Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ich bin ein Berliner

President Kennedy famously said "I am a jam doughnut" at the height of the Cold War, to express solidarity with the people of Berlin.

Except that "Ich bin Berliner" and "Ich bin ein Berliner" both mean the same thing, apparently, which is "I am a native of Berlin".

The myth arose because it's more usual in German to say "Ich bin Berliner". The use of the indefinite article ein is somehow supposed to make it mean doughnut. Even though Berliners don't call jam doughnuts Berliners, any more than the English call custard "Crème Anglaise"

But of course it's more usual in English to say "I am English" rather than "I am an Englishman".
That doesn't mean that there wouldn't be places in speeches where the second would be better.

According to German speakers, Kennedy's speechwriters got it right.

What I find interesting is whether "Ich bin Berliner" and "Ich bin ein Berliner" have the same relative value as "I am English" and "I am an Englishman"? Is it even possible to answer this question?

If you ask a German, how does he know what the difference sounds like in English? If you ask an Englishman, how does he know what the difference sounds like in German?

If you have a truly bilingual person, who has spoken both languages fluently since infancy, how do you know that their conception of the differences between the four phrases isn't being influenced by the knowledge of the other language?

Are there "mistakes" commonly made by true bilinguals in their languages which aren't commonly made by monolingual speakers?

There are, as far as I know, two theories of how language influences the way we think:

One theory is that language is a serialization of something more complicated:

Cat, Mat, and Sitting stand in a certain relationship in the mind. When you try to convert that set of objects and relations into a stream of sounds, you can do it in many ways. In English the word order matters, so "The cat sat on the mat" is different to "The mat sat on the cat". In Latin it's the word endings that matter, so "Catus matum satit" is the same as "Matum catus satit", but different from "Catum matus satit".

Another theory is that one literally conducts an internal dialogue in one's native language. In this theory, there are thoughts that one can think in Latin that one can't think in English. Sunt lacrimae rerum might be a candidate. The closest English can get to that thought is "There are tears for things". But I don't think that captures what Virgil/Aeneas meant.

It's more like the famous "The world is a world of tears". But you can tell by the fact that the English repeats a word that that's not the real meaning of the original either.

And of course what I'm thinking when I read "Sunt lacrimae rerum", through the lens of several other Latin phrases, and my terrible schoolboy Latin, is probably not what it meant to Virgil, for whom Latin was just his native language.

Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum sonatur.

But I bet that wasn't true for the Romans, who used it for grocery shopping. When they wanted to sound profound, they used Greek.

The internal dialogue theory explains these untranslatable thoughts. There have been experiments where pictures have been read from the visual cortex of cats. Maybe one day it will be possible to overhear the internal dialogue of a human mind. Can you imagine how spooky it would be to have your inner thoughts played out on a loudspeaker as you thought? Even if the only person listening was you? I bet that that would tell us a lot about consciousness.

On the other hand, imagine the shape of a crankshaft in a car engine. Picture it.

OK, what words did you use? I'm pretty sure I didn't use any. Just saw a picture in my head.

I think that means it's possible to think without using words.

How do blind people imagine a crankshaft shape? Are there words? Are there pictures? Do they use some other faculty of imagination to do with feeling and shape?

I wonder if John Kennedy's famous error that was not an error could shed some light on these matters.

Do bilinguals think that the corresponding phrases in the two languages sound the same? Stand in the same relation to one another? Do bilinguals make systematic errors in one language according to their other language?

What about bilinguals between a language like English and a language like Latin? Can they definitively say that they can't express Aeneas' thought in English? Can they translate it into another "scrambling" language and be confident that it does mean the same there?

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