It is commonly recognized that language plays an important role in the propagation of culture in all human societies. According to cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, “culture started when speech was available, and from that beginning, the enrichment of either one led the other to develop further.”[i]
The intertwined nature of language and culture is easily perceivable even by the general public. A particular language often points to a specific group of people with a unique culture. Language learners need to consider cultural differences in order to fully grasp the nuances in a foreign language. To understand the relation between language and culture, anthropologists have often referred to the theory of linguistic relativity, which states, in short, that the structure of language strongly influences its speakers’ cognitive categories, hence people’s perception of reality is relative to the languages they speak.[ii]
While the theory can account for certain correlations between language and culture, it fails to prove the direction of causality. In fact, based on existing evidence found throughout the past century, it is more reasonable to conclude that language has an extremely weak impact, if any impact at all, on people’s perception of the world. Instead, it is the existing culture that determines a people’s cognition, which is then reflected by their use of linguistic categories.
The idea of linguistic relativity was first introduced in the early 20th century when anthropologists Franz Boas and Edward Sapir wrote about the extent to which languages can embody “the spirit of a nation.”[iii]
Sapir’s student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, argued “that language fundamentally shapes the categories and structures of how we perceive the world, and thus, our world is colored, or even determined, by the linguistic structure in which we think and speak.”[iv]
In other words, language determines reality, which, in turn, shapes culture.[v]
Whorf often defended much of his theory with his study of the Hopi language spoken by a native Uto-Aztecan people group of North America, which according to him had “no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at equal rate, out of a future, through the present, into a past.”[vi]
The lack of grammatical tenses and the denotation for time led Whorf to hypothesize that the Hopi perceive and process reality differently: “A day followed by night is not so much a new day, but a return of daylight.”[vii]
Later studies on the variation of color perception between speakers of languages that categorized colors differently (e.g. the word siyóname
in the Tarahumara language covers a range of colors from green to blue) also seem to support Whorf’s hypothesis.[viii]
While supporters of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have succeeded in demonstrating a level of correlation between language and culture, and the theory of linguistic relativity is still favored by many scholars today, it fails at proving that the correlation is caused by the language’s influence on the thought process of its speakers, and not the reverse, that the categories of thought influences the features of a language. Given that there is some correlation, it is no longer possible to argue in favor of linguistic universalism, “that the modes of thought all people are essentially similar”; however, existing evidence clearly falls short in substantiating linguistic relativity as the explanation for the coevolution of cognitive categories and language structures.[ix]
Instead, the alternative, that thought patterns precedes language patterns, should hold its place as a much more viable theory.
As American linguist Charles Hockett pointed out, “languages differ not so much as to what can be said in them, but rather as to what is relatively easy to say.”[x]
Oftentimes, what is perceived as linguistic differences do not actually result in a different way of thinking. For instance, the word schadenfreude
in German refers to the idea of “deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune”, and while many languages lack a specific cognate of the word, it does not mean that speakers of languages other than German are unable to perceive this concept.[xi]
In fact, once the literal meaning of the word is explained, most people would immediately understand the different sentiments related to the schadenfreude
without any further explanation. While it is certainly true that the lack of certain vocabulary, syntax, or grammar can prevent speakers of some languages to convey ideas as concisely as speakers of other languages would, it does not suggest that these cognitive categories are limited to certain languages only.
