How Languages Signify the Importance of Family to Culture

When you want to know the importance of large families to a culture, take a look at the language.

As we discussed last week about two-generational and multi-generational families, the definition of what constitutes a family differs across cultures.

This week, we’ll talk about how language reflects this.

The Bloodline

Bloodlines are not of much importance to Western culture.

However, they are to others.

The Yanomami – an indigenous people who live in the Amazon rainforest – have four different words for cousin, all dependent on the specific relationship.

  • Amiwa – daughter of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle
  • Eiwa – son of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle
  • Suwabiya – daughter of a maternal uncle or a paternal aunt
  • Soriwa – son of a maternal uncle or a paternal aunt

Each cousin has a distinctive name, because the bloodline is so important to the Yanomami.

Turkey, as well, has familial vocabulary that distinguishes between bloodlines.

Your father’s brother and sister would be called “amca” and “hala,” respectively, while your mother’s brother and sister would be called “dayı” and “teyze.” Both mean “aunt” and “uncle,” but the terms are distinct to differentiate between bloodlines.

Moreover, the Turkish language also designates between younger and older siblings, in this way signifying the respect shown to elders in their culture.

Younger siblings call their elder siblings not by their names, but by either “abla” or “abi,” for an elder sister or brother, respectively. You can even address elder people in informal settings as such.

The Bloodline Loses Importance

The funny thing is Old English once differentiated specific relatives in a similar fashion; the language for such familial relations has simply gone by the wayside, since such distinctions are no longer important to many English-speaking cultures.

For instance, in Old English, a father’s brother was called fœdra, while a mother’s brother was called eam, a word that survived the 19th century through other dialects in the word “eme,” which generally means “friend” or “uncle.”

So, while someone from an English-speaking culture might find all of this specificity about the bloodline to be overkill, know that in generations past, your own culture did the same. As cultures evolve, and values change, so do norms.

This is one of them.

Love, Honor, and Smell: How Scent is Viewed in Other Cultures

When you think of the five senses, how would you rank them, superior to inferior?

You might instinctively say that sight is the superior sense. Next, you’d probably go with hearing or touch, followed by taste or smell.

This ranking makes objective sense to you somehow, but it’s likely that social and cultural prejudice of certain senses comes into play.

Language & the Lower Order

Last week we talked about how scientists once perceived smell as of a “lower order” than all other senses. This was because, at the time, rationality was in vogue, and scent was linked with emotion.

This scientific attitude toward our senses led to less research into scent. Even our language followed suit.

Think about it.

  • When someone is impressive, we might call them a visionary.
  • When someone is athletic, we might call them dexterous.
  • When someone is a curator, we might say they have good taste.
  • When someone is musically talented, you might say they have a good ear.

But you never compliment someone’s nose or smelling abilities, and the terms for nose in our vocabulary are often derogatory (schnoz, snout, snooty, snotty, etc.).

There is no positive equivalency for the sense of smell as there are for our other four senses.

Cross-Cultural Views on Scent

The thing is, other world cultures do appreciate the power of scent. Some even hold it in the highest regard, above all others.

One example is the Onge of the Andaman Islands. This tribe defines everything primarily by smell.

For instance, seasons are named after a particular scent, largely depending on what types of flowers or fruits blossom. Their calendar is literally run by the nose.

They also personally identify according to scent. If talking about oneself, one touches the tip of his nose, which means “me” or “my odor.”

The scent-centered culture appears expresses their focus on the nose in their language.

Consider the Onge greeting:

“Konyune onorange-tanka?”

This is the English equivalent of “How are you?” But it literally means, “How is your nose?”

Greeting & Scent

The Onge are not the only ones to hold scent in such esteem.

In Algeria, the nose – called “nif” – is synonymous with honor.

In India, greeting someone by smelling them on the head is equivalent to a hug or a kiss in the West.

Moreover, one ancient text in India reads:

“I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love.”

