Monday, August 2, 2010

Does language influence culture?

Here's an interesting article on the Wall Street Journal about the relationship of language and culture.  If you haven't studies psychology or applied linguistics, it's an interesting thought provoking article to get you primed for further exploration into the topic of language and culture - and if you are not interested in these topics enough to study them further, then it's a nice conversation (or ice breaker) topic for any meetups or cocktail parties that you go to :-) 


The author, a university professor, writes that Chomsky's Universals have not withstood scrutiny.  I am only starting to to immerse myself in psycholinguistics so I don't really know much about the subject (other than the primers on Chomsky's Universal Grammar), but as far as I know, Chomsky keeps refining his hypothesis, so if one version of the hypothesis has some issues, as more knowledge on the subject is gained and as more studies are conducted, we see newer interpretations of this hypothesis.

The interesting thing in this article is that studies show that by using different languages different things rose to importance in what people remembered.  I think that this is interesting, and a reason for immigrant parents to really teach their kids both their native language and the lingua franca of the host country (in the case of the USA - English).  It's also important to point out that we need to resist linguistic imperialism (be it the imperialism of Chinese, English, Russian or any other language) and keep our ties to our ancestral languages so that these modes of though are retained.  With greater diversity we have more opportunities for exploration and knowledge creation (How goes the Vulcan saying? Infinite Diversity Infinite Combinations?)

In any case, back to culture.  I personally don't think that language is the sole influencer of culture.  Language after all is a human construct.  I think that culture influences language and vice versa. It's a circle whereby happenings in our cultures (history, religion, power, human-to-human relations, scientific discovery, etc.) influence what we use in our language and how we use it, and language itself goes back to influence our culture - think of Homer Simpson and the by now infamous "D'oh!" - I am certain that people use D'oh! and have never watched the Simpsons!

This topic is way too big to cover in one blog post, but it's definitely worth a discussion!
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