What is considered our mother tongue

Irreplaceable mother tongue

The mother tongue is that language, writes Thomas Hettche in his essay, with which we associate more than we master it.

A train is racing towards five people, and you have the option of preventing the misfortune by bumping into a fat man on the tracks. Sacrifice one life, save five: how do you choose? A question that hides an old moral dilemma that was last described in a similar way by Philippa Foot to clarify two basic ethical attitudes. Either one says that five lives are worth more than one, that would be the position of a utilitarian ethic that asks about the greatest possible benefit for all when it comes to moral problems. Too bad for the fat man.

Or you say: I mustn't kill, regardless of the consequences. In this sense, Kant has contradicted an English ethics of utility as it was prevalent at the time, not because of the state or divine ban on killing, but with the argument that it is seldom that it is the utility that would justify the prohibition being exceeded clear as in our example. Think of the problem of torture, for example. So it's a shame for the five?

So how do we decide now? The psychologist Albert Costa from the University of Barcelona recently investigated whether it makes a difference to present people with the moral dilemma described in their mother tongue or in a foreign language, and came to a highly interesting result: should his Spanish test subjects judge whether it is correct if it were to sacrifice a “hombre grande”, they would be less willing to do so than if it were a “large man”. It looks like our decision depends largely on whether or not we think about them in our own language. Albert Costa blames a greater emotional involvement in the mother tongue for this. Since, in his opinion, such emotionality should not play a role in questions of morality, the scientist advises that it is better to switch to a foreign language when dealing with such questions in order to be able to make more rational decisions. Such, as he writes, that "are based on the things that really matter".

But what are the things that really matter? Wasn't it even literature that told of the things that matter? Wasn't it their stories that should teach us how to make the right decisions? And were not moral dilemmas like the one mentioned above, even without a train or platform, at their beginning: should Orestes avenge his father's murder or should he honor his mother?

But today? The days when fables and didactic pieces were the decisive factor in literature seem long gone. But what is it then? Albert Costa's experiment might give one the idea that literature is by no means, as is generally assumed, no longer caring about morality. The psychologist remains very vague in explaining why our mother tongue leads us to different moral decisions than a foreign language. But it is important to understand what the emotional involvement he is talking about means. It seems to me that it's not something that should be minimized as he would like. I believe that behind it is the ethical heart of our language.

The mother tongue is the language with which we associate more than we have mastered it. We don't learn them like Latin or English, their words are more to us than vocabulary, because they always carry with them all the stories in which we became the people we are. Stories that literature has told us, which, as Costa's experiment shows, does much more than just populate our imagination. It seems to me that our mother tongue connects us indissolubly with the emotional spaces of its stories, we charge our words with the beauties of their descriptions, the manifold fates of their heroes, their hopes and abysses.

The words of our mother tongue always carry all this with them in the aroma of literature that clings to them, and we carry it with us and think in it, even in the ruthless light of that moral question. Even then, when we hear in our language of a fat man on a platform, we do not want to succeed in imagining him only for his benefit. He will always be something else to us. And that will always make us hesitate. And that - no more, but also no less, and it is not a little - is the ethical dimension of literature.

The writer Thomas Hettche lives in Berlin. His new novel “Pfaueninsel” has just been published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch.