Language and Consciousness 1

Finland is often ranking among the top ten when it comes to political or social features of a democratic society. Gender equality is one feature that has become apparent lately with the young Sanna Marin having been elected as prime minister. Running a coalition government of five parties, four of which are also spearheaded by a woman. From the very beginning of my attempts of learning the Finnish language I started to ponder the question whether language is the outer expression of the inner consciousness of a people or nation or whether, by speaking a specific language, our consciousness is formed in a particular way. Probably both, but speaking different languages raises the awareness of how different languages actually are. And how the limit or allow for certain perceptions of the world. Language seems to play a crucial role in how society is set up. 

As opposed to Indo-Germanic languages, the Finnish language does not know the personal pronouns of a different gender. All they have is “hän”, instead of “he” or “she”. It’s possible in Finnish to write a novel not knowing whether the main character is male or female if gender-specific characteristics are not mentioned. If somebody announces that “hän on myös tulossa”, meaning “hän” will also attend, you have no means of knowing whether a man or woman will show up, unless the name or the situation gives a clue or you see the person.

My mother tongue German, on the contrary, does use “er” (he) and “sie” (she), and it, for things, and also assigns gender to all matter and objects, very often in a way that doesn’t make sense and I really feel sorry for every immigrant having to learn German. Why is the forest “der” (he), the carrot “die” (she) and the child “das” (it, a thing)? I find it heart-warming when immigrants intuitively attach the definite article “die” (definite feminine article) to “Mädchen”, (meaning little girl), when in German, a little girl is language-wise actually a “thing”, “it”. Now, there is a grammar rule that explains why a little girl is “a thing”, language-wise, because the ending “…chen” is a diminutive that neutralizes the gender of an otherwise masculine or feminine term. However, as the traditional feminine word for “girl”, which would be “die Maid”, is not used anymore, German women, language-wise, only exist as “neutral diminutives” or as a grown-up “die Frau”. This might account for equality issues that Finland just doesn’t have to face. Masculine Germans, on the contrary, have an unbroken line of male forms, there is “der Junge” and “der Jugendliche” and “der Mann”.

English again does know he, she and it, but does not assign gender to “things”, it’s the forest, the carrot and the child. If you want to know if the dog is a he or she, you have to add “female” or “she”, or with horses, you use a different word, like stallion or mare. More impressive when comparing English to my two other languages is how they handle the relationship between “I” and “you”. In German and Finnish we have an informal “Du” or “sinä”, and a formal “Sie” or “Te”. While German sees a lot of “Sie” to create distance and respect, Finns almost exclusively use the casual forms of “sinä”, unless you talk to Veterans or high-ranking officials. This, the Finns have in common with English. Interesting to me, is the differences in the written language. English writes “I” as a capital letter, clearly putting emphasis on the “Ego” or “Self”, whichever comes first. German writes “Du” and “Sie” with capital letters, clearly putting the emphasis on “the other”. Coming from a longstanding “top-down” history, the classical German “Untertan” or the merciful “Christian soul” seems to express itself here. The Self or Ego is always written in small letters as “ich”. Finnish doesn’t use capital letters.

The question I am pondering is: does the language express an inner consciousness, or does the language determine and shape the inner consciousness? After all, we are not born speaking a language fluently, we struggle to learn it. I was fortunate to learn four languages, so at least I can observe how my world view and personality change depending on the language I speak. But for all those people who are speaking one language alone, they can only perceive the world in the way their language dictates or allows them to perceive it.

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