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Language, Culture And Thought

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1970 words Published: 16th May 2017

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Language is the basic means of communication in every culture. Language expresses cultural reality of the speakers in every society. Language is a socially acquired phenomenon and all the culturally bound languages differ dramatically from one another in terms of the description of the natural world. Language not only embodies cultural reality but it is also viewed as a symbol of social identity This assignment explores different ways in which the world is described by the speakers of different languages due to their cultural diversity and its effect on different ways of thinking about the world. The study reviews the description of spatial terms, temporal terms, substances and objects by different speakers of different languages belonging to different cultures and its effect on the ways of thinking about the world around us.

Keywords: language, thought, culture, space, time, objects, substance, linguistic relativity, Whorf, Sapir


Language is a complex phenomenon for human communication. In the domain of communication each language of the world is different from the other on both lingual and cultural grounds. This diversity in world languages from linguistic standpoints ranges from the clear distinction of pronunciation and vocabulary to the more complex differences of grammar. The diversity of cultural standpoints related to different languages can be seen in the variety of cultural connotations assigned to these linguistic codes. The representation adopted by different languages to the same sentence such as, ‘the professor delivered the lecture’, is different to each culture. In English, the verb ‘delivered’ marks the past tense. In Indonesian and Mandarin, the verb never changes to mark tense. In Russian, the verb is changed to mark tenses and gender, so if the subject is female instead of male, then a different verb is used from the verb that is used for the male. Similarly, in Russian, the verb is also changed to mark whether the whole lecture was delivered or only part of it was delivered by the professor. In Turkish, the verb even specifies weather the delivery of lecture was witnessed or it was a gossip. It is apparent the speakers of different languages see the different aspects of the world to use their language properly (Gumperz and Levinson: 1996) Do these features of language affect the way their speakers think about the world?

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The idea that thought is shaped by language is most commonly associated with the works of American linguistics Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. According to Whorf, the categories of every human language present a way of perceiving, analyzing and acting in the world. The strong view of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis that thought and actions are completely determined by language has been rejected in the field of linguistics. However, answering a less deterministic weaker version ‘does language affect thought” has proven to be a very difficult task for the researchers. In recent times researches have found new evidences which highlight the effects of language on thought. This assignment discusses the effect of language on people’s thinking of space time, substance, and objects.

Research Question

To what extent are the world views and mental activities of members of a social group shaped by, or dependent on, the language they use?


The word culture is etymologically derived from the Latin word ‘cultura’, which means ‘to cultivate’ and different philosophers such as Voltaire, Hegel, Humboldt and Kant assign different meaning to it. In antiquity, culture was referred to the opposite of nature, something that is willingly produced by man. (Dahl: 2001) In 18th century, the term was used to describe elite and high-culture concepts in continental Europe.

According to Dahl, culture is a collectively held set of attributes, which is dynamic and changing over time. It is the totality of values, beliefs, basic assumptions as well as code of social behavior in a society. Individual are made by culture on one level and culture is made by individuals on the other. (Dahl: 2001)

Language is the basic means for communication in a society. Language is primarily related with culture in the domain of communication. Speakers communicate their ideas, feelings and facts with language both in inter and intra societal setups. Hence, we can say that language expresses cultural reality. (Kramsch, 3: 2005)

Language is not only a mean of expressing experience but it also creates experience. Speakers give meaning to such an experience through various mediums, such as, mass media, internet, telephonic conversations, presentations, etc. The medium with which language is used also designate meaning to experience, for example, the phonological and supra-segmented phonological features of language. Hence, we can say that language embodies a cultural reality. (Kramsch, 3: 2005)

In every society the collective set of social values, beliefs, norms and mores are transmitted from one generation to another by the process of socialization. Hence, culture is a socially acquired knowledge. If we observe language from this standpoint, it is observable that language is also transmitted from one generation to another through the process of socialization. It is, therefore, evident that language is also a socially acquired knowledge. (Horton and Hunt: 2005)

