The Medieval Emperor Charlemagne famously said that “to have another language is to possess a second soul” but the idea that we express different personality traits when we speak another language has usually been left as anecdote.
But The Economist takes this a step further and examines the science behind this idea – which may have more weight than we might first think.
It looks at the issue from lots of intriguing angles. Perhaps the most obvious is that bilingual speakers may have different associations with each language – for example, home and work – and so come to associate different sorts of social behaviours with each.
One of the most interesting is how different language structures might allow for different behaviours, although a grammatical explanation for why the Greeks having a tendency to interrupt during conversation is given short shrift
Is there something intrinsic to the Greek language that encourages Greeks to interrupt?…
In this case, Ms Chalari, a scholar, at least proposed a specific and plausible line of causation from grammar to personality: in Greek, the verb comes first, and it carries a lot of information, hence easy interrupting. The problem is that many unrelated languages all around the world put the verb at the beginning of sentences. Many languages all around the world are heavily inflected, encoding lots of information in verbs. It would be a striking finding if all of these unrelated languages had speakers more prone to interrupting each other. Welsh, for example, is also both verb-first and about as heavily inflected as Greek, but the Welsh are not known as pushy conversationalists.
There’s plenty more interesting analysis in the Economist article and it turns out the magazine’s language blog, called Johnson (relax Americans, it’s a reference to Samuel Johnson) is very good as a whole.
Link to ‘Do different languages confer different personalities?’