Linguistics Sweatpants

Everyone has that favorite pair of comfy sweats. Slipping them on feels like coming home — warm, cozy– or drinking that perfect cup of coffee/tea on a bright fall day. For some of us, that pair of comfy sweats is exactly that: an article of clothing; for others it is a song, a book, a language.

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As someone who can speak three languages with additional reading fluencies, I am lucky to have multiple pairs of baggy, well-loved sweats. I can shimmy out of my German Jogginghosen and into my Spanish pantalones de ejercicio, and relax with a book in my Portuguese calça de moletom, sliding back into my English sweatpants when necessary.

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Languages are, as the above quote mentions, a type of apparel. They allow us to clothe our thoughts in pretty words to soften blows; they help us to heighten the emotion during rallies and protests. We can even get them tattooed on our bodies or wear a patterned shirt, literally clothing our bodies in words.

With my languages, I can tell someone I love them three different ways –I love you. Te amo. Ich liebe dich–, can wrap myself around them in a linguistic hug, three different ways.

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As German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin writes: “In the words Brot und pain [bread], what is meant is the same, but the way of meaning it is not. As to what is meant […] the words signify the very same thing. The difference in the way of meaning permits the word Brot to mean something other to a German than what the word pain means to a Frenchman.” Benjamin describes how two words may mean the exact same thing, and yet, because they come from different languages, their connotations will differ. I cannot speak for the French –although I have heard they do love their baguettes– but in Germany, almost nothing beats a good, old belegtes Brötchen (fantastic little sandwiches filled with lettuce, cheese, vegetables, and occasionally a slice of meat). My memories of Chile are fondly sandwiched by two pieces of white bread held together by manjar (the caramel equivalent of Nutella!).

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Dictionaries and thesauruses are the walk-in closets and buffet tables of language. Go ahead, pick out a dress, a sweater, or a pair of stilettos. Will your language make you feel hipster, sexy, warm and fuzzy, or comfy? Grab a slice of that pizza, a scoop of that ice cream, a forkful of that salad. Does your language satisfy you, fulfill your linguistic hunger? But language doesn’t have to be limited to pants or our food choices. As Ludwig Wittgenstein says, “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind”, come up with a new analogy, one which expresses the happy, contented feeling of conversing in another language. What is your sweatpants?

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Citation: Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator“ in Selected Writings Vol. 1 1913-1926, eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

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One thought on “Linguistics Sweatpants

  1. Your metaphor of languages being like sweatpants started me thinking. I like it. Language is how we “dress” our thoughts. But I also know that I would never refer to Arabic as sweatpants. For me, Arabic is more like a formal ballgown, especially since I study Fusha rather than a colloquial dialect.

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