Prisms of Perception 4: Language and Culture
With over seven thousand languages spoken across the world, it’s pretty difficult to escape words. Especially hard for someone like me who studies linguistics as her degree. For hundreds of years, anthropologists and linguists have studied language in society and tried to fade the line between language and culture. The relationship between the two is more than correlational. It’s intrinsic, ingrained. But language is not only words. It’s grammar, dialect, tone, pronunciations, and so many other things that make the language specific to the respective community and its speakers. So, it clearly means that understanding the culture the language is born from, plays an integral role in expanding our knowledge.
Language and Perception
When looking into the history of any culture, you can begin to piece together certain aspects that help us understand how certain words are created, how these words affect our perceptions. Many of these perceptions may arise from the historical background of the culture and can be noticed in even just one word. For instance, Narayan Liu mentions in his article, In a Manner of Speaking: How Understanding Culture Impacts Your Language Studies, the word 心 (Xīn), which directly translates in English to ‘heart’. The word in Mandarin actually connotes the idea of emotions and more so the “feelings of the heart”, rather than referring to the actual organ. These connotations mainly stem from ancient Taoist philosophies and teachings. And the influences of these ancient teachings continue amongst modern-day Mandarin speakers. I suppose I could chime in a similar perception on my end with this one. Hearing the word dil so frequently in hopelessly romantic Bollywood movies, I also started associating the word with emotion, mainly because of the context I heard it in. This is interesting because the word also literally means ‘heart’ in Hindi (originally a Persian word, for factuality’s sake). I just couldn’t grasp the fact that dil simply references the organ, when speaking generically. However, speak to a cardiologist and obviously, they would be confused by my lack of grasp. Again, it’s all about perception.
Language and Values
Drawing a link between language and perception would take you to a linguist’s hotspot; The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis of linguistic relativity suggests that the grammatical structure of a language affects the speaker’s viewpoint. Therefore, people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language. To put it even simpler, our language shapes our thoughts and behaviour.
Many studies that have looked into linguistic perception have delved into a very interesting concept; time, and how it’s perceived. How people of various communities view time relative to the language they speak. Let’s take the English language for example. According to the article ‘How Language Affects Thought and Culture’ in the Athens Science Observer, its syntactic structure (how the words in a sentence are ordered), encourages its speakers to think frequently about the future. For example, with the use of verbs such as ‘will’, in phrases such as, ‘I will go to the post office tomorrow’.
However, languages such as Chinese for example, don’t follow the same syntactic structures that encourage thinking of the future, in the sense that verbs such as ‘will’ aren’t as frequently used. So, the same phrase in such languages would be, ‘I go to the post office tomorrow’. Now, there may be a number of reasons as to why this may the case. Why would some languages be more ‘future-thinking’ than others? If we link it back to the societies these languages stem from, we can probably notice that English-speaking countries, with languages of Germanic origins, are future-thinking, with a prime focus on economic development, and of course a rich reputation to match that focus.
So, with language reflecting a culture’s focus, in this scenario, what about the cultures of the East? One thing I noticed a lot growing up, speaking Urdu, was that the language has several words for the same family member. This also applies to other South Asian languages, such as Hindi. For instance, it’s not as simple as calling your auntie, an auntie. If she is your mum’s sister, she is your khala. If she is your dad’s sister, she is your phupho. Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. Your mum’s brother’s wife is your maami, whereas your dad’s brother’s wife is your chaachi. The same concept refers to uncles and grandparents. This again links back to how an individual is perceived. For instance, in Turkish, the different words teyze and hala are used to refer to aunties from maternal and paternal sides of the family, similar to Urdu. But to one they may not feel like ‘the same relative with a different word’, the factor that may make us think this way, is that for instance, European languages actually lack certain words compared to South Eastern languages. Another interesting point to take into consideration is that particularly cultures of Asia and the Middle East, often use words such as ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’ to refer to people who are not family members, purely out of respect. Again, not a very common attribute amongst European speakers, which may lead to a lot of speakers of Eastern languages to think Western languages, such as English, are a little insincere. However, this is a perception that may not be understood by monolinguals, but may only be relatable to bi or multilingual individuals.
But it’s no secret that Eastern cultures, particularly South Asian cultures, are very family-oriented, and as I’ve mentioned in my previous articles, status is everything, with a prime focus on appearances how one is perceived by others. Even within the family, everybody appears to see the importance of upholding their own position within the household. Not only does it distinguish your own position from everyone else, but it also distinguishes the ‘maternal’ side of the family from the ‘paternal’. So, linking back to particular words influencing the way we perceive things, supposedly any reputation that either side of the family acquires inside or outside the family, would easily be recognised. Whether that be positively or negatively. Words can come about from what the society’s predominant focus is set upon, or what the community’s environment entails. This can be seen even in a less detailed example. Eskimos have over forty words referencing snow. However, from an anthropological and linguistic perspective, this is also down to various dialects and a large number of suffixes within the respective language.
Geographical and Historical Influences on Language
Finally, and probably one of the easiest to deduce is the geographical and historical influences on the language. A key one to talk about would be the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities. Turkish Cypriots came about after the invasion of the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century, but the origins of the Greek Cypriot communities, are unclear. With Egypt towards the South, Syria in the East, Turkey towards the North, and Greece in close proximity in the West the island pretty much sits in the middle of all three continents, which made it a strategically important location in the past. The various invasions of the island, due to this, make it understandable how there would be linguistic overlaps. For example, the word gancelli refers to a garden door, and it’s a word that’s not used in Turkey, but used by the Turkish-speaking Cypriots. It actually derives from cancello which is an Italian word meaning ‘gate’. The word velespit is more predominantly used by the older generation to refer to a bicycle instead of the modern Turkish word bisiklet, deriving from velocipede, the French word for older versions of bikes. And the correlations in Cypriot Turkish dialect don’t stop at Turkish and Greek, with many words passed between the two communities of the island.
Another language overlap that stands very loud and clear, is the overlap between Urdu, and Hindi. These two languages are certainly mutually intelligible as spoken languages, so much so, that both are argued to simply just be different dialects of Hindustani, the lingua franca of Northern India and Pakistan. However, they are both written very differently, with Hindi following the scriptures of Sanskrit, and Urdu adopting the Arabic alphabet. Historically, the facts can’t be argued; Hindi existed first. Urdu was a language that was developed by the ruling classes during the East India Company rule in 1837. Which makes sense, as the word urdu refers to an army, in the Turkish language, in the form of ordu. But despite the endless debate of the Urdu-Hindi controversy, both languages share words originating from Turkish, Persian, and Arabic. The similarities stand strong.
Understanding the culture that a language is born from can be an invaluable help when learning a language, or even vice versa; understanding and learning the language can help tremendously with understanding cultures. It helps us understand the people, and cultures relative to others. How shared background experiences within and also amongst communities of people really do affect our thought processes. Not only this, we can understand how the two go hand-in-hand. As language changes with new words gaining new meanings, the culture shapes its way around that. And as a culture changes with its people, the language accommodates those changes. Simple linguistic examples that accommodate social changes include semantic reclamation, convergence, divergence, the list goes on. Our use and understanding of words can greatly impact not only our perception of cultures, but also individual people and our relationships with them, and how interactions between cultures ultimately form new cultures, develop on existing ones, and reveal and educate us on different parts of a culture’s history.
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