Language and culture/thought: Which influences which?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Athelwulf, Mar 31, 2007.

  1. Athelwulf Rest in peace Kurt... Registered Senior Member

    Casual observation would tell you that there is almost definitely a correlation between a language and the culture of its speakers. An interesting case in point is the language of an Amazon tribe, the Pirahã: It has been observed that the Pirahã language has no words for numbers, and it's said that the members of the tribe cannot perform even the most basic arithmetic, even after a linguist spent eight months teaching the enthusiastically studious Pirahã.

    This raises a simple question, but perhaps the answer is deeply involved and complicated: Is a language a product of its speakers' culture, or does the language influence the culture?

    An argument either way seems reasonable: As a hunter-gatherer tribe, they may have had no real need for counting things like we do, so there was no need to have this concept enshrined in their language, and it may have been shed off. On the other hand, it could be that this feature of their language predated their culture and somehow rendered the concept of counting inapplicable to their culture, so consequently they don't concern themselves with counting things.

    From this follows a related question, whose answer is probably just as complicated: Does the innate structure of a language — its grammar and vocabulary — fundamentally dictate, even set limits on, how you think? Given the claim that the Pirahã can barely count, this would seem to be the case.

    This idea that language limits your thought has been used in literature. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak replaces English and is intended to render thoughts and ideas which would lead to a revolutionary overthrow of the government literally unthinkable. In Anthem by Ayn Rand, the government of a collectivist dystopia, in an attempt to eliminate the concept of individuality, has made the utterance of the word "I" punishable by death.

    The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis argues that the nature of a given language, such as the distinctions it makes in its grammar, influences the habitual thoughts of its speakers. But to what extent? And in what way? Is the influence such that some concepts are nearly unthinkable by speakers of the language? And is it instead a case of the habitual thoughts of the speakers influencing the innate characteristics of their language? Or is it all the above? How does this all fit into the fact that languages evolve into new languages over time, and that all languages on Earth may have a common ancestor?


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  3. whitewolf asleep under the juniper bush Registered Senior Member

    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.... The guy's observations were proven false, and with them his entire hypothesis. No, thought is not limited to words. This has been discussed a while ago. Read Gardner's "Changing Minds," he explains this very well.

    Now, as to what influences what. If you're naturally a trend setter, you will influence culture; if the cultural change you instill will change language, then that's what will happen. The word "negro" went from simply meaning "black" to becoming an insult and has recently evolved into "nigga" which is the same as what "dude" was a while ago; that's all because changes in culture and history have attached different meanings to the word. However, if you're not a trend setter, then you must conform to whatever trends are already there and use the language in the way that has been set for you.
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  5. Athelwulf Rest in peace Kurt... Registered Senior Member

    This is good to know. Thanks.

    So it's a little of both. Makes sense.
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  7. Grantywanty Registered Senior Member

    Sure, but words are going to have a powerful effect on how people think and what they think about, even if they are not limited to these.
  8. RoyLennigan Registered Senior Member

    Yeah. Taking things for granted is an effect of this, which pretty much everyone does, subconsciously. There are many other effects as well.

    I'd say that language and culture are a symbiotic relationship (if you could use that word here). can't have one without the other and they both affect each other.
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The ability to learn arithmetic relies on the development of certain areas in the brain. A person raised in a culture where arithmetic is never discussed will never have received any stimuli to develop those areas. This would be like spending a few weeks exposing an American Indian of the 15th Century to heavy metal music. Everything from the modality to the cadence to the tonality is attuned to brain centers which we have been developing since infancy but he has left dormant. You might eventually succeed in getting him to understand "Kashmir" but it will take a very long time. Similarly, you might eventually teach those Amazonians to add and subtract, but you have to activate a whole lot of long-dormant synapses first. The reason those people don't have words for numbers is the same reason that they don't use numbers: Their culture has never evolved a need for them.
    Language is a part of its speakers' culture, it is not a separate aspect of life. The two are intertwined and develop in concert, with neither of them being cause nor effect.
    Language is malleable enough to adapt in step with changes in thought patterns. Consider that proto-Indo-European was spoken a mere five or six thousand years ago and look at the divergence of its descendants. The Slavic languages are still locked into complex paradigms of inflections, and are not big on word borrowing, which greatly limit their ability to adapt to new cultural concepts. English, on the other hand, has lost all but a few patterns of inflection and has also helped itself to the entire vocabularies of Greek and Latin.

    This microcosm of language evolution makes it easier to understand how that One Language we brought out of Africa has so easily turned into Chinese, Tlingit, German, Arabic, Finnish and Xhosa, with their speakers' vastly different world views.
    Of course thought is not limited to words. It's obvious that sculptors, violinists and choreographers spend a lot of their time thinking non-verbally. But most of us do not. I'm not persuaded that our non-verbal thoughts have as important an impact on the development of our culture as our verbal ones.
  10. whitewolf asleep under the juniper bush Registered Senior Member

    Fraggle, I disagree with you regarding the Slavic languages. They do not lack in eloquence and borrow readily; however, this did not turn back the degeneration of their society. They're not backwards or slow in development, they're simply corrupt. They have adopted the word "democracy" but they did not want to create a democratic society.

    Yes, language has a powerful influence as the most flexible and elaborate tool used to communicate ideas. "Symbiotic" hits the bull's eye.

    What do you mean when you say that most of us aren't thinking non-verbally? When we dream, we think. "Feelings" are also thoughts. Do you mean to say that you first get words in your mind and then arrange them into sentences that might make sense? I think you first get an idea and then try to express it. As to what influences our culture most: "eureka" moments take place in a fraction of a second and that's certainly not enough to speak out in your mind all that you realize within that moment. There was first a wheel and then the word "wheel."
  11. iam Banned Banned

    Although language originally is influenced by necessity and culture, it has its limitations after awhile due to the hardwiring of the brain affecting language and what a culture chooses to focus on. Language is actually both limiting and liberating. Think about it, their are many emotions subtle or not, thoughts, conceptions for which we their is not a label readily available to get across to others. As well, those who speak several languages will attest that their is definitely a different point of view among all languages. There is no perfect language, each has it's excellent points and it's inferior or neglected areas. These differences not only shape a culture but also are indicative of it's people and possibly their genetic hardwiring and proclivities. Where one will and can acknowledge a shadow of something, profoundly another can't see it or notice it at all as in (consciousness), and that goes for everyone. You have to realize, language can barely keep up with the evolution or myriad textures of thought. We communicate most pragmatically or within a set understood parameter BUT we can't communicate everything. It's like taking data and metamorphing and packaging it for recognition whereas the sender knows it is missing at least in part it's true or complete message because the other cannot comprehend as it's not part of the collective conscious arena of outside communication. Fascinating, isn't it?

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