant when an Italian says, ‘I love you’, (‘Ti amo’), or when a French woman says, ‘I love you’, (‘Je t’aime’), or when a German says, ‘I love you’ (‘Ich liebe dich’). But to assume this to be the case, is a failure to understand the nuance of language and also the cultural norms, that are so integrated within language. In fact when I was a student in Uppsala, I remember a very home-sick Italian researcher telling me, that the Swedish phrase for saying ‘I love you” (‘Jag älskar dig’ – pronounced – ‘Yaarg el – skaar day’), sounded more like a threat, than something positive. The phrase: ‘I love you’, encompasses according to the language that it is spoken in – all that that particular culture and nation, identifies as ‘love’, and in the context in which the phrase is spoken.

Let me share with you the following experience after living for a month in the small town of Ludwigshafen on the shore of Lake Konstanz in 2008. On holidays from my research fellowship at the University of Oxford, I was offered the use of a German summer house. There in Ludwigshafen I became immersed in a different culture. A powerful experience took place when I went to a Catholic Church on a Sunday at the nearby village of Bodman.  As Providence would have it, I was not only attending the Sunday liturgy, but importantly it was Confirmation day for this small parish. I had decided not only to pray, but to observe the cultural variations, from Australia to those of Southern Germany. There were similarities of course; but there were also great differences. The entire town came out to celebrate – something that in a secular nation like Australia, is unthinkable. Afterward, an enormous feast was put on. Everyone was invited, even me, a complete stranger. A brass band played for an hour; people danced traditional dances, dressed in traditional costume in the Church courtyard. In fact everyone was dressed as if they were ready to take a photograph for some tourist operator. The children who were Confirmed that day, gave speeches. Many of them cried with the power of the emotion they felt. I came away thinking how vastly different the meaning of the phrase, ‘I remember my Confirmation Day’ would be for an Australian and for a German, in the context of what I had just experienced. A dictionary would offer each the words by which to communicate the meaning of the phrase, but these words only impart a certain degree of what that day meant. On face value, each would come away believing that they understood exactly what the other had told them, but to what extent would this really be so?

This post is also available in: English