Language is perhaps the most important agent of culture. In 1915, Franz Kafka published the following: Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt. This first line from the Metamorphosis has plagued translators, and more importantly readers, as ferociously as pests plagued people in Medieval Europe.
What exactly had Gregor been transformed into following his disquieted dreams? Although he is often described as some kind of bug, the German translates literally to vermin, a word that seems far less horrible than cockroach and not much more disgusting than a beetle; for Kafka’s readers – at least if critics have interpreted him correctly – the word vermin was supposed to be beyond loathsome. Turn of the century Prague, inhabited by the German-speaking Jews that Kafka dwelled among, apparently lived a culture different from contemporary America if the word vermin was among the worst that a writer could envision.
Some of us forget the absolute power of language. My freshmen students were frustrated the other day by a quiz question that asked them to read a portion of a text and then choose the word that best described the language. Their choices were something like satiric, ironic, sadistic. When they looked up the definitions for the words, they found them mostly to be synonymous with each other. When I defined the list for them, I tried to illustrate how the flavor of each word really was slightly different. In other words, contrary to their perception, there actually was one correct answer.
Perhaps because of tools like the Internet, we contemporary citizens have begun to lose our power to really use or understand words, and so our idioms may say something about us that we are not entirely conscious of but which, nevertheless, do define us. Those words allow us to communicate our emotions, concerns, beliefs, and outrage even when we are not face-to-face. There’s no body language in email or a text, but even in abbreviation there are words. They are the means to cooking our foods, recipes unique to our ethnicity and geography. They comprise our songs of joy and pain and celebration. They explain our darkest fears and the terrors and tragedies that mark our history, and they are unique from culture to culture. My Irish-American grandmother replied “God Bless you!” to a sneeze, but her Czech-American husband, my grandfather, would respond with “Gesundheit,” or good health. Language is who we are.
Consider this one last point: there is a great divide today between those who embrace and even encourage the use of “foreign” languages and those who would ban them. A large enough sect of the population would make illegal the use of any language but English in all official business. The argument is inevitably, this is America and everyone should speak…well, what fits there should be obvious. What those who defend that thinking are in effect arguing is that they want to eliminate that which separates us; they want to bring down the barriers to communication. They forget the power and beauty of language and don’t realize the loss that they are promoting.