T Nation

Anthropology Q: Language & Culture

I was given a question for extra credit and was wondering if I could get some help on it.I have searched the section in my book I can not find any real answer regarding both.

Many linguists have stated that language and culture are the same thing. What is the connection between language and culture? Can a person learn another language without also learning the culture? Why or why not?

I have some narrow views on the subject, maybe itll help.

A culture being a set of rules and views that you share with other people, I can see how learning a new language without being part of the culture could be a problem. Some words are interpretted differently or the ways you express yourself with language and symbols might be offensive to someone else’s culture. Different cultures express anger, disgust and shame differently. Specifically, if you do not follow the unwritten rules of a certain culture, you may know the language but you will not be able to communicate effectively.

I almost dropped out of engineering school to study linguistics and cultural anthropology. Its a very complex question, but one I find very interesting.

One thing I want to mention, and you may have discussed it in class, is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that human beings dissect reality based on lines laid out by their native languages. Its been written about a lot, some stuff is good, and some other stuff is frothy, new-age, pseudoscience, but interesting none the less.

Theres a lot out there so I’m not going to get into, but check this out:

Mention that hypothesis, give some examples, give some of your personal thoughts and ruminations, and you will get your extra credit.

[quote]spyoptic wrote:
Specifically, if you do not follow the unwritten rules of a certain culture, you may know the language but you will not be able to communicate effectively.[/quote]

I think you are on something here, I like your view very much.

You could say that language is just one part of communication, culture being the whole.

[quote]james28 wrote:
I was given a question for extra credit and was wondering if I could get some help on it.I have searched the section in my book I can not find any real answer regarding both.

Many linguists have stated that language and culture are the same thing. What is the connection between language and culture? Can a person learn another language without also learning the culture? Why or why not?[/quote]

I think the whole point of the question isn’t for you to just pick the answer out of the book, but instead to use what you’ve talked about in class and apply that to some sort of answer. So people on this forum probably can’t help you much, since your teacher is probably expecting you to put together an answer from what you’ve discussed in class. Coming back with a response that has nothing to do with whatever your talking about in class will probably just scream “I googled it” or something.

Besides, the question is dumb and poorly worded. NO linguists have held this position, unless “culture” and “language” are construed very broadly. And I say this coming from the linguistic tradition that would make this sort of assertion…

[quote]matko5 wrote:
spyoptic wrote:
Specifically, if you do not follow the unwritten rules of a certain culture, you may know the language but you will not be able to communicate effectively.

I think you are on something here, I like your view very much.

You could say that language is just one part of communication, culture being the whole.[/quote]

If its not too late, I ran into something concerning this -

I’m not going to get into it but this will pain a good picture - Eskimos have different names for soft snow, hard snow, wet snow ect… does that mean that they see snow differently than we do?

Also, a culture that considers orange to be like red - because they don’t have a name for orange - must see colors differently than we do, since orange is not in their vocabulary.

[quote]spyoptic wrote:

I’m not going to get into it but this will pain a good picture - Eskimos have different names for soft snow, hard snow, wet snow ect… does that mean that they see snow differently than we do?

Also, a culture that considers orange to be like red - because they don’t have a name for orange - must see colors differently than we do, since orange is not in their vocabulary.

[/quote]

This is just incorrect, unless if by “see colors differently” you mean something utterly trivial like “readily attach different labels to colors”. If what you were saying were correct it would imply that no one could ever learn to distinguish between colors, since according to you they would see colors differently and not see the distinction someone was trying to show them. I don’t think very many people anymore hold to the idea that there is a radical problem of translation–that we can’t really translate between two different languages, whether that be because of conceptual differences or something else. (Your examples of instances of this “radical translation problem”.)

In any case you need to state this claim much more carefully, since you are ambiguous about what “see colors differently” means.

could it be possible to link how culture affects language instead? take english for example and how the different nations and cultures of the world have adapted it into the various subforms that now exist.

I see this on two levels. On a certain level different language rules actually dictate the way you think. Certain phrases or words cannot be directly translated to a different language therefore if you don’t understand the culture then the word is effectively meaningless. This is one of the reasons that English for instance steals phrases from other languages (schadenfreude, deja vu, etc.) Equally, I can read translations of Russian Literature or Arabic Poetry but I will never understand it in the same way as if I read it in the original and understood the cultural implications fully.

