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Spec Tech: Language and Culture

January 13, 2011

What is the relation between language and culture? How does the language we speak influence the way we think? These important questions are unfortunately too often not asked. People often assume a position without looking at the actual empirical evidence. On one side there are a good number of anthropologists who aver that language and culture are inextricably intertwined, and that in fact language is in many ways determined by the culture of the people who speak it, their daily habits, and the environment they live in. On the other side are a good number of linguists who argue that there is little relationship between language and culture, and that while each shapes the other, they can and should be viewed independently.

So what is the evidence for the first position, that language and culture are fundamentally connected? The most trotted out example is the old “words for X” trope, where X is shown to be incredibly important to culture Y because language Y has a zillion words for X. As far as I know, no anthropological or linguistic researcher has done a broad study attempting to correlate the number of words for a certain concept in a given language and the importance of that concept in the daily lives of those who speak that language. However, the general consensus among linguists is that there does not seem to be any such correlation. The most famous example of this trope, that the Eskimos (or more properly Inuit) have a hundred words for snow. While Eskimoan languages do have a (small) set of seemingly unrelated roots for different types of snow, this inaccurate characterization most likely comes from the fact that Inuit languages are polysynthetic – they pack a lot of information into single words by using large numbers of prefixes and suffixes rather than separate words like English does. Thus in Inuktitut, one of the Inuit languages, there would be a large number of words for different kinds of snow, but most or all coming from a single basic root.

Another common example is the “no word for X” trope. The idea behind this is that in cultures where a certain concept is absent or unimportant, there will be no word for that concept, and likewise, that in cultures with a word for X, people will be unable to talk about or even understand X. At its most simplest, this idea is patently false. English has no single word for “giant mechanical spider”, but that doesn’t prevent me from telling you how bad Wild Wild West was. Another example is counting systems. Languages all have a limited set of basic number words, some as few as four, some as many as twelve. This small set is then used to form compounds for higher numbers, such as English “twenty-seven”. Likewise, the limited set of words in a language can be used to talk about an infinite number of different topics. It is this feature, infinite productivity, which is usually used as a primary different between human language and other forms of animal communication. Because of the infinite productivity of language, we don’t need to have a word for something to talk about it.

On these past two points I’ve taken a fairly dim view of the connection between language and culture. However, these is clearly some connection between the two, and between language and thought. The connection between words for concepts and the importance of those concepts is perhaps nowhere more evident than in technical jargon for various subcultures. As a linguist interested in phonology, I could go on and on about phonemes, ejectives, retroflexion, labiovelars, deaspiration, pharyngeals, markedness, or labialization. And there I’ve limited myself to one-word terms; I know you don’t want me to get into Optimality Theory, loanword adaptation, or retreat to the unmarked. Most readers probably aren’t going to know those terms, because they’re not that applicable in everyday life, and exist almost solely in the domain of linguistics (my spell check doesn’t recognize retroflexion, deaspiration, or pharyngeals). So in this case, culture and language are clearly intertwined: members of the linguistics subculture know and use these words, whereas English speakers in general are unaware of both the words and the concepts they refer to. However, it’s important to remember that such naïve speakers are still perfectly capable of describing the concepts if they need to. Labialization refers to rounding of the lips when pronouncing a certain sounds, such as the /k/ sound at the beginning of “queen”. Anyone who speaks English can talk about this lip rounding, even if they don’t know the word labialization.

The take-home lesson here is that there’s no simple answer to the question of how language and culture interact. There are few if any people who would say that the two have no effect on each other, and there are few if any who would say that one determines the other. There is a complicated interplay between language and culture that’s not easily modeled. Certainly it is not as simple as “This is a culture of selfless people, and because of this they have no word for ‘I’.” On the other hand, sometimes in fiction writing it can be advantageous to violate universal rules of language to give the impression of some exotic civilization. While no extant human language has only three consonants, that doesn’t mean that such a language would not be a useful construct in a certain fictional world. The important thing to remember is that language and culture influence each other in complex and unexpected ways that are not reducible to statement about the number of words for a concept in a language, or the number or types of sounds in a language.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2011 9:57 am

    I think another way that language and culture interact is that each word has a history, and sometimes a single word can have quite a story behind it. For example, in English, the word “Indian” as a reference to the original inhabitants of the Americas carries with it the whole history of Christopher Columbus and his miscalculations as well as a heavy weight of racism. Every language has words that are tricky, taboo, ambiguous, or complex.

    And they have words that are playful. My blog is called “Mount Oregano,” which makes people in Spain smile. It comes from a saying, “The mountain isn’t all oregano,” which means that any path will not all be fragrant and soft, like a field of oregano plants.

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