Mother tongue and chess – is there a connection?

by Irina Bulmaga
4/30/2021 – Since 2009 Irina Bulmaga (pictured) has played in the German "Bundesliga", and recently she decided to use the enforced break caused by the pandemic to start learning German. However, passionate chess player that she is, she could not help but wonder whether there is any connection between the written and unwritten rules of the language you grow up with and the way you later study and play chess - and had some fun trying to find an answer to this question. | Photo: David Llada

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The pandemic has been the subject of many articles lately, some of my own included. While I have mostly presented the hardships that came along with it, there have been some positive moments as well. One of these aspects is the one which inspired me to write this article!

I have been playing for many years in the German Bundesliga, since 2009 to be more precise. After having been in Germany so many times, I do understand some of the language and I can even say some basic things. However, I have never seriously studied German and if I listened to German speakers at a dinner party, I could probably catch the subject of the conversation, but not more. However, the pandemic has offered me the chance to do some of the things I have always wanted to, but for which I have never been able to find time. One of those things was studying German, so, some months ago, I joined an online course and since then, three days a week, my mornings start with ‘Deutsch lernen’. While typing, I couldn’t help thinking "How do I say ‘with’ in German? Aha - ‘mit’ - ‘mit’ always needs to be used with the Dative case…"

To be honest, this language fascinates me – there are so many things one should consider before saying anything! I remember when I was studying English, I found it difficult to take care of the word order in a sentence, but well, in German – it is a whole new level! Articles, prepositions, cases: the word order changes more often than my predilection for one type of shoes or another! It feels like my brain has to run on a few additional CPUs when I speak it, but when I say something right it is such a pleasure!

If you start to wonder how this article relates to chess – I’m getting to it! Well, it took me a month or so to get used to putting the verb always at the second position in a sentence, even when the sentence did not start with the subject, only to later experience the pleasures of conjunctive sentences, where everything changes drastically! Compared to Romanian or Russian, where one can build a sentence whichever way one pleases, or even to English, where there are some rules, which, however, can be broken occasionally, there is no room for improvising when building a sentence in German – everything has to follow a certain order.

This made me think – if one is used from an early age to operate on this rigorous order does that somehow transpose to chess? Is a chess player whose first language is German fated to build his or her playing style guided by this order? Let’s take a look!

The first player who comes to mind when saying ‘rigorous German style’ is GM Georg Meier.

Georg Meier | Photo: Grenkechess

He is currently number five in Germany and has been among the top players of the country for many years.

 

Going through the games of Meier  – and I think the one which we’ve just seen is quite typical – one might think that there might be something to my assumption regarding the ‘German order’. However, let’s not rush to conclusions, but rather dig deeper into the matter.

It only feels fair to look at the games of Germany’s number one female player (since what seems to me forever): IM Elisabeth Paehtz.

Elisabeth Paehtz | Photo: Pascal Simon

I have played and prepared against Elizabeth many times and the difference between the games of Georg Meier and Elisabeth Paehtz is obvious. I once played against GM Meier and it was more or less clear to me what opening would appear on the board, but when preparing for games against Elizabeth, it often might be more effective to just say a prayer and go to sleep. Jokes aside, when playing against Meier, who usually sticks to his repertoire, the biggest challenge seemed to be to study a line deep enough, whereas things are often highly unpredictable when playing against Elisabeth. I will not argue that one approach is better than the other – they are simply entirely different – but the first approach relies on building up the game around one’s strengths, whereas the second approach tries to find and to exploit the weaknesses of your opponent.

Let’s have a look at a typical game to understand Elizabeth’s style better.

 

I think that this game characterizes IM Paehtz’s playing style very well – clever preparation and a very flexible repertoire, a good feeling for dynamics and a good technique. She often changes her approach and improvises…

So, I would say this means her style doesn’t really go along with my ‘German order’ theory.

But it still has been very interesting for me to dig into this theory of mine and study games of these two players. Of course, one can’t generalize a whole nation’s chess style based on the rules of their language, but my feeling is that there could be a connection – maybe the language you grow up in is not a 100% factor which defines one’s style of play, but it might be a factor which influences it to some degree, though there are of course other factors that shape the way you play chess… What do you think?

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Irina Bulmaga is a WGM/IM born in Moldova, currently representing Romania. She became the youngest Moldavian Champion among Women at the age of 14 years old. Since 2010, she has been a part of the Romanian Olympic team, successfully representing it at 5 Olympiads, winning an individual bronze medal in 2014.
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mythiclott mythiclott 5/4/2021 09:41
Fun and Interesting article. Thanks Mrs Bulmaga.
I certainly believe that there might be a connection with some people. I love languages too...and am very good with latin based ones...but I think that your approach to chess is more of a personality thing than a academics one.But still...a fun article.
Nozick Nozick 5/2/2021 06:02
I see no problem with the article being fundamentally speculative. On that note, I will speculate further that there may be some connection between handling word orders in languages, and the ability to handle transpositions in openings, insofar as both require some undertanding of when a difference really makes a difference. (We often read in openings books that a move "has no indpendent value" because it usually transposes, whereas in other cases, a move "may be an attempt to avoid" a particular position precisely because the move-order allows one player to vary to his/her advantage.

Malcolm Gladwell cites the work of Stanislas Dehaene, a cognitive neuroscientist whose research I will gloss over by only mentioning that there is some suggestion that the ability to keep numbers in one's head is at least partially a function of the length of the word. The claim is that in some Asian languages, number-words are shorter (and more logical) than their English counterparts, allowing those thinking in those languages (I believe including Japanese, Chinese/Cantonese, and Korean) to do number manipulations more easily. If such manipulations include memorizations of sequences, then some connection to openings choices may well be worth considering, as it might help explain some general tendencies while also allowing for the obvious distinctions between individuals.
ChessSpawnVermont ChessSpawnVermont 5/2/2021 01:47
Interesting question that is essentially left unanswered by the article. :-)
I have to think that the development of language and cognitive though processes have been the subject of research by neuroscientists. Perhaps Chessbase could consult with a specialist in this field and have a summary article written. There may not have been specific research done as to language development and chess, but other research might give us a clue to the issue presented in this fun article.
adbennet adbennet 5/2/2021 06:31
Ow that was harsh. Replying to FramiS's two points.
1. Players with same language and different styles is a good rebuttal, but not a *perfect* rebuttal -- because of adaptibility and comparative advantage. If two players have the same style then the slightly stronger player will largely win or draw. To win any games the weaker player will have to adapt with a different style, and choose one that favors their personality in some way. But there can still be a *tendency* for the group to have a predominant style, it's just not absolute. Also, give some credit to the author: even the two German players mentioned in the article are in fact counter-evidence to the hypothesis.
2. I won't stick my head over the parapet on the subject of the German language. As an ugly American, I only have to know a few foreign words to be declared brilliant. But without pretending to be any language expert, I do know they have structural differences. Might this also be a case of speaking about tendencies but perhaps using absolutist terms? The author admits to just learning German recently, but we should keep in mind that English is also not her native language. Of course it's fine but maybe there would be a different emphasis in her native language. Again, I only know a few words in German, from reading tournament books and so forth, so I'm not saying the ideas presented about German are correct, I'm just saying be a little generous in interpreting the article.
FramiS FramiS 5/1/2021 01:43
What a nonsense in two respects.
1.There are players all over the world who are native speakers of the same language and have totally different styles in chess.
2. The writer has no clue about the German language. ".. there is no room for improvising when building a sentence in German – everything has to follow a certain order." That's bullshit. Gestern war ich im Kino. Ich war gestern im Kino. Im Kino war ich gestern. All these are the same sentence with a diffferent thema rhema order.

Obviously the writer has a stereotype about the Germans in mind and then wants to vindicate it with some prejudices about the language which are totally unfounded. Contrary to the prejudice the German language is full of exceptions, free options for speakers ( for example the sloppiness in the use of the tenses or mood compared to English,French et al) and vagueness. For example the famous 'Abtönungspartikel' which many foreign speakers struggle with because there is no equivalent in their language.
Gerald C Gerald C 5/1/2021 07:23
An original and interesting article !
KWRegan KWRegan 5/1/2021 12:23
WGM Bulmaga (Irina if I may),

Here are some words of empathy. I am writing this preamble only so that it will be long enough to extend past the icon at left so that the main body will be formatted to express the point to best advantage.

Only you are not the one having difficulties with word order in English.
You only are not the one having difficulties with word order in English.
You are not only the one having difficulties with word order in English.
You are not the only one having difficulties with word order in English.
You are not the one only having difficulties with word order in English.
You are not the one having only difficulties with word order in English.
You are not the one having difficulties only with word order in English.
You are not the one having difficulties with only word order in English.
You are not the one having difficulties with word order only in English.
You are not the one having difficulties with word order in English only.

With my best regards only (etc.), ---Ken Regan
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 4/30/2021 10:24
Interestingly, this question is much easier to look at scientifically today than it was in prior decades. Before, there were clear differences in play based on one's country. That being the case, it would be impossible to separate out the influence of the language vs. the players and books available there. But today, knowledge is widely accessible, so one could attempt to isolate the effect of language. I have some ideas on how to do it, but suspect that individual factors would dominate.
adbennet adbennet 4/30/2021 07:38
Maybe the contribution of native language to chess is similar to the contribution of parental behavior to children: There are those who model after their parents, and there are those who rebel against them.
ranger64 ranger64 4/30/2021 06:29
Herr Friedel, I followed the links to your own very interesting articles about the German language. On 22 Dec 2020, in an article about extraordinary feats of mental skill, you use the word "doubtlessly". I don't like it much and I subscribe to the view best expressed as "Doubtless means without a doubt, so it works as an adverb (in addition to being an adjective) even though it lacks the adverbial -ly ending. The -ly ending in the adverb doubtlessly is redundant and unnecessary." Thank you.
Frederic Frederic 4/30/2021 03:17
Irina, you say: "In German – it is a whole new level! Articles, prepositions, cases..." Indeed. I have written about this: The awful German language (https://frederic-38110.medium.com/the-awful-german-language-1-97cc9542901e). There is a reason for the articles and cases and stuff: free word order (unlike English). In German you can say "you should throw your mother from the train a kiss" or "the helpless little boy bit a big vicious dog," because the cases (normally) tell you who did what to whom. I have written about that as well: https://frederic-38110.medium.com/throw-the-cow-over-the-fence-some-hay-3203d5493485
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