The other level is that for me, moving to a foreign country I have had to learn the language and the culture. A phrase might have a second hidden meaning that just doesn’t make sense to me because it references a childrens program from 50 years ago or I don’t realise that saying ‘Como?’ when I miss hear someone saying ‘Chorizo’ is a bad idea.

Shouting ‘Achtung!’ in Germany might make literal sense for a situation but it probably won’t make me any friends. This is due to cultural associations, not language per se.

Just trying to translate jokes from one language to another will make you realise how closely language and culture are intertwined.

[quote]Cockney Blue wrote:
I see this on two levels. On a certain level different language rules actually dictate the way you think. Certain phrases or words cannot be directly translated to a different language therefore if you don’t understand the culture then the word is effectively meaningless. This is one of the reasons that English for instance steals phrases from other languages (schadenfreude, deja vu, etc.) Equally, I can read translations of Russian Literature or Arabic Poetry but I will never understand it in the same way as if I read it in the original and understood the cultural implications fully.

The other level is that for me, moving to a foreign country I have had to learn the language and the culture. A phrase might have a second hidden meaning that just doesn’t make sense to me because it references a childrens program from 50 years ago or I don’t realise that saying ‘Como?’ when I miss hear someone saying ‘Chorizo’ is a bad idea.

Shouting ‘Achtung!’ in Germany might make literal sense for a situation but it probably won’t make me any friends. This is due to cultural associations, not language per se.

Just trying to translate jokes from one language to another will make you realise how closely language and culture are intertwined.[/quote]

See, this is exactly why people don’t buy this “no radical translate stuff”. You start out by telling us that [quote]Certain phrases or words cannot be directly translated to a different language therefore if you don’t understand the culture then the word is effectively meaningless.[/quote], but then you proceed, in English, to give us examples of Spanish and German words that “can’t” be translated–but of course you HAVE translated them!

Really, it’s this whole “see colors differently”, “dictate the way you think” stuff that really pushes over the line. Since one is obviously not “stuck” to their own language and way that it leads them to think and conceptualize the world, it seems that the way language dictates how one thinks is really trivial. The mind needs a “medium” to think through–language–but clearly the mind isn’t stuck to any one language.

[quote]spyoptic wrote:
Also, a culture that considers orange to be like red - because they don’t have a name for orange - must see colors differently than we do, since orange is not in their vocabulary.
[/quote]

Really?

I call many colors “orange” that you might well call “yellow,” for example, I consider School Bus Yellow to be a yellowey-orange, rather than yellow, and if I had to pick one of the terms to call it and I were not having to deal with other persons, I’d call it orange.

Does that mean that my eyes work differently than yours? No.

It means I have different names for things and different interests (I like pure yellow and am discerning of small differences from that, let along a very large difference as with School Bus Yellow, while you may have little to no interest there.)

Back when Volkswagen was putting a lot of New Beetles on the road with very light shades, my then-fiancee called various such cars “white” when I called them “blue” or whatever they actually tended toward.

If they had cars in four different such colors, she would have had one word for all of them – “white” – while I would have had four differing words for them.

Did that mean that her eyes worked differently than mine? No. Again, it meant that I used words differently and my interests in colors are different than hers: I am interested in subtle differences moving white away from neutral whereas she is not.

Did Isaac Newton have different vision than other people because he saw “indigo” inbetween blue and violet, whereas most people would skip over that hue and not bother naming it separately?

Nope. (His actual reason was that he wanted 7 colors, not six, and wanted a given set of spacings between these colors so as to match the musical scale, of all things.)

Now, this is where the whole conversation could get hateful – no such intent, but inherently this sort of thing may be quite disliked – for anthropology type people: the above general area is not soft science but is subject to objective, quantitative experimentation determining what the facts are in this matter. The cones of differing people’s eyes in fact have the same response curves to light. Their eyes generate the same responses. I could go into this a little further as it is interesting but would be getting too far astray.

While one can have a soft squishy theory that Eskimos may have a different perceptual system with regard to identifying snow (soft and squishy because completely unproveable and completely unfalsifiable), a much simpler explanation is that they have much more interest in it.

I think an analogous thing is seen in the English language with regard to bodyparts.

Have you ever noticed that bodyparts that people in general (not in reference to bb’ing) have no particular interest in will typically have one name, or maybe two? For example, an elbow is an elbow, and that’s it.

Whereas, how many words can you think of that refer to the nose? Let alone say the breasts.

We have little interest in types of snow; the Eskimos have great interest in it.

So what is the surprise that they have more words for it? How can that be interpreted as necessarily meaning anything more than that they have more interest in it, and more occasions where differences in snow may be relevant to them?

