The Relationship between Language and Culture

It’s a question that’s been pondered for millennia: does language influence culture?  Or is language just a way we express ourselves and our culture?  Put differently, does the specific language that we learn from birth affect how we see the world around us, how we take in information, and how we process that information?  Or is there simply a universal grammar off which all languages are based?  If that is the case, then languages would, at heart, be more similar to one another than different, and that could not account for the vast array of cultural differences present in our world.

Image source: http://www.iba.gov.au/about-us/news-publications/publications/annual-report-archive/annualreport2008-2009/03/output-group-1-3-business-development-and-assistance/

One set of language researchers thinks they’ve found at least some answers to these questions.  Linguistic psychologists Alice Gaby and Lera Boroditsky traveled to Australia to engage speakers of Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community located in Queensland, who understand direction very differently from the way speakers of English, French or Russian do.  Pormpuraawns use the directions north, south, east and west to describe spatial orientation (for example, I might say you are sitting to my right, whereas Pormpuraawns would say you are seated to my southeast).  The researchers found that the Pormpuraawns are “remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.”  They suggest that this is related to the fact that spatial orientation is extremely present in their language, to the point that their equivalent question to “How are you?” translates as “Where are you going?” and an answer might be “A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?”

Perhaps even more interesting is their Pormpuraaw concept of time.  In most Western cultures, time is imagined progressing from left to right (imagine a timeline, or a series of photographs of someone running. Would you organize them from left to right?).  Pormpuraawns instead attach their time to the cardinal directions (from east to west)—so if they are sitting facing south, time goes left to right.  If they are sitting facing north, it goes right to left, and so forth.

The article describes many other interesting ways in which language appears to significantly influence cultural differences.  It also goes on to suggest that if people learn a second language, they also learn a new way of understanding and viewing the world around them.  And this suggests that it’s primarily language that shapes culture, and not the other way around.

What do you think?  Do you imagine space, or time, or place, or colors differently in your Native language?  What do you think of the researchers’ claim that language is primarily responsible for how we see and interpret our world?

One thing this research shows is certain—if Indigenous languages are not preserved, protected and revitalized, we are losing a lot more than just a way of speaking.

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7 Responses to The Relationship between Language and Culture

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  2. Cheryl Savageau says:

    I think it’s not an either/or situation – not much is, but that is the way English is structured…. It seems to me that the language evolves with/from a people’s perception and structure of the world, and that the language then carries those ideas and perceptions to the people, in a continuing spiral.

    Learning Abenaki late in my life has shown me, however, that some of information usually carried by the language is carried in other ways. There are things we know that we can’t express easily in English, but that have come down to us as knowledge anyway. I have poems that struggle to express something that can be expressed in a single word in Abenaki.

    How to “talk Indian” in English has been a concern and topic of conversation by Native poets and writers for as long as I’ve been writing.

  3. Ms. Florence Catholique says:

    Culture and language are linked and the more culture activities are carried out the more use of the language. I have found that whenever we take elders, adults and young one out into nature settings the users immediately use the DeneYati and the young ones are more tentative as they are now in a situation where their safety and upkeep are dependent on the elders and adults. What this could mean is that the type of Dene Yati learned could only centre around outing type of words and not in town type of words. There is a need of language usage in the home. I always wonder about the Chinesse people who no matter where they are in the world maintain their language. Is it becuase they have to chant their religion and be able to read the writings of those books?
    I have hear words used in a totally new way even when it was an daily word but when in nature setting had a different way of describing the situation. These I find very interesting as it gives you an insight on how things were looked upon.

  4. hamna says:

    hi every one!!
    i think language that shapes your culture also determine you as who you are?
    for instance we can guess people’s background through their use of language and use of words it helps to identify person as well as their culture!

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  6. dia says:

    hi guys!!!!
    i think language is more related to culture .language describe ur culture and we gesss how type of culture about language.

  7. Bipul says:

    Hi everyone,
    I think culture is also the mindset of a person. The way a person thinks or feels, often exposed by the language he acquired. If an American person is exposed to some typical Indian words , he may fail to get the meaning or the context.

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