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Thread: Language & culture - the chicken or the egg?

  1. #1
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    Language & culture - the chicken or the egg?

    I'm a complete linguistics noob but am curious as to whether some concepts and ideas are harder to express in some languages than others, and if this is the case can it affect the culture or behaviour of its speakers?

    For example, I could summise that a language in which adjectives are rare or complicated to use may not develop a rich tradition of poetry, but would this be a case of culture influencing language or language influencing the culture of its speakers?

    I speak English and a little German and work in an engineering field where technical instructions often come in English, German & French. I notice that the amount of text required to convey the same information can vary greatly
    and I often identify words in French that I recognise as having a very broad meaning whereas the English or German equivalents appear to be much more specific. Are some languages inherently more suited to some tasks than others and if so can this influence the culture or actions of its speakers, or is language always flexible enough to accomodate any concept without placing its speakers at any disadvantage?

    Perhaps there is a language in which I could have said all the above in a few words with no ambiguity whatsoever, but its probably not English.

  2. #2
    Quote Originally Posted by technetium View Post
    I'm a complete linguistics noob . . . .
    Nobody here is an expert. I pretend to be one because I have had a passionate interest in languages and linguistics for more than fifty years. But although I have taken a number of classes in specific languages, most of my knowledge of the discipline of linguistics itself was gathered informally. So welcome aboard. You're starting out just about the same way I did, but with the tremendous advantage of the internet.
    . . . . but am curious as to whether some concepts and ideas are harder to express in some languages than others . . . .
    Oh absolutely. Try translating this discussion into Hopi! And I'm not being snobbish; many Hopi families speak Hopi at home because the things they want to say don't come out so well in English.
    . . . . and if this is the case can it affect the culture or behaviour of its speakers?
    I think so and I have said that many times on this forum. The paradigms and patterns of one's language simply have to influence the paradigms and patterns of one's toughts.

    As an obvious example, consider the demise of "thou" in English. (Except among the Quakers, who have leveled it to the accusative "thee," just as "ye" has been leveled to the accusative "you.") Anglophones do not stop to decide whether the person they're speaking to is their social superior, equal or inferior, because we can't express that distinction in words the way most Europeans can, or as the Japanese can do with many levels of superiority and inferiority.

    Sure there's a chicken/egg dynamic going on; our cultural ancestors would not have forsaken "thou" if they really needed it. But in some cases we still need it, so we've had to invent clumsy phrases like Your Majesty, Your Grace and Your Highness.
    For example, I could surmise that a language in which adjectives are rare or complicated to use may not develop a rich tradition of poetry, but would this be a case of culture influencing language or language influencing the culture of its speakers?
    I say both. Chinese has no verb tenses or modes, and some people say this has shaped the way they think about hypothetical situations. It also has no gender, so it does not stumble over constructions like "his or her."

    But my favorite property of Chinese is its lack of prepositions. Instead of choosing from a couple of dozen words keft over from the Stone Age to express new kinds of relationships, they do it with nouns and verbs. And in the many cases where the relationship is obvious from context and the English preposition is just a "noise word," they leave it out and shorten the sentence. They shorten it even further by doing without the most useless noise words of all: articles. As a result, ten syllables of English can typically be translated into seven syllables of Chinese--by my own count, anyway.
    I speak English and a little German and work in an engineering field where technical instructions often come in English, German & French. I notice that the amount of text required to convey the same information can vary greatly.
    French has a lot of monosyllabic words like English. My observation is that in speech it is just about as compact as English. But since the French love to load up their spelling with silent letters, their text is bulkier than ours. German has many more letters and many more syllables. But it's not in a class with Spanish, Italian or Japanese, which have to be spoken at machine gun speed in order to finish ordering dinner before the kitchen closes.
    Are some languages inherently more suited to some tasks than others and if so can this influence the culture or actions of its speakers . . . .
    I believe so, but as I said I'm just an amateur here.
    . . . . or is language always flexible enough to accommodate any concept without placing its speakers at any disadvantage?
    In my opinion most languages are (at least barely) flexible enough to adapt to new concepts quickly enough to not put their speakers at a tremendous disadvantage, But I am confident of my broader hypothesis that language shapes thought patterns at a higher level, and therefore affects the way people react to those new concepts and assimilate them into their culture--or choose not to assimilate them.

