To Be or Not To Be.
Chip: Language is funny. Well, that’s not too eloquent. Okay, language is illuminating. One of my closest friends for 35 years has been Gabriel Galluccio. While I’m struggling (and enjoying) learning a second language, Spanish, living in Mexico, Gabriel knew seven languages by the time I met him in San Francisco.
He was a tour guide then and seemed to have a natural talent at intuiting other cultures, but I never understood how language played such a part in his cultural empathy. This is his story which seemed oddly appropriate for Independence Day since Gabriel immigrated to the U.S. long ago.
Gabriel: I was always curious about the structure of languages, and as an adult I was fortunate to have worked in different parts of the world. It gave me the opportunity to be exposed to many languages and to learn several of them in the territories where spoken.
In English, the verb “to be” describes a condition that can be permanent or temporary.
“To be a human” is a permanent condition.
“To be sad” is temporary.
In Spanish the verb “ser” is used to describe the permanent condition of being as in “to exist”, and the verb “estar” is used to describe the temporary condition of being.
“Ser un humano” is permanent.
“Estar triste” is temporary.
“Ser, o no ser” for a Spanish speaker reads “to exist or not to exist” as the human condition of being.
German, like English, has one verb for the temporary or permanent condition of being: “sein.” Unlike English, German doesn’t use “to” in the infinitive form of the verb. “To” suggests movement or action in English. Also in German, words tend to unite to create meaning. The union of not (nicht) and to be (sein) makes the word nichtsein, that often translates to “nothingness”.
“Sein oder nichtsein”. It could be translated as “To be, or nothingness”
In Japanese, the concept of “being” is not defined in the same way that western cultures do. ある (aru) Is the ideogram that describes the abstract idea of “being, having, or happening”. In the Japanese culture “having” and “happening” share the word-space with the idea of “being”. Yet for the concept of existence one Shakespeare's eulogy Japanese would use 生きる(ikiru) "live” and 死ぬ (shinu)”die”.
Sentences use components as “particles” that help relate ideograms.
か (ka) is a particle used to delimit choices, or to question.
生きるか死ぬか (ikiru-ka shinu-ka). “To live, to question. To die, to question”. Living and dying is how the Japanese can interpret the opening statement.
English: To be or not to be
Spanish: To be (exist) or not to be (exist)
German: To be or nothingness.
Japanese: To live, to question. To die, to question.
In this simplified example, we get a glimpse of how languages give the building structure for the thought process. True translation is almost always impossible. The meaning of words is a cultural agreement developed over centuries organized by grammar, syntax, semantics, and word definitions. The process of sentence building requires a completely different thought process.
Furthermore, languages keep evolving. Sometimes the same language can have different meanings for the same words in different regions. Or use different words for the same meaning. Gestures and expressions can completely change the meaning of the words. In a region of Turkey there is a language that uses whistling. An effective way to communicate across the hills of the region.
To learn a foreign language one must embrace a new way of processing thoughts.
And to truly master it, one must be immersed in the culture that speaks the language.
Most Latin languages have a rich and complex usage of verbs. Verbs describe actions and emotions. It is not surprising that Latins tend to use gestures when speaking or are more “emotional” when they interact.
Germanic languages tend to use the verb at the end of the sentence in the complex forms. The action and emotion are the last information on the structure of a sentence. “I will be happy with just one kiss ” translates to “ich werde mit nur einem Kuss glücklich sein”. Or “I will, with just one kiss, happy be.” Delivering information goes first, expressing the emotion or action last. This tells you something about the Germans.
In Japanese the sentence My name is Gabriel, is written as: “Watashi wa namae no Gabrieru desu.” "I (wa = makes “I” the subject of the sentence.) name (no = makes the character before belong to the character in front of wa) Gabriel is.” So the thought is something like: I, subject of sentence, name, that belongs to me, Gabriel is. The Japanese value order, arrangement, and hierarchy and therefore it’s part of the word structure of a culture.
After mastering many languages, one can better see the limitations of languages but earn the benefit to think more abstractly without the limitation of only one set of rules of thought processing. But the true benefit is that to relate to another culture, mastering their language is essential. It gives you a window into the soul of the people.
This is something you will never get from Google Translate.
Gabriel is a three-time Emmy winner and an MEA alumni of two cohorts with 20+ years of global experience in brand strategy, creative communication, and marketing in entertainment and sports media. Gabriel was born in Argentina to Italian parents and was fortunate to have lived in various countries around the world.