Finally, the speakers of one language identify themselves with a particular group through their peculiar way of using language. This characteristic of individuals in a group signify that language is viewed a symbol of social identity. Hence, we can say that language symbolized culture. (Kramsch, 3: 2005)



Languages differ from each other in the description of the setting of space. For example, In English, it is different to put something in which it is contained (the orange in the plate’, ‘the letter in envelope’) and putting things onto surfaces (“the orange on the table’, ‘the sticker on refrigerator door’). `In Korean, putting an orange in a bowl uses a different term (nehta) from putting a letter in an envelope (kitta). Additionally, putting a letter in envelops and putting sticker on the refrigerator is both expressed by the similar term Kitta because both involves close fitting.

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McDonough et al. (2000) conducted a research to test whether the linguistic differences between English and Korean speaker affects the representation of spatial relations. He showed scenes containing examples of tight and loose fit to Korean and English adults. The Korean adults looked longer at the example scenes compared to English adults. After that they were shown tight fit on one screen and loose fit on another and were asked to distinguish between them. The Korean adults were quick to identify between the tight fit and lose fit, whereas, the English adults were unable to distinguish between the tight fit and the lose fit, and they took relatively longer time than the Korean adults. Further, when these speakers were given several example of tight fight and one example of lose fight (or vice versa). The Korean adults could easily pick out the odd ones, but the English adults could not. This study concluded that the distinctions of settings reinforced by the particular languages remained central in the representation of their spatial settings.


Languages are also different from one another because of the difference in the descriptions of time. In English language, the conception of time is represented in horizontal terms. For example, students may ask the teacher to move the test forward, or the teacher may push the test back for the students. Similarly, the speakers of Mandarin language also use terms qian (front) and hou (back) to represent time in horizontal terms. However, the speakers of Mandarin also uses vertical terms such as shang (up) and xia (down) to describe time which in English signifies last and next respecitively. The use of the vertical terms of time in Mandarin is more common in than the horizontal terms of time.

In a study conducted by Borodistsky (2001), it was found that the Mandarin speakers think about time vertically even when they are thinking for English. The Mandarin speakers were quick to answer questions such as March comes before April when they were shown objects in a vertical order before questioning compared to the English speakers. Similarly, the English speakers gave quick response to this answer when they were showed objects arranged in a horizontal order before the question were asked from them for the study, compared to the Mandarin speakers.

The researcher in another attempt gave English and Hebrew speaking adults sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression such as, pictures of a man aging, or a plant growing, or an apple being eaten. (Boroditsky: 2002) They were asked to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. They were tested in two separate sittings, each time facing a different direction. The English speakers arranged the cards in a way that time progresses from left to right. The Hebrew speakers arranged the cards in a way that time progresses from right to left, showing that the direction of writing plays a role in the progression of time.


Language also differs in the way the names of the objects are arranged into grammatical categories. Unlike English, many languages assign gender to all the nouns. A recent set of studies suggested that grammatical gender given to objects by the language influence the mental representation of these objects by the people (Boroditsky and Schmitt: 2003).

The researcher gave pictures of people (male and female) and also pictures of objects (having opposite genders in German and Spanish) to two groups of German and Spanish speakers. They were asked to rate similarities between the pictures of objects and pictures of people. Both groups rated grammatically feminine objects to be more similar to females and grammatically masculine objects more similar to males as described by their languages. This test was a complete nonlinguistic test.

In Spanish, the word for “key” is feminine, while the German word for” key” is masculine. The Spanish and German speakers were asked to provide descriptive adjectives for different objects. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful, while Spanish speakers described them as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and shiny. For the word “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the opposite happened. Germans described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, and peaceful, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, and strong.


Languages appear to influence many aspects of human cognition: evidence regarding space, time, objects, has been reviewed in this assignment. Further studies have also found effects of language on people’s understanding of numbers, colors, and shapes, events, and other minds. Considering the many ways in which languages differ, the findings reviewed here suggest that the mental lives of people who speak different languages may differ much more than previously thought

Beyond showing that speakers of different languages think differently, these results suggest that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought.


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