I’m perfectly able to see that snow is mushy, or soft and fluffy, or has grains of ice in it, and so forth. I don’t have specific words for these things because I have little interest and no practical need to often communicate these things.

[quote]Bill Roberts wrote:
spyoptic wrote:
Also, a culture that considers orange to be like red - because they don’t have a name for orange - must see colors differently than we do, since orange is not in their vocabulary.

Really?

I call many colors “orange” that you might well call “yellow,” for example, I consider School Bus Yellow to be a yellowey-orange, rather than yellow, and if I had to pick one of the terms to call it and I were not having to deal with other persons, I’d call it orange.

Does that mean that my eyes work differently than yours? No.

It means I have different names for things and different interests (I like pure yellow and am discerning of small differences from that, let along a very large difference as with School Bus Yellow, while you may have little to no interest there.)

Back when Volkswagen was putting a lot of New Beetles on the road with very light shades, my then-fiancee called various such cars “white” when I called them “blue” or whatever they actually tended toward.

If they had cars in four different such colors, she would have had one word for all of them – “white” – while I would have had four differing words for them.

Did that mean that her eyes worked differently than mine? No. Again, it meant that I used words differently and my interests in colors are different than hers: I am interested in subtle differences moving white away from neutral whereas she is not.

Did Isaac Newton have different vision than other people because he saw “indigo” inbetween blue and violet, whereas most people would skip over that hue and not bother naming it separately?

Nope. (His actual reason was that he wanted 7 colors, not six, and wanted a given set of spacings between these colors so as to match the musical scale, of all things.)

Now, this is where the whole conversation could get hateful – no such intent, but inherently this sort of thing may be quite disliked – for anthropology type people: the above general area is not soft science but is subject to objective, quantitative experimentation determining what the facts are in this matter. The cones of differing people’s eyes in fact have the same response curves to light. Their eyes generate the same responses. I could go into this a little further as it is interesting but would be getting too far astray.

While one can have a soft squishy theory that Eskimos may have a different perceptual system with regard to identifying snow (soft and squishy because completely unproveable and completely unfalsifiable), a much simpler explanation is that they have much more interest in it.

I think an analogous thing is seen in the English language with regard to bodyparts.

Have you ever noticed that bodyparts that people in general (not in reference to bb’ing) have no particular interest in will typically have one name, or maybe two? For example, an elbow is an elbow, and that’s it.

Whereas, how many words can you think of that refer to the nose? Let alone say the breasts.

We have little interest in types of snow; the Eskimos have great interest in it.

So what is the surprise that they have more words for it? How can that be interpreted as necessarily meaning anything more than that they have more interest in it, and more occasions where differences in snow may be relevant to them?

I’m perfectly able to see that snow is mushy, or soft and fluffy, or has grains of ice in it, and so forth. I don’t have specific words for these things because I have little interest and no practical need to often communicate these things.[/quote]

While I’m very sympathetic and basically agree, let me say one small thing in defense. While there is certainly an object matter-of-fact behind the various “cutting-up” we do of reality through language (or at least, I think so), this doesn’t mean that nevertheless the conceptual cutting we do of the world through language isn’t there. The point that I was trying to make earlier was that this conceptualization that happens through the use of language isn’t somehow fundamental–just because my native tongue leads me to conceptualize some aspect of reality one way doesn’t mean that I’m fundamentally stuck with that conceptualization and that I cannot come to an understanding of how some other person, via their native tongue, conceptualizes the same aspect of reality.

That’s why I was pushing people to explain what they meant by “see things differently”. Clearly if they mean that a different language will prevent people from seeing, say, orange, this is incorrect. But, if they mean that a different language will lead people to think and conceptualize things in different ways, that’s true. For a silly example, if Newton pointed to indigo and blue and asked people if they saw different colors, people not trained to see indigo probably won’t see indigo. But of course, as soon as Newton explains what indigo is and explains the difference he wants them to see, then everyone is happy and agrees with Newton that there is a difference–one shade is indigo and the other blue. In this sense anyway there seems to be a clear way in which language impedes conceptualization, although, as I point out, there’s nothing fundamental about this.

Or something like that…

[quote]stokedporcupine8 wrote:
Cockney Blue wrote:
I see this on two levels. On a certain level different language rules actually dictate the way you think. Certain phrases or words cannot be directly translated to a different language therefore if you don’t understand the culture then the word is effectively meaningless. This is one of the reasons that English for instance steals phrases from other languages (schadenfreude, deja vu, etc.) Equally, I can read translations of Russian Literature or Arabic Poetry but I will never understand it in the same way as if I read it in the original and understood the cultural implications fully.

