Which is the more expressive language?

2020-11-12 @Languages

I’ve often entertained the question of language expressiveness: whether Russian bears superiority over English and also, although of lesser concern, the position my secondary languages hold among the lot.

For well over a decade I’ve deemed Russian as the superior in expressing subtle culturoethnic phenomena all too inherent to native speakers. It seemed more diverse in the ability to manipulate word forms, express subtle emotions and attain that melancholy note.

No contrary notion would I take in earnest. Speaking English felt a poor substitute. Most English literature felt base (although I hardly read it). The very word ‘English’ produced a dull aftertaste.

Actually, I’d always sustained English as ideal for scientific publication or any nature of texts where precise communication takes precedence over rhetoric.

But that aside, you’ve probably noticed the repeated appeal to feeling. And right you are: much of what I ‘knew’ of each language with the surety of Newton’s Thermodynamics, actually stemmed not out of it’s characteristics, but from pure sentiment.

Feelings can become faulty, misleading, and quiet malleable. Fortunately, the malleability enables us to subject feelings to severe metamorphosis or disregard them entirely.

To analyze the question more pragmatically: when carefully decomposed and meditated, it actually reveals a slew of dimension:

  1. Which language features a more expansive, all-encompassing vocabulary/lexicon? Perhaps the point is open to debate, depending on your aggregation method?
  2. What about the strictly colloquial lexicon, as generally heard throughout the mainstream?
  3. Which enables a more flexible syntax, both in vernacular as well as literary use?
  4. Does one sound ‘prettier’ than the other? The cadence? The phonetics?
  5. Is that aesthetic element conditional upon a number of factors?
    • Colloquial language?
    • Literary?
    • Older language vs the contemporary, both throughout literature and vernacular tongue?
  6. Does the above observation possibly fall subject to even narrower constraint?
    • Specific types of speakers?
    • Specific category of authors to which we’re most exposed and attach disproportionally greater importance?
  7. Does the lexicon of one language enable certain uniquely tempered sentiment?
  8. Be that the case, does the other also reveal similar quality we might not properly regard?

I could go on. But let’s ask the fundamental question. All the above aside, presuming one language bears theoretical superiority across a multitude of parameters, does that necessarily make itself manifest in practice?

That is to say, could one speaker not do more with less? Could not a speaker of (to make an extreme point) even a constructed language, leverage all the available lexical, syntactical and structural element to such artistry, to such well-refined taste, as to make it easily appear the firmer, the richer, and the more glorifying? This, in contrast to the other, theoretically more apt tongue, yet austerely, if not basely used in practice?

Most of the questions I’ve raised above I’ll leave strictly at rhetoric. I’ll not bother with heavy technical analysis.

However, the more of such questions I identify, the more any notion of language expressiveness or superiority gives way to momentary impression.

It appears more a question of how each of us opts to make use of the language, how much we strive to extract from the tradition, and in what way we allow it to stamp itself upon our character.

Aesthetic is a peculiar specimen, catered differently according to individual taste. And it can vary with time.

My relation to each language has heavily been subject to the winds. And part of the impressibility owes itself to improper comparison.

I spent years focused predominantly on Russian 19th-century and early Soviet period literature, intermixed with significant Latin-American opus, while virtually devoid of anything written in English beyond academic texts and web content. As you can imagine, this sort of dichotomy fostered a rather biased consensus.

I strained to identify every aspect of the former group that makes it infinitely divine, while seeking every reason to discredit the latter as unworthy in attaining a similar standard.

Out of curiosity, I might take a passage from a Russian/Spanish-language classic and procure the respective English translation to further reinforce the inferiority. Naturally, I compared the best of the best of the first group, to sterilized, translated text - some of the worst that I consider of literary prose in my boundless conceit.

Comparisons must be drawn on equal ground.

Presently, I could make endless argument for why English literature (and respectfully the language) is not only in no way inferior in forms of expression, but identify aspects of superiority.

And here again, I’ve all the carefully catered evidence at my disposal, as the last couple of years I’ve spent reading an exorbitant amount of English literature (and poetry), mostly the older, emphasizing the best of the best.

It’s of no surprise that, immersed in readings of Shakespeare, Chaucer or Poe, it demands certain patience on my part to consume works of Gogol, Dostoevsky or Bulgakov (as I occasionally do in parallel).

This exemplifies another improper comparison. The latter group, while all-around phenomenal, still appeals to fairly basic language, while the former reaches very deep into the well to render some of the most linguistically confounding use of language I’ve encountered among anything successfully read.

And that’s that. Biased comparison, prejudice, momentary passion, pick-and-choose argumentation can shape our language creed in whatever direction. There isn’t anything inherently good, bad, or dangerous in this, but something to beware.

Questions, comments? Connect.