Saturday 29 June 2013

Multilingual moods

Have you ever woken up in a language-bound mood? Or felt a sudden compulsion, at any time of your day, to speak, think, read, sing, cook, dress, in one of your languages, and only one of them? This happens to me all the time. Not that I go about summoning up language-related everyday behaviours at will: rather, these urges appear to strike whenever my intentional uses of my languages are off-duty, as it were.

I indulge these unscripted moods as a leisurely way of keeping my languages and the behaviours that go with them well oiled. They’re a welcome addition to my daily uses of them, which ebb and flow according to need – whether I’m working or relaxing with friends and family, for example. Whatever skills, fluency, ownership, flexibility, we acquire in our languages are neither inborn nor immutable: they arise through use and they rust without it. Such moods are also a natural consequence of being multilingual, not evidence of the legendary monolingual said to be lurking inside every multilingual. When I’m being Portuguese, for example, I’m being it with a flavour, not because there is a vanilla way of being Portuguese, from which I “deviate” as a multilingual, but because nobody has vanilla ways of being whatever they are – except perhaps in their own eyes.

If we happen to believe in pure languages and pure moods, we may be tempted to call these mood switches and colourings “mixes”. On condition, of course, that we then use the same word to describe, say, what conventional tourists do, including staunch monolinguals, when they bring home souvenirs from the places they visit. Why else do we keep and cherish bits and pieces, songs and food, behaviours and words from other cultures, if not because we want them to be part of new moods we wish to enjoy? Different languages likewise associate with different souvenirs, as reminders that you have experienced things in different ways. Our mobility in time and space, to use the word in Alastair Pennycook’s book title, Language and Mobility. Unexpected Places, imprints our selves, and so our languages. My point is that there are different “mes” to every single “I”, from any anylingual individual.

This is why questions requiring mono-minded answers like “Do you feel X?”, where X stands for the name of official nationalities (of all things!) don’t make sense. When I feel miserable, or happy, do I need to feel so and express what I feel in a nationality? Or in a language? Questions about moods, feelings, emotions, and “their” language(s) raise similar issues to the ones about thought and “its” language(s). Not surprisingly, perhaps, since António Damásio showed, in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, that the “neural underpinnings of reason” (p. xi) turn out to have quite a lot in common with those of emotion. So what exactly is it that we’re trying to find out by asking such questions, and why does it matter to know? And, of course, why aren’t questions addressing monolingual moods, feelings and emotions by name apparently as interesting to ask. Different languages, much like different clothes, are but one of the choices that some of us have available for expression, depending on who we’re talking to (ourselves included), and what we’re talking about, among other things.

Multilinguals naturally express their moods differently in different languages because different languages naturally reflect different things: languages belong to cultural heritages, not genetic ones. See, for example, Javier E. Díaz-Vera and Rosario Caballero’s article ‘Exploring the feeling-emotions continuum across cultures: Jealousy in English and Spanish’. The whole issue of the journal where this article appears, Intercultural Pragmatics, is of interest for the additional reason that it is a thematic issue on the topic of Metaphor and Culture. Metaphor does seem to permeate quite a lot of what we say, whether we’re being “emotional” or “rational”, and metaphorical devices as well as meanings certainly vary among different cultures, and so among different languages. The meaning of things like “big boys don’t cry”, for example, fits a particular culture and makes sense to those who have been initiated into that culture. And not all of us express loving moods by invoking a “little cabbage” or by hugging and kissing the object of those moods.

Photo: MCF

Metaphors also abound, understandably, in our expression of profanity. Next time, I’ll try to explain why this is interesting for multilinguals.
Díaz-Vera, J., & Caballero, R. (2013). Exploring the feeling-emotions continuum across cultures: Jealousy in English and Spanish Intercultural Pragmatics, 10 (2) DOI: 10.1515/ip-2013-0012

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual rudeness. Saturday 13th July 2013.


  1. Your post is very interesting. Even if I'm bilingual, I've never noticed if I have never associated my mood to a specific language. I'll try to pay attention to it.

    Yesterday I read an interesting article about the identity of bilinguals, I mean, if bilingual feel themselves different when speaking a language or another (Deweale was the author). It's a very interesting topic.

    The language of a particular kind of emotions has inspired the last entry on my blog (I'm sorry, it's in Spanish), if you are interested on the topic:

  2. Agnese: You’re right, we don’t usually go about consciously thinking about what we do with our languages, or what we feel through their use. It’s just natural to have different languages.

    On the issue of multilingual identity/ies, you may enjoy this other post of mine.
    Split identities, and other ugly words.
    I very much liked the book by Michèle Koven that I reference there, dealing with Portuguese and French. I can guess you’ll have no major problems reading about these two languages? :)

    Gracias for this comment and the link to your blog post. No problem either with Spanish!



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