    This is why I am strident in my insistence that a foreign language must be part of the education of young children. If you can think in two languages, you can critically examine your own thoughts from a different perspective. And the more "foreign"--less closely related or totally unrelated--the better. For an anglophone child, better Spanish than German, but Russian or Farsi, from the Eastern branch of the Indo-European family would be better yet. And one from a different family--Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Hebrew, Bantu, Tlingit, Tagalog--would be best.
    Perhaps there is a language in which I could have said all the above in a few words with no ambiguity whatsoever, but it's probably not English.
    For fewer words, pick Chinese, But I don't think there's any way to totally eliminate ambiguity because that's a manifestation of the difference between two people's frames of reference. Even people who have been married for fifty years occasionally misunderstand each other.

  3. #3
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    Thanks for your reply Fraggle, its got me even more interested.

    Chinese has no verb tenses or modes, and some people say this has shaped the way they think about hypothetical situations. It also has no gender, so it does not stumble over constructions like "his or her."
    I can't imagine no distinction between past, present & future tenses in complex dialogue. How do they distinguish what they have done, are doing or intend to do? But I guess with 1 billion+ speakers they can't have too much trouble getting their ideas across! When I think about it many migrants here get by using just the present tense.

    Anglophones do not stop to decide whether the person they're speaking to is their social superior, equal or inferior, because we can't express that distinction in words the way most Europeans can, or as the Japanese can do with many levels of superiority and inferiority.
    I think this is an interesting cultural insight. In English we don't have to think about social status when addressing someone, its just "you". I wonder whether egalitarianism is influencing the way speakers use a language like Japanese or German.

    But I am confident of my broader hypothesis that language shapes thought patterns at a higher level, and therefore affects the way people react to those new concepts and assimilate them into their culture--or choose not to assimilate them.
    What would I look up to read a bit more on this? I think it's at the heart of my question.

    This is why I am strident in my insistence that a foreign language must be part of the education of young children. If you can think in two languages, you can critically examine your own thoughts from a different perspective.
    What I'd do for a young and malleable brain! Although I could probably learn a new language now I wonder if I could ever think in a new language?

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by technetium View Post
    Thanks for your reply Fraggle, its got me even more interested.
    My pleasure. I'm here to serve although sometimes I also rant.
    I can't imagine no distinction between past, present & future tenses in complex dialogue. How do they distinguish what they have done, are doing or intend to do?
    This is a perfect example of what I'm saying about how your language (Indo-European) shapes the way you think (time paradigms). It's actually ridiculously easy and it comes out with far more precision. If you did something at two o'clock or yesterday morning or last year or when you were in Chicago you simply add those words to your sentence. When you have to be conscious of time like that, it's amazing how often you realize that either A) it's really not as important as you thought it was or B) it's obvious from context.
    When I think about it many migrants here get by using just the present tense.
    They're actually using the infinitive, which in English is indistinguishable from the present tense except in the third person singular.
    I wonder whether egalitarianism is influencing the way speakers use a language like Japanese or German.
    I think it will be a while before egalitarianism makes any headway in Japan. When women speak they actually conjugate their verbs differently from men and their speech automatically expresses an inferior status.
    What would I look up to read a bit more on this? I think it's at the heart of my question.
    Ya got me. These are my own ideas that I've spent more than fifty years crafting. I'm not saying I'm the only guy who thought of this stuff, just the only one I know of. I don't read a lot on these subjects because life is too short to read non-fiction.
    What I'd do for a young and malleable brain!
    Just because you're not a kid any more doesn't mean your brain doesn't still have some malleability. You think Steven Hawking's brain has trouble learning new things?
    Although I could probably learn a new language now I wonder if I could ever think in a new language?
    The key is not to concentrate on increasing your vocabulary. Concentrate on practicing what you know to the point that it becomes automatic. I didn't study Chinese until I was 27. But I got a Chinese girlfriend (yes I was sort of shopping for one for this specific purpose but she was really nice) and I insisted on speaking Mandarin at home. So now I speak about like a five-year-old, but I speak what I know correctly and with excellent pronunciation, and I can pick the words I know out of anyone's conversation and grasp quite a bit of what they're saying. And I definitely think in the language.

    Another key is to pick a language that has a community where you live, so you can practice it often with many different people. And of course pick the right community. Many speakers of Spanish and Chinese fall all over themselves to help anyone who actually bothers to learn their language. But some speakers of French and Japanese pretend they don't hear you butchering their precious mother tongue.
    Last edited by Fraggle Rocker; 01-06-10 at 03:50 PM.

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