What’s in a language, that can make it different from another? Teachers would hurry to explain that we can talk about morphology, simple sentence syntax, complex sentence syntax, sentence patterns, the system of tenses or of modality, noun declension or verb conjugation, vocabulary items, lexical fields and families, derivation or word formation, lexical stock and streams related to other languages in a family, and quite a few other clever things like these.On a second, deeper reflection we could start talking about words that cannot be translated into another. Classical examples are the many words for snow in some of the Eskimo languages, but more common ones are the names of traditional dishes or food items, like porridge, cevapcici, mamaliga, paella and so on.
If we’ve come that far, we might just as well continue on this philosophical line and come to more abstract concepts: words that reflect values, typical moods or feelings, or are simply culture-bound. An example that I like is the word ‘assertive’ that can give headaches to any translator, but there are quite a few in English that may need a whole explanatory phrase instead of a word if translated: ‘proactive’, ‘challenge’, ‘training’, ‘common sense’ etc. Some grammatical structures of the language may also reflect an own way of looking at the world, by the way it builds its tense system, the way it expresses different degrees of certainty, or even by the system of personal pronouns – typically, who is ‘we’, who is ‘they’, or who is ‘it’?.
But in this summer I have rediscovered something that makes up the specific of a language that many people, including language teachers, forget. I was lying on a beach with people from many countries, but I could always know, even from a distance, who spoke Italian, who spoke German, or who spoke French. There are languages in which people yell, or mutter, or whisper. There are languages in which people sing, or chop, or chatter. There are languages in which people wave their hands and arms, or keep them straight along their bodies. There are languages in which people come close to each other and languages in which they tend to keep a distance.
A language is far more than a system of rules. It’s like a holospace cabin on spaceship Enterprise.