While the limitations of languages can be so great that it is impossible to articulate certain concepts in a particular language, it does not create a significant difference in the people’s perception of reality. Whorf’s research on the Hopi language in the 1940s led him to conclude that the Hopi “have no concept of time.”[xii]
However, as the case of the Hopi language was brought into examination in the 1980s, linguist Ekkehart Malotki published a 600-page study of the grammar of the Hopi language in which he refuted Whorf’s original hypothesis on the Hopi’s perception of time.[xiii]
According to Malotki, the Hopi conceptualize time as structured to progress from past, through present, into the future, despite not having a corresponding word for “time” as in English or the past/non-past distinction used in English.[xiv]
Instead, the Hopi language distinguishes between a conditional tense and a non-conditional tense, where the suffix “ni”, roughly translated to “yet” in English, is often used when discussing events that have “yet” to happen, i.e. the future.[xv]
While the Hopi do lack a word for “time” as it is used in English, they “employ words to refer to a duration (pàasa), time measured by a clock (pahàntawa), or an occasion to do something (hisat
When Malotki interacted with native speakers of Hopi, there was no evidence that could indicate that the Hopi perceived time differently than speakers of English, and they told stories in chronological narratives that would suggest quite the contrary.[xvii]
In a more general sense, linguistic diversity does not necessarily lead to cultural diversity. Among the six native American tribes that populate northwestern California, three closer to the center identify as the Yurok, the Karok, and the Hupa, while slightly peripheral are the Tolowa, the Wiyot, and the Chilula.[xviii]
Anthropologists observed that “the Yuroks shared this civilization in identical forms with its neighbors, the Hupa and the Karok. The adjacent Tolowa, Wiyot and Chilula adhere to the same culture in every essential trait.”[xix]
Later research found little lexical or syntactic similarity between the languages spoken by any of the tribes, while the culture among each triad is close to an astonishing degree. In particular, although the Yurok, the Karok, and the Hupa share almost no vocabulary, participants from each tribe presented similar answers to taxonomical questions such as “Is a toad a fish?” or “Is a strawberry a plant?” in their respective languages.[xx]
Further investigations showed that all the three tribes shared rituals of similar nature and had similar ways of labeling their environment.[xxi]
As opposed to Whorf’s hypothesis that language determines the natives’ categories of thought, the situation of the aforementioned tribes would indicate that environmental factors and other non-linguistic factors are at play.
As the world becomes increasingly globalized, the successful fusion of languages also seems to disagree with Whorf’s hypothesis on the strong influence of language on culture. In particular, the prevalence of second language acquisition and multilingualism would not have been possible if language was deterministic or even played an important role in people’s cognitive categories.[xxii]
The fact that multilingual children are able to perfectly execute many languages at once while still remaining as an ordinary member of a culture would suggest the contrary to linguistic relativity. Moreover, anglicism, the borrowing of English words into other languages, suggests that the change in languages is often caused by cultural and environmental factors. In particular, anglicism is not caused by the fact that certain concepts did not exist prior to the introduction of the English word (except for in the case of a new scientific or intellectual discovery, such as the internet
); instead, anglicism often occur as a result of non-linguistic factors such as a country’s alliance with an English speaking country, past colonization, international popularity of certain phrases or names, or simply for convenience.[xxiii]
For example, saying 公交汽车, literally “public transit vehicle,” in Chinese is perfectly viable, but the phonetic borrowing of the word “bus” in English, 巴士, is simply easier to say. The adoption of English words is also extremely common in the spheres of business and information technology in Latin America and Spain.[xxiv]
However, by borrowing words from other languages, or even speaking in an amalgamation of languages (e.g. “Chinglish”, the English spoken by native Chinese speakers using Chinese syntactic features), one does not change their outlook of reality. Instead, it is the rapidly changing environment of a subgroup of a culture which promotes the adoption of new words that ultimately results in the establishment of new forms of speech in a language.
If we trace the evolution of a single language without considering cases of foreign influences, it becomes more evident that culture plays a decisive role in shaping a language. For instance, a study on the English vocabulary concluded that the word “friend” is used much more frequently today and has had its meaning weakened significantly since Shakespeare’s time, “when it designated an exceptional, intimate, and life-long bond of trust, affection, and mutual assistance.” [xxv]
This change is considered to correspond with a shift towards “a more flexible and broadly-based (if ‘shallower’) mode of social relationships.”[xxvi]
This particular change in usage of vocabulary in English is a direct result of the drastic change in the economic and social structures of many English-speaking countries since the 16th century. Another familiar example is the emergence of the phrase “to google” something in English, or the equivalent forms in other languages (e.g. googlear/guglear
in Spanish), which appeared as a result of the popularization of the search engine Google as well as the notion of finding answers to questions through the internet among different communities around the world.[xxvii]
It is evident that cultural changes often precede the changes in linguistic patterns that they are associated with.
