Culture and Language: You Can’t Have One Without The Other
Written by Sara Gordon
At the age of 23, in my prime party stage, my vocabulary centered around slang words such as “lit, turnt, ham, and YOLO.” I fit well into the bar hopping subculture located in Cleveland, until I became pregnant. Pregnancy altered my vocabulary towards words associated with birthing such as breech, placenta, or Braxton-Hicks. Slowly, as my subculture changed to motherhood, my language shifted frames. I placed more significance in words that surrounded the prototype of Mom than my previous self whose terminology stemmed from revelry. The change in the words I spoke mirrored the change in my culture. Language and culture should be studied simultaneously because language has the power to reflect a culture’s worldview by revealing mental maps and cultural emphases.
Language is the intermediate between a culture and their worldview. Experts call it Linguistic Determinism, the ability of language to shape and alter the perception of reality. The Navajo language, for example, has the word Hózhó that shows up in every aspect of their culture. The term loosely translates to walking in beauty, but Hózhó is more a frame that influences their belief in a holistic balance within the Universe. On the other hand, English has more individualized words such as, you, I, us, them and it is common for western culture to separate themselves from the universe instead of constituting themselves as part of the whole. It’s easy to see how just a few words can help build mental maps that shaped the worldviews guiding Navajo and English culture.
Correspondingly, by examining a culture’s mental maps using language, we can begin to understand how they categorize the world around them. Mental maps are how people organize their environment linguistically. For instance, you cannot ask speakers of the Shinzwani language who their mother is and expect only one answer because they categorize both Aunts and their mothers under one term, Mama. They have a completely different mental map when it comes to Kinship compared to the English language who separates the siblings of parents into separate categories. Furthermore, the mental maps within the Shinzwani language show that Aunts and Mothers hold significance to a child.
Lastly, studying linguistic emphases can provide a link into cultural emphases. The most common aspect of this involves identifying words that are most commonly used in a language. This can be seen in the Inuit language and their diverse set of words for different types of seals, ice, and snow. This points to the importance of each within their culture, especially, since they live in the artic region where seals, ice, and snow are common. Conversely, the English language generally only uses one word for each (seal, ice, and snow) which reflects their lack of prominence within the culture. Obviously, language gives a powerful view into how a culture ranks their environment.
The influence language and culture have upon one another cannot be debated. Whether we look at the Navajo, Inuit, Shinzwani, or English, it’s obvious that their culture and language are intimately connected. To study one and not the other would result in an incomplete understanding. Language is a guide within a culture that helps you view different worldviews, mental maps, and cultural emphases.