One of my friends has posted a little video on Facebook about how ‘Studying other languages actually changes the structure of your brain’. This set me thinking. I remembered one of my favourite uncles who I once visited with my family in Vienna when I was about eight. He was a second generation American-Hungarian who married a Hungarian woman and they raised their children in Austria (staying close to, yet keeping clear of communist Hungary). He spoke Hungarian and German with a thick accent, and English, although his native language, became increasingly rusty. I remember looking at him with a mixture of awe and sympathy, imagining what it must be like not actually having any language that you are completely at ease with. I was wondering: can a person have thoughts without language? Little did I know that 20 years later I would find myself in the same boat.
Teenager has a long-held suspicion that I suffer from some sort of mild (structural) brain damage that could probably be picked up by an MRI scan. She came to this conclusion because of my apparent difficulty with everyday communication and finding it hard to come up with simple, common words, such as: brick, window, pegs, etc… Just this Saturday when Husband returned from his weekly shopping I enquired hopefully:
‘Have you bought some…erm…erm…you know… olives?’
Apart from difficulties in recalling common words, sometimes I just talk utter gibberish:
‘Bring me your orange jumper so I can saw some buttons on it.’ – when asking for Tweeny’s purple school cardigan.
I also tend to borrow favourite words from Dutch and Hungarian and use them, simply out of stubbornness as I find them more expressive than their English counterparts, or – more likely – because I can’t remember the English counterpart. My most commonly borrowed Dutch words are:
“I bought it in the aanbieding.” – it was on offer
“We need to buy more schuurspons.” – scourers (abrasive sponge)
“I love kroepoek.” – prawn crackers
Other times, I believe that the word I am using is English when in fact it turns out to be Dutch (or more rarely Hungarian…).
About a week ago I was driving the car on a dual carriageway with Teenager next to me in the front. I was experiencing mild road rage at someone going at 50mph in front of me. I observed dryly:
“Drivers like that just make me woedend!”
As I glanced sideways, I was met with a little blank face smiling back at me. As a quiet unease was forming in the back of mind I asked her doubtfully:
“Teenager; is woedend an English word?”
“I don’t know that word, but it sounds OK.” She answered solicitously.
Right, I was thinking to myself: it’s spelt with a ‘w’ which is pronounced as ‘v’ and it’s spelt with an ‘oe’ which is pronounced as ‘oo’. That’s Dutch spelling, I concluded.
“Teenager, it’s a Dutch word meaning ‘furious’.”
She immediately launched into a list of things she was feeling woedend about:
“I am woedend about being different to other kids, I am woedend about you always being ‘right’, I am woedend about not being able to concentrate at school, etc…”
OK, that’s another word that had been adopted into the family vocabulary. It will join the Dutch oen (pronounced as oon in ‘noon’) and the Hungarian ‘sipirc’ (pronounced as shiepierts) among other favourites. Oen is slang for ‘silly, foolish, stupid’, a bit like ‘woolly’ (I am not sure if I spelt that correctly?). It’s the sort of expression that you won’t find in any dictionary, it exists only in spoken language. Yet my children take a great exception to this word and get highly offended if I call them an oen (“Don’t ever call me stupid, Mum!”). Sipirc needs to be spoken with vehement Hungarian emphasis, accompanied by a gesture: a stretched out arm and index finger pointing at the nearest exit. It’s best used on animals and small children.
And to answer my own question: can there be thought without language? Yes, in my mind at least. My thoughts always materialise initially in either the form of images or abstract concepts describing the ‘function’ of the word/phrase I am looking for. One very common difficulty I have, for example, is to find the word for ‘woodpecker’ (not that it’s a word I use a lot, but when I need it it’s never there). My first thought is always ‘the bird that pulls the worms out of the tree trunk, i.e.: the tree doctor’ (a bit childish I know…). From this starting point, it’s hard to get to woodpecker, because the word ‘tree’ instead of ‘wood’ is stuck in my mind and I can’t get any further. This is a learnt association turned into a habit, and my brain goes down the same neural pathway every single time! Very frustrating…
The same thing happens when I am trying to recall the name for ‘clothes pegs’. The first concept I think of is ‘the things that pinch the clothes to the washing line’ and immediately the Dutch word knijpers comes to mind, which literally means ‘pinchers’ as well as ‘pegs’ in Dutch. Once I arrived at the most intuitive word to express what I am trying to say in my own special way, I come to a dead-end until a family member comes to my rescue and reminds me of the word ‘pegs’.
The examples are endless. The problem seems to be that my mind automatically goes to find the most treffend expression. Treffend, a lovely Dutch word, (in this context) means ‘something that hits the nail on the head’. The Hungarian equivalent would be találó ‘something that hits the spot’, derived from találat which means ‘a hit’ (as in the context of shooting). My brain’s efforts to provide me with the most meaningful and concise expression that matches the image/concept to be expressed, often end in a multilingual meltdown. I think Teenager is right in her diagnosis: speaking 3 languages has permanently damaged my brain. It’s a price I am prepared to pay.
With love from,
Footloose and muddled