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ColoradoGuy
04-11-2007, 07:01 AM
How does the language spoken in a culture affect the culture? English, for example, has no gender with its nouns -- does this affect English speakers' view of gender? German capitalizes all nouns -- does this contribute to what always seemed to me to be an excess of abstract concept nouns, which somehow seem more impressive when capitalized (e.g. Gestalt (http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/gestalt), Weltanschauung (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&as_qdr=all&defl=en&q=define:Weltanschauung&sa=X&oi=glossary_definition&ct=title), Sturm und Drang (http://www.bartleby.com/65/st/Sturmund.html)). Romance languages sound so, well, romantic when spoken -- Dutch sounds to me as if the speaker is clearing their throat of a big chunk of mucous. After all, just compare two versions of "I love you," and say them out loud: je t'aime (French, which I don't speak) vs. Ich liebe dich (German, which I speak a little). One sounds to me like music, the other -- definitely not music.

What about cultures in which many languages are spoken?

aruna
04-11-2007, 10:34 AM
Very interesting question.
English is my native language, I speak German well, and my French and Spanish are tolerable but a bit rusty. I know that each language gives me a totally different "feel" and attitude.

I find that definitely, the German language reflects the mentality I find here: orderly, precise, meticulous, following the rules. I'll go into this more later - have to run.

poetinahat
04-11-2007, 11:53 AM
Interesting observation, aruna -- and fine thread topic. Is it the language that influences the culture, or is it vice versa? I'd suspect it's some of both.

I can imagine a bevy of diverting cultural offshoots from this topic: Language vs. ... :

music/dance (could samba music ever have originated in Russia?)
politics (will countries with more strident, strong-sounding languages be more prone to revolution?)
food (borscht, fleischkase, wiener schnitzel, tempura, vichysoisse)

Medievalist
04-11-2007, 11:59 AM
What about a language like Japanese which has very codified courtesy built into it, and differences for male speakers and female speakers

robeiae
04-11-2007, 07:24 PM
Is it the language that influences the culture, or is it vice versa? I'd suspect it's some of both.
I suspect you're right. But which one was the initial influence?


Beyond that, I would suggest that a given culture or society reflects patterns that are not always what they appear to be and/or are not always being followed without awareness of what they are. We tend to accept cultural differences as reflective of cognitive differences, I think. And that's a mistake, imo. There is an awfully lot to be said for "going with the flow."

MacAllister
04-11-2007, 11:45 PM
I'm fascinated by the fact that there is vocabulary in some languages for abstracts, with no corresponding vocabulary in other languages. That's just...remarkable.

Shwebb
04-11-2007, 11:50 PM
Man, I wish Shweta would check in here.

MacAllister
04-12-2007, 12:08 AM
Well, send her a link, then! And we could, umm, beg, maybe?

:D

Shwebb
04-12-2007, 12:12 AM
I can do that! After all, she's my Shwiamese twin. *runs away*

robeiae
04-12-2007, 12:17 AM
That's shwell.

Angelinity
04-12-2007, 12:32 AM
my persona changes when i switch to another language -- friends who've watched me have told me so, often chuckling.

since i believe that the culture of a people is shaped by outside influences -- geography, topography, climate, abundance or scarcity, etc. -- and this is/was there before 'language' became the main form of communication, in my own little mind it follows that language is shaped by culture.

Changes in living conditions usually result in changes in language -- note the street slang reflected in rapp music for example. Rapp was preceeded by Jazz and blues, but those are no longer the mainstream form of artistic expression. Okay, this is music, but still a form of language / expression, methinks.

Once rooted, language change can broaden its reach by effecting changes in the culture of other people -- rapp is now emulated by those not living in the culture that birthed it. i guess the two are ultimately linked and impact on each other.

Hell, everything is connected, we all exist in the same lil bubble...

KCathy
04-12-2007, 01:40 AM
Chela, my Spanish teacher in Ecuador, loved over-analyzing the symbiotic relationship between language and culture as much as I did, and we had some fascinating discussions about different things as she taught me.

Take, for example, dropping a pencil in English. We'd say, "I dropped my pencil." In Spanish, they'd say, "Se me cayo el lapiz," which literally means "The pencil dropped from me." Chela would use that as an excuse to discuss how in my culture, we feel like we have more control over the world around us than people in hers did. We DO things. Things happen TO them.

I'm sure some of the theories we came up with were sheerest BS, but it was a blast to talk about them!


my persona changes when i switch to another language

Ack--me, too! My personality and freakish sense of humor simply fit into Latin culture better than American culture, and I tend to be a lot more relaxed and to joke more in a place where people think I'm hilarious instead of a couple of beats off. Very, very weird.

Birol
04-12-2007, 02:03 AM
It seems to me that language is often a reflection of our thoughts, a way of communicating them to others, as well as a way of providing form to abstract concepts. Based on that, language must be a reflection of culture rather than the other way around. It is a way of expressing the abstract courtesies and social nuances which form the culture.

ColoradoGuy
04-12-2007, 02:13 AM
It seems to me that language is often a reflection of our thoughts, a way of communicating them to others, as well as a way of providing form to abstract concepts. Based on that, language must be a reflection of culture rather than the other way around. It is a way of expressing the abstract courtesies and social nuances which form the culture.
That's pretty much the way I see it, too. But that's a generalization. To me the interesting question is in the details, in how specific attributes of particular languages might relate to the cultures they swim in. Medievalist's Japanese example was interesting -- at least I think of Japanese culture as being more structured than ours, and this may be reflected in the language.

Birol
04-12-2007, 02:22 AM
Japanese culture is more structured than US culture and structured differently, too.

What I find I'm pondering is the pronoun 'You'. In many languages, there exists a formal 'you' and an informal 'you.' For example, in German, it is Sie and du. If you go with the idea that culture shapes language, then it would be reasonable to argue that the cultures where the informal and formal you is utilized have a more formal structure in place for addressing strangers and people of different strata than English-speaking cultures, but that would be looking at it from a very Americanized perspectived, which is not the culture where the English language was developed.

ColoradoGuy
04-12-2007, 02:40 AM
Japanese culture is more structured than US culture and structured differently, too.

What I find I'm pondering is the pronoun 'You'. In many languages, there exists a formal 'you' and an informal 'you.' For example, in German, it is Sie and du. If you go with the idea that culture shapes language, then it would be reasonable to argue that the cultures where the informal and formal you is utilized have a more formal structure in place for addressing strangers and people of different strata than English-speaking cultures, but that would be looking at it from a very Americanized perspectived, which is not the culture where the English language was developed.
I'd like one of the linguists around here to tell me when English lost that distinction: after all, it is a Germanic language. Is it present in the various Anglo-Saxon variants? Mediavalist?

As a Quaker I do know that the original reason for Friends' use of thou/thee was that, at least as they saw it, that was the familiar form; "you" was apparently more formal. So they used thou/thee (and still do in a few places) to show their distaste for hierarchy.

robeiae
04-12-2007, 02:50 AM
Advanced free-market economies and changes in the structure of English property laws, circa 17th century. I kid you not (as a starting point).

pdr
04-12-2007, 04:01 AM
and right into the 20thC, Master to servant was always to use the thee, thou, form of address but it was pronounced, from Victorian times as ye. I once heard the very old Dowager Duchess thank the porter and then her chauffer with a Thankye when she would say Thank you to her son.

As I understand it, from my Quaker friends in England, they still use thee and thou, informal, personal form of you, to show that all members were brothers and sisters in Christ and no one had 'rank'. Not quite the same as Colorado Guy's reason?

ColoradoGuy
04-12-2007, 04:02 AM
I kid you not.
I thought Yoda was the first to talk like that. (Insert smiley). But really? economics did this?

ColoradoGuy
04-12-2007, 04:05 AM
As I understand it, from my Quaker friends in England, they still use thee and thou, informal, personal form of you, to show that all members were brothers and sisters in Christ and no one had 'rank'. Not quite the same as Colorado Guy's reason?
No, it's a similar reason. I know a few old Quaker ladies who use it. It's called "plain speech." What is interesting about it, though, is that "thee" is often used as the nominative, rather than the accusative case. I've heard endless debates about why that is, debates of interest probably only to Quakers (who love to talk -- and form committees).

kdnxdr
04-12-2007, 04:52 AM
Might this discussion be similar to the chicken/egg question? Language in common use has a way of "marking" certain expectations of behavior. If a person participates in such specific behavior, language usually reflects that behavior. So, certain use of language prescribes certain behavior and certain behavior initiates certain language.

One example that came to mind: curses like a sailor

cursing was stereotypical of sailors in the past and now cursing has become socially acceptable even by women

KCathy
04-12-2007, 04:54 AM
What I find I'm pondering is the pronoun 'You'. In many languages, there exists a formal 'you' and an informal 'you.'

Ooh, good one. I found it fascinating that some Ecuadorians had their children refer to them as the proper "usted" instead of the friend/peer "tu" for you. How would the choice of pronoun affect your view of your parents? Or did they just do it because they had to teach their five-year-old not to call the mayor "tu," which would be horribly rude behavior?

The difference reminds me a lot of the variation between forms of address in the South and the North. Southern kids would never DREAM of calling an adult Sam or Mary, and I know people who would get in big trouble for saying "yeah" instead of "Yes, Sir" to their dad. Here in Oregon, friends laughed at me for calling my Grandpa "sir" during our contract Bridge games and teaching my kids to say "sir" and "ma'am" is completely counter-cultural.

Weird, ain't it?

robeiae
04-12-2007, 04:55 AM
But really? economics did this?
C'mon, CG! It's so simple! Maybe you need a refresher course. It's all ball bearings, nowadays. Now you prepare that Fetzer valve with some 3-in-1 oil and some gauze pads, and I'm gonna need 'bout ten quarts of anti-freeze, preferably Prestone. No, no...make that Quaker State.

Sorry. Fletch moment.

But yes, economics. Economic egalitarianism that led to more social egalitarianism and a middle class. Marx, Weber, Locke--take your pick.

ColoradoGuy
04-12-2007, 05:00 AM
But yes, economics. Economic egalitarianism that led to more social egalitarianism and a middle class. Marx, Weber, Locke--take your pick.
I don't know -- seems a little broad-brush for me. I don't see a lot of social egalitarianism in seventeenth century England. Maybe a little during the Interregnum (Christopher Hill's World Turned Upside Down and all), but after Charlie Two came back?

robeiae
04-12-2007, 05:13 AM
I don't know -- seems a little broad-brush for me. I don't see a lot of social egalitarianism in seventeenth century England. Maybe a little during the Interregnum (Christopher Hill's World Turned Upside Down and all), but after Charlie Two came back?
Ha! You read me like a book...or we read many of the same books. Something like that.

Sure, it's broadbrush, but look at what you're asking: when did some language become less formal.

Obviously, it didn't become less formal for every person that spoke it at exactly the same moment. In fact, there are some for whom it is still not all that informal.

But what went on in England--and carried over to America--was a change in who was doing the speaking, really. In other words, the middle class found a much larger voice, just as it started to become more sizable and more significant (all inter-related, obviously). The American entrepreneur was no aristocrat either, even when well-educated.

Shweta
04-12-2007, 10:05 AM
Man, I wish Shweta would check in here.

Reporting for duty, sir!
Uh, ma'am :)
I fear that I'm utterly wiped and therefore having trouble with both language and cognition. So um... will try to say something intelligent, or pretend to, tomorrow.
Yeah.

The language-culture which-affects-which thing is weird and cool and I'll see if I can hunt up examples, too.

