Did culture create language or did language create culture? There are not many topics under debate in the field of linguistics. However, there is one intensely debated aspect of language and that is, how exactly does language affect culture? There are some scholars who believe certain portion of language will affect how that person thinks. On the other hand, some scholars think words are not needed to actualize certain concepts within daily life. The hypothesis of Sapir-Whorf explains this idea in more detail.
However, according to the Sapir,
“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” -Sapir (1958:69)
Furthermore, according to Whorf,
“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.” -Whorf (1940:213-14)
The overall origin of human language is unknown and will remain a mystery. However, by contrast, we can, with a great degree of accuracy, provide the precise origins of individual languages spoken throughout the world. As a whole there are a little more than 5,000 different languages spoken today, “but scholars group them together into relative few families – probably less than twenty.” (Gascoigne, 2001) In early times, around 3000BCE, spoken language was broken down into two primary groups, what we now call, Indo-European and Semitic languages.
However, by the 5th century CE – and onward – language was mainly spread by conquests, trades, religious affiliations, technological advancements or entertainment. (Gascoigne, 2001). For example, as the geographic territory under Roman control grew, the use of Latin as a common language also spread. In areas under Roman control, Latin was the spoken and written language of the courts and commerce, as well as the language of the Christian church. As the Roman Empire expanded, Latin served as a common language that allowed for people of diverse linguistic backgrounds to be able to communicate.
Latin, like other languages past and present, had more than one form and changed over time because it was both written and spoken, and the educational level or social status of the writer or speaker often determined the final form of the language. Latin was also influenced by local languages spoken or written within the larger territory under the influence of what later came to be known as the Roman Empire. According to Gascoigne, “the Romance languages (those deriving from a ‘Roman’ example)” are “good surviving example” of a linguistic division from one culture to another. (Gascoigne, 2001)
By the early 14th century, the trend toward the use of vernacular language had spread throughout most of Europe. As monarchies throughout the region began to consolidate, the use of vernacular languages contributed to an increasing nationalism, or feeling of pride in one’s own nation, and in this case among people of similar linguistic backgrounds. People began to feel more connected to local leaders than they did to influences from afar. These sociopolitical shifts, along with the development of moveable type (the printing press), helped to ensure the success of the vernacular languages during the Renaissance.
According to Martinet, the evolution of language “may be regarded as governed by the permanent conflict between man’s communicative needs and his tendency to reduce to a minimum his mental and physical activity.” (Martinet, 1964, p. 167) In short, language is an evolutionary process taking on many different forms when the culture demands it to do so. Humans are constantly streamlining our vocabulary to be more efficient. However, sometimes these sorts of simplifications can cause miscommunications to occur between different cultural groups, even if the same words are being used.
The meanings of words within cultures can vary. A good example would be the word cool. For an American this word has two meanings either to be at a comfortable temperature or to be awesome. These dual meanings may not be the understanding for a non-American individual. Even within one collective culture, for instance American culture, the words yous, you all and y’all have the same meaning but have been restructured to meet the needs of the individuals within that regions dialect.
As you now realize the culture you live in determines the usage of your vocabulary
Gascoigne, Bamber. “History of Language” HistoryWorld. From 2001, ongoing. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=ab13.
Martinet, Andre 1960. Elements of General Linguistics (translated by Elisabeth Palmer, 1964. London: Faber and Faber). Originally published by Max Leclerc et Cie, Proprietors of Librairie Armand Colin.
Sapir, Edward. 1958. Culture, Language and Personality. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1940. Science and Linguistics. Technology Review (1940) 35: 229-31, 247-8.
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