Is the Eurozone an optimal language area?

Some interesting linguistic thoughts from ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet in an interview with Focus

FOCUS: Has the fact that you have learnt German helped you?

Trichet: It certainly has. At the ECB, we mostly talk in English. But in the corridors you’re just as likely to hear German, French, Italian or Spanish, and many other languages besides. Having some knowledge of the German language has enabled me to better understand the culture of the country. Oversimplifying, I would say that the French and English languages seem to be very much designed to “communicate”. My understanding of the German language is that it is very much designed to “think”, with its verbs at the end of the sentence. I am not surprised that it is such a good language for philosophy.

FOCUS: Are you trying to say that Germans are not as good at small talk?

Trichet: Not at all! I just want to say that the German language itself is particularly well suited to reflection. In speeches, for example, speakers let the audience think along with them. Only at the end of a sentence is the audience able to understand exactly what is actually meant. This is why it is pretty unacceptable for people in the audience to whisper during a speech.

Among other things, it highlights the huge backdoor influence of the Eurozone’s most significant non-member.  Which seems like an advantage for Ireland.

10 thoughts on “Is the Eurozone an optimal language area?

  1. So syntax determines culture? Chomsky would approve I bet. Not so when people wonder loudly about how languages are constrained by culture.

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  4. “He’s talking rubbish – there’s really not much reason to think language effects how you think.”

    I don’t agree with that. Back in the seventies I lived in the USSR for a couple of years and worked and socialised mostly in Russian. After about a year I remember remarking to people that using a different language really was affecting the way I thought. I don’t mean that it was changing my political opinions; rather that the differences in syntax were affecting the way I thought *about* things.

    Even the way that idiomatic Russian tends to dismiss difficulties in life rather than discussing and analysing them made me more able to shrug and get on with things.

  5. Come on…
    What was the guy supposed to say when interviewed by a German weekly magazine?

    Of course, he will say some nice things. Especially knowing that the Germans weren´t (aren´t ?) that enthusiastic about the Euro. With the news from Greece right now probably not helping either.

    So:
    1) Frankfurt and the region is pretty nice.
    Flattery a little thick maybe. Here in Germany Frankfurt isn´t considered a “beautiful” city. Although he mainly mentions only museums and operas. :)
    2) Learning German helped him.
    Which is probably true. If you stay in a foreign country, learning that language always helps. People will be much more “relaxed” and “helpful” if they see that you try to “fit in”.
    3) And Germany is a good language for “thinkers” and philosophers.
    Once again a little flattery thrown in. There were quite a few German philosophers and mentioning them is pretty non-controversial. It´s unlikely that other member states will feel insulted by that. Especially given his contrast of “communicating” and “reflecting” languages. Since one could associate “communicating” with “acting” for example. And “thinking” and “reflecting” with “inaction”.
    Something for everybody.

    All in all, he tried to flatter German readers somewhat. Plus he tried to reassure them that the ECB and Euro will stay close to the Bundesbank and German Mark.

    I agree somewhat with his cultural observations.
    Like:
    “I was surprised at the beginning to see that any time a decision is taken in Germany, all the arguments against the decision are meticulously listed, even if that decision has already been agreed in principle. At first I was surprised, because in many other cultures, all the arguments that support your conclusion are given strongly preferential treatment.”

    That´s essentially how we in our small business tend to discuss things too. :)
    Simply to avoid “the possibility of serious mistakes”. If you discuss “against the decision” arguments you are prepared if something goes wrong.
    Born pessimists like us Germans don´t want to be caught unprepared. :)

    The strong connection between language and culture I doubt though. Sure there is some connection since language certainly influences “how” we think. Jon Livesey gave an example above.
    But languages change, words can get a new “meaning” and historical events can change a culture even if the language doesn´t change that much.

    Just consider Madame de Stael. Her “De l´Allemagne” (1810) shows a picturesque, rural, slightly backward and medieval Germany. I suppose she would have been very surprised by that same Germany a few decades later. Even with the language much the same…

  6. Hmmm Detlef…
    I suggest there is a strong connection between culture and language. The relevant question is which is the determiner? For example, does the German language (assuming for the sake of argument that there is only one) determine German culture, or does German culture somehow constrain the German language? There’s something suspicious about jon livesey’s suggestion that the Russians’ use of idioms determines Russian culture. I think the reason is that the frequency of usage of a given idiom has little to do with the features of a language, i.e. syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology and pragmatics. It’s a function of culture. Idioms emerge as completed linguistic units and then the culture goes to work sorting out the ones it likes best.

    Trichet asserts that German syntax and verb semantics promote thought, more specifically that the trennbar or separable feature of some verbs is the promoter. It creates, according to Trichet, a who-done-it narrative in individual sentences and thereby captures the listener’s attention, compelling her to “think along” until the culprit – the separable verb suffix – is unmasked at the end.

    This is basically goofy. It’s fast and flawed shooting from the hip. Mark Twain used it effectively for a joke (see The Awful German Language). I’m guilty of it myself sometimes. If the German language promotes thought and thereby contributes substantially to a culture of enlightenment (which is the pile of doodoo that Trichet implies) then what about all the splendid counterexamples of murky, poorly lit Teutonic cognition?

    What German as a language does is allow greater flexibility to the user than for example English does. In English the subject or nominative noun phrase must precede the inflected verb. The result is rigidity (in comparison to German), SPO, a tendency to create shorter sentences and greater reliance on the paragraph when it comes to complex thought. You can put almost anything in front of the inflected German verb. The result is an increased potential for monster sentences that can indeed have a who-done-it quality. Verb Trennbarkeit is one of several features that mark this flexibility. Does this lead to more reason if not enlightenment? I don’t think so. No more than English rigidity enhances communication.

    In fact I believe German culture places a premium on authentic, relevant content, which may or may not be enlightening. The term “low context” is useful here though I am not a big fan of Hall and the interculturalists. Small talk has a low priority in German culture but not because the German language makes it hard. German culture devalues it. Many Germans prefer silence to prattle about the weather with someone they don’t know. It has nothing to do with German syntax, verb semantics or other linguistic features. It is culture asserting itself.

  7. German shares a tendency to put verbs last with, i.e. Turkish, Farsi, Hindi and Japanese. If there’s a connection with culture, it must be quite hidden.

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