So, it appears that, in some cultures, the link between scent and emotion makes the sense of smell even more powerful than all others.

Next week, we’ll continue this talk about culture and scent preferences.

Visual Framework: How Culture Fashions Our Worldview

Do you see the world around you the way a Spanish person sees it? A Russian? A Korean?

Do you see it the way a Koyukon sees it?

Last week, we talked about optical illusions and how different cultures view three-dimensional objects on paper.

This week, we’ll continue our discussion about how our visual world fits into the framework presented by our culture.

Reality + Interpretation = Visual Framework

Our visual framework is defined by two equal parts:

  • Reality
  • Our Interpretation of Reality

And our interpretation of reality is largely defined by our culture…which means that visual frameworks vary as greatly as cultures do.

As we saw with the 10 Cultural Universals, everything from transportation to our homes, the geographical landscape of our region to our art, illustrates just how starkly our cultures differ.

These differences also show how each culture interprets the world around them, and how their worldview is fashioned by their experiences, values, and norms.

Our visual framework and what we place importance on, culturally, is often exhibited through language

One example comes in the simplest form: snow.

Western Snowflakes

How do Westerners view snow?

Many view it in one form: just, you know, that white powdery stuff…snow.

Westerners who are avid skiers might describe different variations of snow.

Hard.

Fresh.

Packed.

Powder.

But beyond a handful of adjectives, Westerners view snow pretty narrowly.

The Koyukon, on the other hand…

Koyukon Snowflakes

This indigenous group from northern Alaska lives along the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers.

Being that they literally live in snow for a good part of the year, their visual framework of the crystals is much more complex. We’re talking sixteen variations-complex.

Here are the Koyukon language‘s sixteen terms for snow, for which each has a distinct separate word (similarly to the Russians regarding dark and light blue):

  • snow
  • deep snow
  • blowing snow
  • falling snow
  • hard drifted snow
  • heavy drifting snow
  • earliest crusted snow in spring
  • snow on the ground
  • granular snow beneath the surface
  • snow thawed previously and then frozen
  • snow caught on tree branches
  • thinly crusted snow
  • snow cornice on a mountain
  • snow drifted over a steep bank, making it steeper
  • fluffy or powder snow
  • slushy snow on the ground

Just Imagine…

Now, just imagine it: you’re Koyukon. You look around your winter wonderland, and you see all these distinct variations of frozen water.

Put yourself in their moccasins and view the snowcapped world with this visual framework.

Wouldn’t the differentiation make snow in all its unique forms so much more important to you than the simple view taken by Westerners?

Seeing the world in another’s visual framework helps in understanding and empathizing with another’s culture.

Next week, we’ll talk about how ignoring this framework can result in some pretty major cross-cultural misinterpretations.

Coloring the World: The Evolution of Color Perception

What colors do you see here?

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What about here?

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Here?

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Here?

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It might surprise you to know that in Homer’s famed works, The Iliad and The Odyssey, he described the sea as wine-dark.

He described sheep’s wool as violet.

And the color of honey? Green.

All of this seems to imply that either the world’s color palette has changed…or, more likely, the human perception of color has.

Old Testament Eyesight

We assume that our world has and will always appear visually the same to everyone. In fact, that is not the case at all.

Guy Deutscher explains in his book, Looking Through the Language Glass, why the world looks different in other languages. 

Deutscher highlights philologist Lazarus Geiger’s 1867 discovery of strange color descriptions in old text.

Along with Homer’s descriptions, listed above, the Old Testament also describes faces that turn green with panic, red horses, and dove feathers in green gold.

These color descriptors are unusual today, and that may not be due to artistic license; rather, the evolution of eyesight may be at play here.

Evolution of Eyesight

Color perception and evolution walk hand-in-hand, according to one of the first research theories into what links the two.

As color perception became more important in developed civilizations (like the ancient Greeks), the human eye’s color sensitivity enhanced across generations.

Take blue, for example.

