Does language influence thought or do thoughts influence language? Or both? These are questions I had debated in a linguistics class at Smith College several years ago. Now these questions come to mind again because of the young woman living with us who is adjusting to the English world. And in this case I mean English quite literally.
I remember for years after I'd left the Amish, I was often translating my thoughts from the German dialect that was my native tongue into English. But as I adjusted to my new world, I found I couldn't always express myself in my native tongue any longer, for I found that my original language was not expressive enough to describe my feelings. So I began to think more "in English." At that time I was going through the bitter phase that many people who've left the Amish go through… that phase in which no one could say anything good about Amish people, or I would "set them straight" immediately. And so what I did is I set about training myself to think in English. Whenever I had thoughts "in Amish" I would ask myself how I would think that in English. So slowly and deliberately I began deprogramming myself from thinking in my native tongue. (I would regret this later, when I would realize I was actually losing my native tongue).
Now I am reminded of the different ways of thinking between my native tongue and English. I'll start with early in the morning. In English we "get up" in the morning, while the Amish "stand up." If you think about it, they are the same thing, except in German we are more specific about it… most of us swing our feet off the side of the bed and "stand up."
In English we say that water is running, while the Amish say that water is walking. Is it mere coincidence that the Amish lifestyle is a slower pace than that of mainstream America? Or is that why their water walks, while ours runs?
In English we say we are going to "stand our ground" when we feel strongly about something. The Amish say (translated literally), "I am going to keep my foot down about that." When you stand your ground, you don't move your feet, so it is the same thing, but it sounds so very different. Again, the Amish are more specific.
In English we say, "You can do that as far as I'm concerned" or "It's fine with me if you want to do that." The Amish say (translated literally), "You can do that — about me." In this case the meaning is the same, but again, it sounds so very different.
There are ways in which English is much more specific than my native language. I mentioned earlier that there were certain feelings or ways of being that the Amish just didn't have words for. If someone had used the word "bitter" to describe my paternal grandmother, I would have wondered why that person is using a word that describes food. If someone had said there was a lot of "tension" in our family, I would have gotten an image of that part of a sewing machine that needed adjustment when it wasn't stitching properly. If someone had used the term "hitting on her" (flirting), I would have wondered why he was upset with her. In English we have all kinds of terms to describe what we feel when we've been wronged. We might describe our feelings as angry, mad, resentful, irritated, annoyed, aggravated, devastated, or outraged. The expression used most often in Amish was basic, "I am really mad over him." Conversely, in the English world if we are having an amazing moment that we know comes perhaps once in a lifetime, we might describe our feelings as overjoyed, ecstatic, happy, joyful, excited, overwhelmed, fortunate, wonderful, animated, thrilled, or overcome.
Now I've gotten myself stuck. I simply don't know what an Amish person might say in such a situation, nor can I imagine having an opportunity in my life as an Amish person for experiencing such a pinnacle moment. Mostly I kept my feelings hidden under a flat affect, so as not to have them spill out either side of what was "normal." I think this was typical, at least in my community. I don't think most Amish people would have (or recognize it as such) a pinnacle moment in their lives, when they allow their feelings to register at the "ecstatic" level. That would not be humble, and humility is stressed more than any other virtue in Amish communities.
I had an experience in Hamburg, Germany that shows what I mean. This happened the night of the 817th Hafengeburstag (Harbor Birthday). Ferries were a mode of transportation that evening. My friend Lucinda, who is from the U.S. and her German husband, and I boarded one. It took off really fast so that I felt butterflies in my stomach. Lucinda and I were leaning out over the railing, when I just went with what felt good. I looked at her and let out a “Whooo-hooo!” She looked back at me and responded with a “Yeeee-haaaw!” I noticed the Germans around us were eyeing us with judgment. Later I asked Lucinda, “So if the Germans felt excited about something like that, how would they express it?” She chuckled and said, “They wouldn’t.”
The Amish wanting to stay humble and avoid calling attention to themselves had to come from somewhere. Perhaps it's from their stoic and "proper" German ancestry. There are many things I miss about being Amish, but allowing myself the full range of my emotions is something I treasure very much. Lucinda and I didn't need words to describe our feelings on the ferry, but that didn't stop us. I'm sorry for the people around us who couldn't allow themselves that.
So what do you think: does language follow thought or thought follow language?