Last week, in our ten-part series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how geography can influence culture. This week, we’ll take a look at the link between language and culture.

Does our language influence the way we see the world? Or does the way we see the world shape our language?

Research suggests that it’s a little bit of both. Here are just a few examples of how culture and language are bound.

Colors

A study done by Lera Boroditsky, Stanford University professor of psychology and Frontiers in Cultural Psychology editor in chief, highlights how the Russian language distinguishes between light blue and dark blue tones.

And, interestingly, corresponding tests showed that Russians are, in fact, able to distinguish between shades of blue better than non-Russian speakers.

Is this because the language calls them to distinguish between dark and light, or does the language reflect the way the Russian people view color?

Time

In the 1940s, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf studied a culture’s concept of time based on language. He found that English-speakers objectify time by placing it in countable chunks – minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, etc.

By conceptualizing time in this way, English-speakers view it as something that can be lost, wasted, or saved.

Those cultures that look at time as a continuous cycle do not speak of it in such terms. The Hopi language – a Native American language spoken in Arizona – is one such culture.

Other ways in which time is viewed differently across cultures: the Aymara language in South America flips time on its axis, considering the past to be in front of them and the future behind. Mandarin, too, considers the past to be above and the future below.

Do these linguistic concepts of time influence the way we live our lives?

Cause & Effect

Stanford’s Caitlin Fausey studied how language can influence eyewitness memory of cause and effect.

Spanish speakers often use passive voice when speaking about an accident that occurred. For instance, if Sam broke a dish, they would be more likely to say “the dish broke” or “the dish was broken,” leaving Sam out of the action, altogether.

English speakers, on the other hand, are more likely to use the active voice, saying, “Sam broke the dish.”

This has been shown to shape how a person from either culture recalls events. English speakers are more likely to recall who broke the dish, while Spanish speakers recall only that it was broken.

This linguistic trait is only in the case of accidental events, not intentional ones, so a Spanish person is just as likely to recall who broke the dish if it was intentional as their English counterparts.

These are just a few of the ways that language shapes culture and/or culture shapes language. And they highlight the importance of studying the language of any culture into which you wish to integrate.

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