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The color blue was absent in early text (see the wine-colored sea above). Yet, the color red was everywhere, as distinguishing red was paramount to survival.

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Why?

Red=blood = danger.

Red appears in most old languages and has long appeared in garment dyes. Blue, on the other hand, has always been rare in nature and difficult to manufacture, thus our unnecessary sensitivity to it and its description.

Absence of Color

“The more delicate cones of the retina, which impart the higher color-sense, have probably developed gradually only during the last millennia.”

– biologist Ernst Haeckel, 1878

Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, agreed with Haeckel. He said in 1877 that our “perception and appreciation of color” was a recent acquisition.

When researching language of color in traditional cultures – like that of the Klamath Indians in Oregon and the Nubians in Africa – scientists found similar color descriptors used as in old scriptural languages.

At the time, many in the scientific community assumed this similarity in language between old scriptural color descriptions and those used by what they called “primitive societies” was due to the assumed physical and intellectual inferiority of these groups (a popular belief at the time).

But they would soon discover they were very wrong to assume. Tune in next week to find out why.

10 Cultural Universals Wrap-Up

Over these past few months, we’ve talked about the 10 Cultural Universals.

These are the ten themes that every culture has in common.

Let’s run through these themes one more time and sum up what we’ve covered.

Geography

From the geography of the Inca culture and how it impacts all other aspects of life in the Andean Mountains.

Language

To the way words and language can color our world – like it does for Russian culture in shades of blue.

Family

From the varied family structures in collectivist and individualist cultures.

Food, Clothing, Transport, Shelter

To the dignity of food with Anthony Bourdain.

From fashion, its trends, and social movements that advance culture.

To how transportation can shape a city and its embrace of greener alternatives.

From how shelters tell stories of culture to the stories told by the nomadic homes of Mongolian yurts.

Values, Beliefs, Rituals

From how we become who we are through the values we consume.

To how cultural beliefs can impact everything from gender roles to healthcare to education.

From how rituals can make death a celebration.

Economics

To how cultural values can influence economic output and shape government for better or worse.

Education

From how educators serve as the front-line in disseminating our culture’s values to our children.

Politics

To how “collapsing events” in politics can inform those very values and provide context to the evolution of our culture.

Technology

From how social media movements are being used as a vehicle of change across the world.

Cultural Expression

To how art, literature, dance, music, sport, and other forms of creative expression have always been used as vehicles of sharing and understanding both the familiar and the foreign.

What’s So Beautiful About These Universals?

The fact that each and every culture around the world has these themes in common.

Regional surroundings help define culture, language and cultural expression communicate to others who we are, politics provide culture structure.

Although from East to West, individuals, societies, governments, and their values are different – very different – we all share these ten aspects of culture in common.

And sharing commonalities is as beautiful a thing as appreciating our differences.

Next week, we’ll talk about the dangers of assuming sameness. Stay tuned.

10 Cultural Universals: The Link Between Language & Culture

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.

The 10 Cultural Universals

The word, “culture,” covers a broad spectrum. Sometimes it’s easier to understand what falls under the umbrella of culture by drawing more definitive lines.

When you talk about culture, what topics can you expect the discussion to encompass?

These 10 cultural universals are a start.

