Does language influence culture?

Stone Forest Chinglish. Photo: simplyla / Flickr Creative Commons

Stone Forest Chinglish. Photo: simplyla / Flickr Creative Commons

Do words construct worlds? That’s the idea behind this Wall Street Journal article: Lost in translation. Scientists and linguists have been doing some fascinating research into how languages affect cultures.

Even the simple act of reading can be quite complex and revealing. English speakers read from right to left, but Hebrew speakers read from right to left.  Pormpuraawans, a group of aborigines in Australia, communicate in absolute compass directions. When facing south, they read time as going from left to right. When facing north, right to left.

The role of politeness matters as well. Keigo refers to honorific speech. These are the levels of respect in which Japanese speak to one another.  Foreign students of Japanese go crazy trying to figure out the appropriate way to address a Japanese person. Sound too casual, and you look rude. Be overly courteous, and you look ridiculous.

Greetings can show what cultures view as important. “Have you eaten yet?” is a common way to say to hello in many Asian languages. In Osaka, Japan, locals often greet each other by asking, “Are you making any money?”

Some countries are more numbers-oriented by language. In Mandarin Chinese, the months of the year are labeled by number, not name. January is “Month 1,” February is “Month 2,” and so on. The days of the week are similarly labeled.

In America, just look at the many ways advertisers say that their product is new. The future is something people are excited about and want to see now.

Have you learned about a culture by studying a language? Share your experiences in the comments.

Posted by | Comments (5)  | August 27, 2010
Category: Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind


5 Responses to “Does language influence culture?”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    Learning a language is a great way to educate yourself about a culture. There are so many languages to choose from that it can be overwhelming. It’s on my “to do” list.

  2. Nicolaï Says:

    Learning the language is essential. Without it, a friendly attitude will help you get your foot in the door, but even if you’re invited, you can’t really “sit at the table” without being able to speak the language.

    What counts is being able to understand people on their own terms.

  3. Brett Says:

    Similar NYT article this weekend: “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html

  4. j. Says:

    My capacity to understand the political stances of French Canandians, as an English speaking Canadian, was radically altered by studying the French language – especially in comparison to my own both in semantics and structure. I went from someone who didn’t get what all the fuss is about to someone who believes preserving Francophone Canada is a priority because language is culture.

  5. Bert Says:

    I speak several languages and they all live in different “rooms” in my brain. I just open and close their respective doors. Each language has its own concepts that help you understand the world around you in a slightly different way. I could not live without it. My only problem is that Thai and French seem to live in the same little room in my head. I cannot speak French without mixing in Thai words!