The other level is that for me, moving to a foreign country I have had to learn the language and the culture. A phrase might have a second hidden meaning that just doesn’t make sense to me because it references a childrens program from 50 years ago or I don’t realise that saying ‘Como?’ when I miss hear someone saying ‘Chorizo’ is a bad idea.

Shouting ‘Achtung!’ in Germany might make literal sense for a situation but it probably won’t make me any friends. This is due to cultural associations, not language per se.

Just trying to translate jokes from one language to another will make you realise how closely language and culture are intertwined.

See, this is exactly why people don’t buy this “no radical translate stuff”. You start out by telling us that Certain phrases or words cannot be directly translated to a different language therefore if you don’t understand the culture then the word is effectively meaningless., but then you proceed, in English, to give us examples of Spanish and German words that “can’t” be translated–but of course you HAVE translated them!

Really, it’s this whole “see colors differently”, “dictate the way you think” stuff that really pushes over the line. Since one is obviously not “stuck” to their own language and way that it leads them to think and conceptualize the world, it seems that the way language dictates how one thinks is really trivial. The mind needs a “medium” to think through–language–but clearly the mind isn’t stuck to any one language. [/quote]

Where in English have I given a direct translation of schadenfreude or deja vu? Those you might be able to explain in a few sentences because English, German and French are closely linked but Wu-Wei would take a book to explain and even then the Chinese person would probably argue that the author hadn’t quite captured it.

Again I take you back to most jokes not translating well internationally. You can translate the words but without the cultural reference it is just not funny!

Again, in Mexican Spanish the following dialogue is funny

A: Chorizo

B: Como?

in English

A: Spicy Sausage

B: How?

Not so funny

[quote]Cockney Blue wrote:

Where in English have I given a direct translation of schadenfreude or deja vu? Those you might be able to explain in a few sentences because English, German and French are closely linked but Wu-Wei would take a book to explain and even then the Chinese person would probably argue that the author hadn’t quite captured it.[/quote]

Well, you didn’t actually break down and give a detailed translation, but you certainly were starting to, and as you yourself admit, you can explain these things in a few sentences of English. Hence they certainly are translatable.

Also, even if you claim there are some worlds in eastern languages that would require more than a few sentences to explain does not mean they are not translatable either. For example, say I write the book you suggest describing what Wu-Wei means, and your China man then informs me that I have missed some important feature. That man will then explain to me, in English, what feature I have missed, and I can simply add it to my book, yielding an acceptable translation.

Really, the point is that even in having a dispute about the correctness of a translation we have already succeeded in large part in giving such a translation.

Perhaps to take another approach, think of it like this. Just what does a word or phrase mean? Well, the linguistic tradition that is most sympathetic to your point is one which would tell you that the meaning of a word or phrase is essentially given by all the behaviors, events and images connected with that word. So, for example, the word “christmas” is associated with some set of activities generally associated with Christmas, perhaps a story or two about Jesus, etc. Even simpler, a word like “pencil” will conjure up images of carbon filled wooden sticks and writing. Anyway, the point is that we will have a successful translation of a word or phrase if we can convey in some way the behaviors, events, images, etc. associated with the word or phrase. Now, you might argue that often times these behaviors, events, images, etc. go so deep into a culture that it would take years and years of immersion to “properly” understand them, but this I think is just wrong. At a practical level actual speakers of a language operate at a fairly superficially–it is more than a stretch to imagine that a speaker really associates such a long and complicated meaning behind some word that it would take years of direct cultural immersion to understand the meaning.

To bring some structure back to the discussion, the issue at stake here is just how deep conceptual differences introduced by different languages are. My claim is simply that while different languages do introduce different conceptualizations about the world–indeed, we must think and conceptualize through a language, there is nothing fundamental about these differences. It is easy to acquire a new language or even in most cases to simply translate the meaning of a word or phrase in such a way that one understands what is being said. It is not as if the absence of the word “orange” from someones language will forever keep them from understanding the difference between what I call red and orange, nor will the this absence introduce such a fundamental difference in how we conceptualize the world that it will hinder my ability to convey the meaning of “orange”.

[quote]Cockney Blue wrote:
Again I take you back to most jokes not translating well internationally. You can translate the words but without the cultural reference it is just not funny!