10 Cultural Universals

  1. Geography – Location, location, location. Location defines so many aspects of a culture – from the clothing worn to the food prepared and eaten – that it would be remiss not to consider geography when discussing culture. The landscape of the region, the natural resources it offers, and of course the rich history generated from the region all impacts a culture’s evolution.
  2. Language – Language is significantly important to culture and can afford those studying any social group some insight into what’s important to them (think: polite language, masculine/feminine use, slang, etc.). When discussing language, you should also consider the group’s written language, body language, sign language, and numbers systems.
  3. Family – Family dynamics are a key part of cultural studies, from the roles of each family member, child to grandparent, to the rites of passage that members undergo. Labor division across genders is also part of this cultural universal.
  4. FCTS (food, clothing, transport, shelter) – The basics of survival form the skeletal structure of culture. Think architectural styles, building materials, modes of transport, traditional and everyday cuisine and clothing, etc.
  5. VBR (values, beliefs, rituals) – We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab. This category also includes the rituals, beliefs, and religious practices of a culture, such as myths and legends, ceremonial rituals and holidays, and stances on contemporary science versus traditional beliefs.
  6. Economics – Jobs, the market, finance, goods and services, production, consumption, and distribution are paramount to societal development and quality of life, making a group’s economy a cultural universal.
  7. Education – This category includes not only formal education, but societal education – i.e. passing cultural values, survival skills, and various types of training onto youth.
  8. Politics – The type of government and the organization of a society, from rule of law to the enforcement of these laws, form the group’s hierarchies, structures, and most important institutions. The politics of a nation can also determine whether that nation is prone to war or peace.
  9. Technology – Technology available to a culture – tools, weapons, digital technology, etc. – contributes to all aspects of everyday life, as well as to the bigger picture, the way the culture operates.
  10. Cultural Expression – This is often the category that first springs to mind when the word, “culture,” is used. That’s because art, music, literature, sport, and every other form of cultural expression is the most bright and vivid rendering of the culture’s essence, its spirit. Creative expression brings culture to life.

Now that you know what constitutes “culture,” we’ll put each of these universals under the microscope in the coming weeks.

The Science Behind Learning a Second Language

Learning language, learning religion, and learning history are important to taking action in your own cultural integration. Of the three, learning language often requires the most drive and focus.

But when you’re a child, you seem to soak up language like a sponge. You don’t need that drive and focus to learn it.

The adult memory – or the lack thereof – is often blamed for this disparity. And the truth is the ability to retain information slows with age. Moreover, different languages have different sounds, which are easier to master at a young age, as the mouth is still forming and speech still developing.

However, though it’s a smart idea to become bilingual as a child, some of us don’t have that opportunity. That doesn’t mean that, as adults, we should pass off language learning as “too difficult.” Instead, we must take a leaf out of the child’s playbook and learn a language like children do.

Learning as a Child

An article published by Patricia K. Kuhl in the journal, Mind Brain Education, entitled “Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education,” states that language learning in children is a highly social activity.

“There is evidence that children’s early mastery of language requires learning in a social context,” Kuhl writes. “Research shows that young children rely on what has been called ‘statistical learning,’ a form of implicit learning that occurs as children interact in the world, to acquire the language spoken in their culture. However, new data also indicate that children require a social setting and social interaction with another human being to trigger their computations skills to learn from exposure to language.”

Believe it or not, this is the same thing adults need in order to learn a language quickly: a social setting and social interaction. Even more so, we need the confidence that a child does and the willingness to make mistakes.

This is the science behind learning a second language.

Do these rules really apply to adults, as well?

Learning as an Adult

Meet Benny, the Irish polygot.

He’s the author of Fluent in 3 Months and says that although he’s not inherited the so-called “language gene” and isn’t particularly gifted with languages, he’s been able to become fluent in seven languages, simply by having the confidence to speak.

Why?

Benny met a man in Spain who changed his life. In his own words: “He explained that to speak a language, you’ve just got to start speaking it. There’s no magic, he said. You only need a willingness to make mistakes.”

This is actually the secret to learning anything. Think about it: whether it was riding your bike, mastering an instrument, or playing a sport, weren’t you willing enough to just give it a go, even if you weren’t that confident in your abilities to begin with?

The self-described “fun-loving Irish guy and full-time globe trotter” has taught thousands of language learners his approach to becoming competent in a language quickly.

“My mission in life is giving people permission to make mistakes,” he says on his site. “The more mistakes you make, the faster you become a confident language learner.”

Science and practical application turn up the same results. The equation to language learning, whether young or old, is as simple as confidence + speaking + making mistakes = learning through exposure.

This month, my posts will offer resources, language learning sites, and advice on how to plug into this equation and get rolling on a new language.