Advocates of linguistic relativity would generally refer to the studies on the variation of color perception based on language, as well as recent studies on cognitive perception as a result of grammatical genders in their arguments. Nevertheless, neither are sufficient to indicate the deterministic influence of language on culture. As observed in a recent study involving English-speaking participants and Tarahumara-speaking participants, where the word siyóname
can mean a range of colors consisting of various shades of green and blue, the influences predicted by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is observed to only affect 30-50 percent of the experiments.[xxviii]
Moreover, although English does not categorize the color pink as “light red”, English speakers easily recognize a level of affinity between the colors red and pink without categorizing them as the same color in a linguistic perspective.[xxix]
The widely known research by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay in 1969 also identified eleven basic color categories that exist among all known languages of the world.[xxx]
In the cases of languages with fewer than eleven color categories, Berlin and Kay also observed that the description of colors “followed a specific evolutionary pattern,” which they summarized in seven basic rules, three of which include: [xxxi]
“1. All languages contain terms for black and white.
2. If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
3.If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).” [xxxii]
While Berlin and Kay’s research cannot prove that there is a universal perception of colors, no other studies have found significant results that would support the opposite argument to the same extent.[xxxiii]
Hence the difference in language patterns have not been observed to cause sufficient differences in color perception that could be used to validate Whorf’s hypothesis on linguistic relativity. .
In comparison, the studies on the correlation between cognition and grammatical gender achieved more promising results, since they revealed that speakers of languages with grammatical genders tend to assign “feminine” and “masculine” traits to inanimate objects due to their grammatical genders. In a study comparing speakers of different European languages including Polish, German, Spanish, French, and Italian, researchers found that grammatical genders affect the way people describe objects.[xxxiv]
For example, “a key was described as heavy and metallic by German speakers (der Schlüssel
– masculine gender) and as small, shiny and beautiful by Spanish speakers (la clave
– feminine gender).[xxxv]
Gender effects also occurred when participants were asked to assign certain features stereotypically related to one sex to nouns (e.g., masculine nouns were evaluated as “stronger” than feminine nouns).”[xxxvi]
Nevertheless, such studies oftentimes fail to address the underlying premise that although “masculine” and “feminine” genders are linguistic properties, “masculine” and “feminine” features are subjective to a specific culture. Descriptions such as “heavy and metallic”, “small, shiny, and beautiful”, “stronger” are associated with masculine and feminine stereotypes evolved in a culture over time. In contrast, the denotation of grammatical gender came from the latin word gener
(type, kind, group), which did not originally have the same meaning of genders in the modern age.[xxxvii]
It can be further demonstrated that the gender of the speakers can impact their assignment of grammatical genders, since people are more susceptible to different biases due to their own genders.[xxxviii]
Therefore, the assignment of gendered traits to inanimate objects and concepts is at least a combined result of linguistic and non-linguistic factors, making it insufficient to support Whorf’s hypothesis.
While it is true that learning foreign languages often allow people to expand their view of the world, it is usually the opposing customs, attitudes, and opinions found in different cultures that enhance one’s ability to perceive reality, rather than the acquired language abilities that affect one’s cognitive structure. The discussion is not about universalism: it is almost a given that people from different cultures tend to view the world differently. However, as evidence stands, language does not shape culture; it is culture that shapes language. In modern anthropological debates, perhaps it would be beneficial for us to reconsider the role of linguistic influences not as a source but as a product of human cognition and behavior.
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Ibid. The remaining four rules are:
4. If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
5. If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
6. If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.
7. If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains terms for purple, pink, orange or gray.
In addition to following this evolutionary pattern absolutely, the languages studied also selected “virtually identical focal hues for each color category present.” For example, the term for “red” in each language corresponded to the same shade in the Munsell color system
. Thus, Berlin and Kay posited that the cognition of each color category is universal.
R.L. Trask, Language: The Basics
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