Language X is better for activity Y, or is it?

The seems to be a common belief that some languages are better suited to certain types of activities than others. For example, Emperor Charles V apparently said “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my dog.”

Some people believe that certain languages are not suitable for such things as literature, romance, poetry, pop music or stand-up comedy. Which languages they view in this way might depend on their own linguistic background, nationality and ethnicity. Such beliefs aren’t necessarily about the languages themselves but rather about the people who speak them.

In theory, every language has the same expressive potential, i.e. what you can say in one language can be said in any other language. In practise, some languages lack the vocabulary to talk about certain things, though there’s no reason why the necessary words couldn’t be coined or borrowed if people felt the need to discuss such matters. For example, in the fields of computing and related technologies, English is the dominant language. Speakers of other languages tend to borrow and/or adapt English words to talk about such things, or coin words from the native stock.

If you speak more than one language, do you use each of your languages to talk about different things or to talk to different people, like Charles V?

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16 Responses to Language X is better for activity Y, or is it?

  1. Zachary R. says:

    Maybe I don’t do like Charles, but when I forget a word in English, I’ll just use the French term and vice versa. Even without knowing the other language, surprisingly people can guess that word.
    And as far as I know, there have been studies proving that bilingual people are better adapted in learning technology, mostly it’s been tested on video games, and the majority of bilingual people will complete the objectives in the game faster.

  2. TJ says:

    Sometimes I tend some languages other than arabic or english in some situations … like when I say “damnú ort!” for someone … and of course most of the time they wouldn’t understand it!! :) (hey maybe this is why I use it!) … there are also some other words in german that I tend to use from time to time…
    for technical terms we mostly use english terms here specially by people that studied sciences or engineering because our education in university level is mainly in english… so people tend to think that english is much practical when we work on such technical stuff (not necessarily computers).

    If I was a fluent german speaker I would tend to speak it with groups of men because for me it has the sense of power (but I also heard nice german songs old and new). And if I was a fluent irish speaker I would sing and lament with it. If I was a fluent latin speaker I would use it to praise God along with Hebrew and Aramaic, and as for Arabic, I tend to use it more for proverbs and praising!

  3. gee says:

    There are certain attributes I’d assign to languages I speak e.g. Spanish strikes me as romantic because there are much more words for “beautiful” or “attractive” than in English or in German (where you have to resort to more complex expresions). Also there are different connotations with expressions like “te quiero” which both means “I love you” and “I want you”.

    Some languages do have other advantages or disadvantages that are not related to it’s vocabulary.

    Compared to other European languages English seems to take much less space as the words are shorter in general, so it’s perfect for printed media.

    German is seen by Germans as „die Sprache der Dichter und Denker“ or “the language of poets and thinkers” but I guess this is mostly due to historical reasons. It’s interesting though that is has concepts like „Zeitgeist“ which is not found in other languages.

    The typical sounds of a particular language play a role too, Cantonese as a tonal language sounds melodic to me while French seems to be harsh and hectic. But I guess this is because I am rather awful at speaking French.
    Similary Latin is often used in TV shows or literature when it comes to magic as even non-speakers recognise it because of repetetive patterns like “-us” in masculine nouns.

    At last I’d like to say that while hip hop may be bearable in English, in Mandarin it is not ;) .

  4. Jared says:

    I’m not fluent in anything but English, though I have a smattering of other languages, but which ones I speak would depend on what mood I’m in, since I have a condition called synesthesia, which means my brain “assigns” colors, feelings, or textures to things like music, words, letters, tastes, just about any sensation the human body can experience. Finnish, which I can be little more than polite in, strikes me as rose-pink and gold, so if I’m happy I would speak that (once I learn more!). Celtic lagnuages tend to have shades of blue and green; they’re more for grimmer activities, and so on. I don’t know if any particular animal deserves a unique form of expression from me, but if I could speak Ancient Egyptian I’d speak it to a cat. It’s fitting, somehow.

  5. I find that to some extent, different languages serve different purposes to me–however, I wonder if some of it happens because we become inured to the sounds of our native languages. Sometimes I find English (my native language) dry and boring. Spanish appeals to me for reasons of poetry (perhaps because it’s more accurate in describing love?), but when it comes to descriptiveness, I find myself wanting to brush off my dusty German. The fascinating thing about German is the mental images certain words seem to create–Blechlawine, for instance, to refer to a pileup on the interstate…certainly a “metal avalanche” if I’ve ever seen one!

    The unfortunate thing about German, since I bring it up, is the way its own speakers seem to loathe it. I would blame it all on the feelings of shame some Germans still have owing to World War II–except for the fact that it was clearly a problem back in Mozart’s day, too. Germans were shocked that he would write an opera in German–a language they thought to be unfit for opera! Anyone who thinks that (in my opinion) clearly hasn’t taken a good, close look at Schiller’s “An die Freude”. Even with as little German as I have, I can tell that what he does with the sounds of the German language is nothing short of genius. Or maybe I am alone in that I find the kind of enticing beauty in German that the “average” person seems to find in French (and I can’t stand the sound of French at all–sorry!).

    The stereotypes irked me so much that I very deliberately modeled my main conlang, Aramansch, after German in its sound and some of its grammatical/etymological features. It was to express EXACTLY the point you make, which is that the sentiment is the most important thing by far, and that any language is beautified by that. Even Tolkien failed to recognize that…it was *incredibly* shortsighted of him, in my mind, to slander the guttural language the dwarves speak, as he did in the Silmarillion. Some of us find the crispness and staccatto rhythms in such languages to be beautiful. It was for that reason that I wanted Aramansch to be spoken by my story’s heros–it’s time for that linguistic stereotype to come crashing down.

