Language and culture or culture and language?

It really is a question of who was first (the chicken or the egg) language or culture? Or perhaps, let me rephrase it: Does language affect the way we think or does the way we think affect language?

A question triggered after stumbling upon an article by the title Can language affect the way we think? Generally it is assumed that the meaning we attribute to the things around us is merely a matter of relating one set of symbols to another. So, as the author of the article explains, when we learn another language, we start attributing different meanings because we start relating a different set of symbols to another different set of symbols.So that my Spanish persona will react differently before a set of circumstances than my English speaking persona or my Mandarin speaking persona.

i dont think therefore i am not

Indeed, one can show how language relates to the world through the agency of the mind, and consider to what extent languages are shaped by human nature and to what extent they are shaped by culture. I personally, prefer to think of language as an instrument that is not designed to reflect the world directly but to reflect human conceptualisation and interpretation of the world. Language does not convey what exists in the outside world but reveals the world dressed in meanings formed by human thought. Thought, is in turn, shaped by culture.

For instance, the work by Anna Wierzbicka proves that words encapsulate culture-specific conceptual categories and thoughts. Wierbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage intends to cut away the dressing that covers the world around us by presenting thought or the core meaning of language through rigorous, systematic and clear semantic paraphrases, and to make explanations of the meaning of something in one language easily translatable into another language without losing intuitive comprehension in other languages.

According to Wierzbicka’s (1992:22) research, only well established linguistic universals can provide a valid basis for comparing conceptual systems entrenched in different languages and for elucidating the meanings which are encoded in some languages but not in others. She calls these linguistic universals “semantic primitives”.  Their inception goes back at least as far as the rationalist thinkers of the seventeenth century, in particular to Leibniz, who believed that every human being is born with a set of innate ideas which become activated and developed by experience but which exists latently in our minds from the beginning. Experiences are interpreted through these ideas, which Leibniz called  “the alphabet of human thoughts”. In his own words:

“Although the number of ideas which can be conceived is infinite, it is possible that the number of those which can be conceived by themselves is very small; because an infinite number of anything can be expressed by combining very few elements. […] The alphabet of human thoughts is the catalogue of those concepts which can be understood by themselves, and by combination all other ideas are formed.” (Leibniz 1903:30)

Based on Leibniz’ premises, Wierbizcka proposes that there are universal concepts inherent in human languages and even if there were no set of semantic principles which were universal and indefinable (the two criteria used by her team to ascertain possible primitives), it would be necessary to invent them because meanings cannot be described and compared without some kind of culture-free semantic metalanguage. In her own words:

“We can understand ourselves to the extent to which we can rely on some concepts which are self-explanatory […] and we can understand other languages and other cultures to the extent to which we can rely on shared concepts ” ( Wierzbicka 1992:17)

The Natural Semantic Metalanguage wants to build a system of isomorphic building blocks for meaning and understanding that is universal to all languages and cultures. Through this system, the core meaning of an aspect of one language can be deconstructed into its basic elements then reconstructed in a different language using the building blocks in that language. This can serve as basis of comparison between L1 and L2. When enough of these comparisons can be made, they can serve as a basis for comparative analysis of the culture of L1 and the culture of L2, and through this, better cross-cultural communication and understanding can be achieved.

Let’s just say I prefer to view language as an instrument that reflects human conceptualisation and interpretation of the world, not just a mere tool that conveys what exists in the outside world but instead, a tool that reveals the world dressed in meanings formed by human thought. And because though is,  in turn, shaped by culture, perhaps the author of the above post was onto something saying that learners of different languages will behave differently when using a different language in their repertoire.  I certainly felt like a completely different person in my last year Japanese class at Uni!

How about you, bilingual/polyglot out there?



2 thoughts on “Language and culture or culture and language?

  1. This is made for me! Wonderful stuff! There is that question of ”does language shape culture, or does culture shape language” that I often like to come back to. Clearly language does not exist in a vacuum, all on its own. In the Sámi language of Sápmi, commonly referred to as Lappland, there are 8 words for each 8 seasons. I wonder therefore if their language, and culture affects their thought patterns; what they think and how they think, or if it is their thought that influences their language patterns. I say that with the following also in mind:

    In a place like Lappland, the environment and nature may also play a significant, separate and strongly influencing role on language and culture.

    Just thoughts. What a delight it is to read your blog.

    • I’ve been searching for you name to say a more personal thank you, but even without having been able to find it, I would just say it anyway – I really, really appreciate your input and your feebdack. Thanks for taking the time to think and comment.

      I totally recommend you read the work by Anna Wierzbicka on semantic primitives and natural metalanguage as she does spend a lot of time and effort trying to show how language is not merely a mirror of what goes on outside the world around us but reveals the world dressed in meanings formed by human thought, particularly her work on Understanding cultures through their keywords.

      So, yes, in the case of the Sami language, as is in the case of the four variants for the word ‘snow’in Eskimo language, or the 90 different options for the word ‘rice’in the Hanunoo language of the Philippines, I guess it could very well be that the conditions of the surroundings in which they live have affected their thought patterns in a way that language had no choice but to reflect these conceptualisations.

      We will see the debate continue well into the future, but to me, it just make sense to think that the world that has surrounded humans in different localities has contributed in shaping their thought and by default their language.

      Thanks for stopping by, once again and good luck with everything!

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