George Orwell is perhaps the best known exponent of the idea that language can so deeply affect ideas that someone who can cut certain words out will make certain thoughts impossible.
It’s a highly dubious proposition – after all, I’ve discovered recently in the course of some translation work, that it’s practically impossible to translate the neat French term ‘acharnement thérapeutique’ into English, although the idea – of excessive zeal in pursuit of medical treatment of a patient who is unlikely to benefit from it – exists just as much in the English-speaking world and we can think as much about it, or as little, as the French. Lacking the expression, we just use some longer form of words that says the same thing.
Even so, there’s something extremely appealing in the concept of ‘Newspeak’ in Orwell’s 1984 with its ambition to produce a language in which it is actually impossible to think critically about the government. Appealing in the sense of ‘interesting’, that is – I'm not pretending it would be attractive to see it happen. In any case, even if it's hard to believe that it could ever be wholly possible, I can understand why it would stimulate a fine thinker writing in a world which had only been free of Hitler for two years and was still having to live with Stalin.
In any case, at a more limited level, it’s certainly true that linguistic habits can influence thought. That’s what lies behind the move towards ‘political correctness’ which isn’t entirely as laughable as its most outspoken critics suggest. There was something slightly odd about a situation where in English we had titles for women which indicated their marital status, but not for men. In my own lifetime, it has been amusing to see how the word ‘Ms’ has gone from being regarded as a laughable barbarism to being widely accepted.
|Orwell - something to the idea that language affects thought?|
That kind of gender-specific linguistic usage is just the kind of thing we can perhaps tackle by linguistic means. It’s particularly strong in languages that use grammatical gender, of course, a fact turned to good account by the character of Jim in Truffaut’s masterpiece Jules et Jim, when he summarises the incompatibility between France and Germany with the statement that the Moon is feminine and the Sun masculine in French, while in German it’s the other way round. Not sure how significant that really is, but in the context of the film it feels as though it ought to be.
So it’s been fascinating to discover how something as simple as gratitude is handled in Portugal. Firstly, you don’t offer thanks in this country – you declare yourself to be under an obligation. ‘Obrigado’, I would say. It’s probably quite a good way of thinking of things – gratitude is an obligation, isn’t it?
Interestingly, Danielle would have to describe herself as obrigada. Being an adjective the word agrees with the gender of the subject.
So a Portuguese woman expresses her thanks, and therefore her sense of obligation, differently from men. Whether that means they honour their obligations differently, and whether the difference applies only to Portugal, I leave it to others, much better qualified than I am, to determine for themselves.