Again, in Mexican Spanish the following dialogue is funny

A: Chorizo

B: Como?

in English

A: Spicy Sausage

B: How?

Not so funny[/quote]

If I ask you to explain why the Spanish is funny, you will probably tend towards some long discussion of cultural significance and whatnot. If I ask you to explain why the english misses the point of the Spanish, I would probably trick you into giving me a concise translation of the Spanish joke.

In any case I’m not sure why you think jokes are such an important example in this discussion. The complexities of humor certainly make translation more difficult, but that says little about the inherent difficulty of translation.

[quote]stokedporcupine8 wrote:
Cockney Blue wrote:
Again I take you back to most jokes not translating well internationally. You can translate the words but without the cultural reference it is just not funny!

Again, in Mexican Spanish the following dialogue is funny

A: Chorizo

B: Como?

in English

A: Spicy Sausage

B: How?

Not so funny

If I ask you to explain why the Spanish is funny, you will probably tend towards some long discussion of cultural significance and whatnot. If I ask you to explain why the english misses the point of the Spanish, I would probably trick you into giving me a concise translation of the Spanish joke.

In any case I’m not sure why you think jokes are such an important example in this discussion. The complexities of humor certainly make translation more difficult, but that says little about the inherent difficulty of translation. [/quote]

I think you have got off track in your effort to argue. My point is that without the cultural understanding the direct translation is meaningless. Yes I can explain the cultural significance in English but the original question was about the difference between language and culture. This is an example of that.

To get back to your argument though, when you look at the difference between English and Mandarin say there are huge issues due to the lack of tenses in Chinese. This actually leads you to think about things in a slightly different way. I even find this in Spanish. If I am thinking in Spanish my reaction to things will be different to when I am thinking in English just because the structure is different.

[quote]stokedporcupine8 wrote:
spyoptic wrote:

I’m not going to get into it but this will pain a good picture - Eskimos have different names for soft snow, hard snow, wet snow ect… does that mean that they see snow differently than we do?

Also, a culture that considers orange to be like red - because they don’t have a name for orange - must see colors differently than we do, since orange is not in their vocabulary.

This is just incorrect, unless if by “see colors differently” you mean something utterly trivial like “readily attach different labels to colors”. If what you were saying were correct it would imply that no one could ever learn to distinguish between colors, since according to you they would see colors differently and not see the distinction someone was trying to show them. I don’t think very many people anymore hold to the idea that there is a radical problem of translation–that we can’t really translate between two different languages, whether that be because of conceptual differences or something else. (Your examples of instances of this “radical translation problem”.)

In any case you need to state this claim much more carefully, since you are ambiguous about what “see colors differently” means.
[/quote]

If a language doesn’t distinguish between two colors, do the people who speak the language think about colors differently than we do? They would have trouble making discriminations between orange and red. The same as people who do not have any pictures in their society would have trouble understanding what object is closer and which is further away in a photograph.

[quote]spyoptic wrote:
If a language doesn’t distinguish between two colors, do the people who speak the language think about colors differently than we do? They would have trouble making discriminations between orange and red. [/quote]

So, assuming you personally don’t have a specific word (other than the word “yellow”) for colors similar to that of the typical school bus distinct from other yellow hues, does that mean you personally have trouble making discriminations between the color of a canary and that of a school bus?

If not, then why do you say the above?

Another example: if you don’t have words describing the various shadings between pure blue and white which is just slightly tinged with blue, do you have trouble making discriminations between, say, paints that differ in this?

Or does your eye make the discrimination just fine, as does your brain?

“Yet” the English language is quite deficient in providing words for different degrees of lightness of colors.

So how is it we have no trouble mentally processing the obvious differences? (If the above theory is right.)

[quote]spyoptic wrote:

If a language doesn’t distinguish between two colors, do the people who speak the language think about colors differently than we do? They would have trouble making discriminations between orange and red. The same as people who do not have any pictures in their society would have trouble understanding what object is closer and which is further away in a photograph.

[/quote]

I think Bill already addressed the former point–it’s incorrect. People will not have trouble differentiating two colors just because they lack a word for it. They might have a tendency to no differentiate the two colors if they don’t often have a need to, but that doesn’t mean that their lack of a word for the color somehow fundamentally impairs them from making the distinction. Since that is true, I still don’t see your point. As for the photograph point, I have trouble believing that. You are going to need to actually produce citations or something. My intuition is that depth perception, if developed at all, will carry over to things like photographs easily.