  6. P.S.: Jared–I am also a synesthete (letters -> color, sound – > lights/shapes without color).

  7. Delano says:

    I’ve found, generally, the only people who would say that language X is more expressive than language Y are people who lack a bit of fluency and confidence in language Y.

    Words themselves carry only part of the expression; tones, mannerisms and context help make words more robust and their meaning more clear and precise.

    It’s true that people tend to use languages in different contexts. It’s something of a tradition. For example, my father is Italian, and whenever he speaks to his parents, he always does so in Italian. When I asked him why he does that, he replied that speaking to them in any other language would be almost disrespectful, like addressing them by their first names.

  8. Delano says:

    To Minstrel Ayreon:

    We experience a very similar problem here in South Africa, with regards to Afrikaans; many Afrikaner people seem ashamed of their language due to the legacy of apartheid, and what’s worse, many people, even in the media, portray Afrikaners as stupid (similar to how Americans portray their southerners) and Afrikaans itself as a cumbersome, dead language.

    I agree with you, partly, about French… I don’t dislike it, but I do think it’s somewhat… overrated. Germanic languages are every bit as beautiful as the Romance languages, and their influence on the modern world’s psyche is underemphasized.

  9. gee says:

    @Minstrel Ayreon: I live in Germany and I would not say that Germans loathe their language. Many people here take great pride in “speaking same the language Goethe and Schiller” as they say it. This pride can also be seen in the fact that borrowed words, especially English ones („Anglizismen“ or anglicisms), are frowned upon (for some reason words of French origin seem to be ok…).

    I’d agree btw that there is an enticing beauty in German and in my experience it is more suitable for making girls melt away than appearing powerful as TJ suggests ;) .

  10. @gee, I’m glad you take pride in your language! :-) The three Germans I’ve really spoken to in depth ought to take a page out of your book, as they almost seemed to want me to give up on German as if it weren’t worth it. As for the Anglicisms vs. French borrowings, does that have anything to do with feelings towards either country, or is it more to do with when those words were adopted into the language?

    @Delano, I definitely see the “stupid Southerner” stereotype in the way the rest of the country (and the world!) looks at people from my region. It’s a real shame…plus no place can claim perfection.

  11. TJ says:

    gee>> well … true!! for girls that like powerful men maybe!!? :)

  12. Sam says:

    I had a Taiwanese friend who studied engineering in English, so his engineering vocabulary was English.

    I use different languages to talk to different people. My sister and I use Spanish together when we don’t want other people to understand us.

  13. PhoeniX says:

    I’m Dutch, and I’m a Bilingual speaker of both the Dutch and English language. My girlfriend is English and she is also bilingual in Dutch and English. We often speak a mix of Dutch and English. Dutch because it is often a bit less specific, and easy for casual speech, while english has a much larger specific (though full of jaron) vocabulary which makes it possible to make very specific fields, especially in science, easier to talk about with less elaborating sentences.

    But we often speak languages right through eachother. The funny thing is, that I tend to speak English to her, while she speaks Dutch to me. So we speak eachother’s native tongues.

  14. Benjamin says:

    @Minstrel
    I’m German and I like the German language. ;) It has some nice features, like intonation more distinctive than in other languages, especially French,
    and a lot of appearingly randomly placed stress. ;)
    I had to discover those features first, though. As German is my mother tongue you just don’t see those things, thus I had to read a book about German stylistics, until I noticed them.

    I find it funny, that German is seen as the ultimate language if you want to act the harsh, dominating and sadistic commander. The reasons are probably the hard sounds, the loads of “ts” “tsh” “sh” an “s” sounds, the harder than usual(?) breaks between the words. The Nazis and the Third Reich surely are another reason, though this has nothing to do with the language.

    Finally, I want to say that I don’t find French extraordinary spectacular, too.
    Most people probably like the fact that all words are connected and form a single flow. Well, that’s exactly the thing I dislike. I’d rather like to hear each single word. Another plus for German. ;)

    Okay now, enough praise for the German language. – For now. ^_^

    By the way, I think English loanwords are less welcome than French ones, because the influence of English was much bigger in the last decades and still is now. And of course, if you fight someone, you fight the one that is more dangerous. ;)
    I’m myself one of those enemies of loanwords in general. Some words are really useful, but sometimes you see loanwords that are just useless.
    One especially ennoying word for example is “canceln” that was/is(?) used by some managers to express “absagen” or “abbrechen” and these would actually be translated by “to cancel”. That’s absurd, isn’t it? Why borrow a word, if you already have a word that expresses exactly the same?

  15. Drew Bourn says:

    With regard to the suitability of particular languages to particular activities, I am reminded of music. Others on this thread have mentioned opera. I would be interested in raising another form of music: rap. When I used to live in South Korea in the mid ’90s, there were a substantial number of Korean recording artists who were releasing albums of Korean-language rap (some of the most popular of whom, like Soe-tae-ji and Boys, later running into copyright problems for using the music of American artists). To my ear, there can be a sharp, staccato sound to Korean that lends itself to performing rap – perhaps even better than English. At what is for me the opposite end of the spectrum, I remember being in France years earlier and having the car radio on when I heard French rap for the first time in my life. To my ear, it sounded absolutely awful. It didn’t seem to me as though there were a sufficiently frequent number of hard consonants in the French rhymes to make it work. This might prompt one to imagine that a romance language might not be as well suited to performing rap as, say, Korean. However, I would want to add that I am personally not a fan of rap, and that there is only one rap (or rap-influenced) recording artist whose work I listen to: the Italian artist Jovanotti. Somehow, he seems to make the Italian work.