How culture and language affect each other

languageblogFor hundreds of years anthropologists and linguists have discussed the effect of culture on language and also how language affects society and the way we think. Being a keen linguist I was fascinated to find out more about this. It is true that a society will make attempts to change its language or fight to keep the influences of other languages out. This can be shown in the utilisation of political correctness in order to encourage inclusiveness and the adoption of a particular ethical viewpoint. Another point to consider is how greatly the variety of vocabulary and language can affect our actions and the way we think.

When asking the question how language affects culture it is important to understand that not all languages follow the same grammatical structure as English. Unlike many ‘romantic’ languages such as Italian, French and Spanish, languages like Finnish and Hindi hold little correlation to the well-known formulas of the English language. However, it is not just grammatical structure but also the words that can hugely influence the way we think. The Russian language contains an extra distinction between light and dark blues; in tests, Russians are more able to visually discriminate various shades of blue far better than those who do not speak Russian. In addition, a tribe in Brazil named Pirahã do not have words for numbers such as 10 and 100 and simply use words like ‘few’ and ‘many’ to measure quantities. Studies show this significantly affects their accuracy and capability to distinguish between substances and individual objects.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I learnt whilst researching this was the cultural importance of voice. The English language favours the active voice meaning they are far more likely to say ‘Sophie broke the window’ rather than the passive voice used most likely by Spanish and Japanese speakers who would most likely say, ‘the window broke’ or, ‘the window was broken’ when talking about an accident. This may have implications on how much a particular society blames others for events. In a study conducted, English, Spanish, and Japanese speakers were shown videos of people popping balloons and spilling drinks intentionally or by accident. The English-peaking participants were more likely to remember the culprits of the accidental events than the Spanish or Japanese speakers, which suggested that the active voice may encourage higher rates of blame.

In another study, English speakers watched videos of Janet Jackson’s outfit being torn at the 2004 Superbowl halftime show. All participants read one of two reports, identical apart from the last line in the first document being ‘ripped the costume’ and the second reading ‘the costume ripped’. Those who read the first report were more likely to blame Justin Timberlake for the incident and they suggested 53% more in fines than the others. As we can see here language hugely affects our actions and culture. One can deduce that perhaps native language speakers are more useful to true market success than one thinks.

On the flip side culture can greatly affect our language, especially in this modernising world of social media and greater travel opportunities. It doesn’t takes a genius to realise that a large proportion of our vocabulary comes from other languages, some without us even realising. Words like ‘giraffe’ come from the Arabic and ‘bungalow’ from Urdu, to name but a few. However, this is true in almost all languages, yet countries like France are desperately trying “to restore courage to all those in France and outside France who endeavour to defend and enrich the language. Let French remain a great language of communication and culture,”Jean-Mathieu Pasqualini of the Académie told a newspaper. The supposedly ‘elitist club’ attempts to keep out Anglicisms and stay truly French. A recent addition to the black list was the uses of ‘le best of’ in French magazines as opposed to ‘le meilleur de’. Furthermore, recent suggestions from web users were to replace ‘le binge drinking’ with ‘biture fissa’, ‘hotline’ with ‘numéro d’urgence’ and ‘brainstorming’ with ‘remue-méninges’. However, despite strong efforts, some words like ‘le weekend’ and ‘le sandwich’ have become the norm in the French language.

With the increase in travel and social media we are becoming more aware of different cultures and languages, and in my opinion an appreciation of languages is even more necessary to understand truly a country and the way others think.

Sophie (UVI)