Sunday, December 13, 2009

Are we who we say we are? Are we a different person in a different language?

One of the fascinating things that I am discovering about Catalan, and I suppose that this is true of every langauge, is that it has different definitions of character.  I don't just mean the same words for certain people's character, but the language, and therefore the people (or vice versa, and interesting chicken and egg debate there) look at people's characters differently and haul different aspects of their personality out as important and worth naming.

There is no word for an intense person, nor carefree that I have found.  You can describe it, but you need  at least a full sentence with several adjectives.

They do have nervios(a), which denotes someone who is a combination of uptight and slightly hyper, but not necessarily nervous at all, which, by the way doesn't seem to exist as a temporary state like in English.  I am not sure how people feel before an exam in Catalan.  The translate it to sound like something that requires therapy at least, but that isn't what they mean.

Then there is 'cap quadrat' - which literally means 'square head' but it doesn't have the same meaning as in English at all, it is only somewhat insulting in Catalan.  For me anyway in English, a square head is someone who is always sucking up to the teacher.  Here it is someone who thinks in an extremely orderly way, possibly with some lack of imagination.  A more, ah, Germanic mindset and a less Mediterranean one.

We don't have ANY sort of word for this, nor for the more, ahhhhh, mañana mind set that pervades as one moves further south.

English has also gone through many changes, we rarely describe someone as choleric or bilious, though phlegmatic seems to have hung on longer.

Then there is 'hippy' and 'pijo/pija'.  Hippy obviously has common roots in both languages but the definition of who would be hippy is far wider here than in English, and pija/pijo is also used more broadly as well.  I would translate it roughly as rich, spoiled and self-centered.  It is an insult.  Hippy not so much.

Intense just isn't.  Though there are people here I would call intense, there is no single word for it.

It's not really surprising if you think about it, but nonetheless it is interesting to me that different cultural groups divy up the complex reality of character into culturally unique slots and categories.   The real interest lies, it seems to me, in why those categories and aspects of character were picked out as nameworthy.  Why those aspects were deemed to stand out enough to warrant naming.



Beth said...

Fascinating but confusing. Because there isn’t a word to describe a certain characteristic, does this mean such a characteristic simply isn’t dominant in that particular country? Is deemed not worthy of “naming?” Surely, the characteristic exists?? Does language reflect a country’s character (the character of its people) or do the people grow into the character that has evolved in that country? Whew! The chicken and egg thing…

Jason, as himself said...

I speak Spanish and I've had the same sorts of thoughts go through my heads over the years.

Did I ever mention to you the time I went to Barcelona and was so excited because I would be able to communicate there? I was so surprised that Catalan was so different.

kate said...

Very interesting, and I had never thought of it before. I wonder if there aren't words for the traits that are seen as "givens" or the default way of being? Hmm...

aska said...

love your brain and totally agree!!
i think we are slightly different people in different languages - i really do!

oreneta said...

Beth, to my North American Engish speaking eyes the characteristics exist. There are people I would call intense for instance....but why is it that these characteristics are what we pick out as recognizable and namable attributes? Fascinating.

Jason, I suspect that anyone who is functional in another language may well have noticed this....

Kate...odd isn't it.....the whole thing is fascination, and I think illustrates something of how the culture controls behaviour, by attaching positive and negative names to attributes they want to surppress or tolerate but control or encourage. Intense, would be value in a way, but control...the same for cap quadrat with BOTH it's Catalan and it's English meanings....intelligent, smart, these words have parallels, we seem to want to support these. Other words that come to mind are the fact that Catalan, and possibly Spanish has one word, divertit, for both fun and funny, as well as one word for both wait and hope, one word for make and do, but they have two words for know - as in know a fact, or how to do something vs. know a person or place.


Aska....wait a minute, does that mean there are three of you?!?!?!? And Eldest and Youngest, and FOUR of the man....does that make me a b*gamist??????