In one clear sentence, Benjamin Lee Whorf crystallized clearly what has been said in much more arcane and confusing language by many others:
“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”
Practically speaking, this means that having the words for “before” or “inside” or “privacy” doesn’t just give a name to a concept, it brings that concept into existence, so that the words you know also define the reality you live in. That’s why Wittgenstein can say that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.
What happens, then, when you move to another country and learn to speak a new language? Suddenly, the scope and shape of your reality changes. In my case, it seems to have shrunk.
I have the greatest respect for Hebrew, in the sense that one can have respect for a language. I like that it’s biblical and I like the fascinating way it’s so limited. There are essentially a finite number of roots that give birth to multiple words that nevertheless all partake in the base meaning inherent in the root. It’s all so satisfyingly neat and logical.
Then there are the tenses – as far as I can tell, strictly speaking there are only 3: past, present and future. Compare this to English, or many European romance languages, and you get a very different picture. After very perfunctory online research I found 12 tenses –
Present Perfect Continuous
Past Perfect Continuous
Future Perfect Continuous
– that don’t even include the Subjunctive, which I definitely remember learning in school, although its precise function escapes me now. Which perhaps might lead you to conclude that so many tenses are actually superfluous. But try attempting to describe yourself doing a continuous action in the past in Hebrew. Or even a continuous action in the present. More interestingly, try finding the verb ‘to be’ in the present. It doesn’t exist.
In Hebrew saying ‘ani’ (אני) simultaneously connotes ‘I’ and ‘am’ or being. In all the other languages I know, first you must assert an identity and then declare that that personhood exists.
Without delving into the psychological or philosophical implications of this, I will turn to a more prosaic example that impacts my daily life more really. As far as I can tell, there is no one word for ‘subtle’ in Hebrew that successfully matches the meaning of the English word.
Now, before you counter that I’m quibbling over the finer points of something unnecessarily (thus arguing precisely over such subtleties), consider what this might say about Israeli reality. I don’t know many people that would define it as being one characterized by subtlety…
Which leads me back to my original statement, about my shrunken shell of reality. Books are made of words, and if I love books, I am infatuated with words. I cannot accept the paucity of nuance in Hebrew because it precludes me from being precise (just look at that half-alliterative linguistic gift – English is dreamy). And being precise is one of, if not the chief pleasure of language.
Standing in a shop I can’t convince someone that a book is wonderful because of it’s subtlety, because I end up saying the book is wonderful because it is ‘gentle’ or ‘refined’.
There are swathes of reality closed off to me now, and whilst Israeli drivers literally drive me mad, it is the difficulty of caging myself in this new language that makes me question living here.
Then again, according to Goethe, “those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own” so perhaps I’m better off after all.