P.H.Delarran
04-12-2007, 10:42 AM
Fascinating.
American English useage seems to be changing, rather fast (in my opinion). My kids rarely know their friend's last names, until I insist. Like KCathy's example of using Sir, it's become unusual to hear someone addressed as Mr. or Mrs.
Twice this week, someone has addressed me as Mrs. (Delarran,) which was met with snickers from those in earshot. I'm sure there's other examples. Seems to go along with some cultural changes I've observed in my lifetime. Language, and attitude, has become less formal. Good manners are no longer on most 'must have' lists (maybe not in this group, but, remember, we're writers, we probably tend to be more formal and like it.)
Didn't Webster add like a zillion new words to the dictionary just last year? I remember seeing a list. Many words were tech-related, and quite a bit were music-themed.
This makes me curious the evolution of a language. Seems like English is constantly changing. Or at least the useage changes. And those changes seem linked to cultural/economic/technology changes.
Do other languages experience the same thing? I know many languages have regional dialects, are those influenced by regional culture?

Shweta
04-19-2007, 11:41 PM
So (yeah, about a week late, now that nobody cares any more...)
here's my short form of what I think there's reasonable evidence for.

Languages can direct our attention to certain things and not to others. For example, if a language has necessary gendered pronouns, speakers have to keep track of someone's gender in order to talk about them. So it's going to be something speakers focus on. If a language grammatically codes spatial relations (signed languages do this), then you have to keep track of where someone is to talk about them. If a language refers to absolute directions (like North) and not to relative directions (like left) then you have to keep track of where North is to talk about where anything is.
And so forth.
ETA: And as Dan Slobin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Slobin) points out, we're always looking at things with an eye towards talking about them later. We might want to tell our friends! So we pay attention to things that matter linguistically. Slobin calls this "Thinking for Speaking".


There is some evidence that young children make all sorts of distinctions, and at some point they lose them. Young (hearing) children initially start out able to distinguish any sounds used in any language; around 9 months, I think, they stop being sensitive to the ones they don't hear. Similarly, young kids start out making all sorts of distinctions (like English in/on) and stop paying attention to them if the language they're learning doesn't make that particular distinction.
ETA: My darlinghusband adds that there's evidence that young kids who can't make distinctions between sounds at an early age have ripple effects; they have real trouble later on, with things like reading and doing well in school. Further, clinical intervention - teaching them auditory distinctions -can similarly ripple through and help them later in life. We seem to have this really strong link between picking up what's culturally transmitted, and functioning well in a culture. However. My darlinghusband cannot rememer who did these studies and set up the company that's helping these kids or anything of the sort. That's what makes him darling.

So um, what am I saying. I'm saying language, cognition, and culture are all tied up together. Language affects thought (as in the examples above). Thought affects language (For example, in every language studied there are words for vision that mean knowledge; presumably because vision is our primary source of knowledge). Culture affects thought, and thought affects culture (do I need to give an example of this? Um. Feral children (http://www.omninerd.com/2006/07/20/news/827). And how could thought not affect culture...) Culture affects language; language is culturally transmitted. And languages focus on things that are culturally important. If we didn't care about gender, for example, we wouldn't have gendered pronouns. If we didn't care about actions on objects we wouldn't have verbs and nouns. And language affects culture: language has a lot of cultural presuppositions built in (for example, the idea that male is default, in English) and it changes fairly slowly. We can understand what our grandparents or our grandchildren say, even if we live in, and grew up in, a radically different world, culturally and technologically.

And now, yeah, I have a few responses to what actual people actually said!



How does the language spoken in a culture affect the culture? English, for example, has no gender with its nouns -- does this affect English speakers' view of gender?

So most linguists think that grammatical gender is pretty much meaning-free, and doesn't affect your actual understanding of gender. And note that in gender-languages there are weirdnesses (like Mark Twain's famous rant, The Awful German Language (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5788/5788-h/5788-h.htm#Appendix_D)):



"Gretchen. Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
"Wilhelm. She has gone to the kitchen.
"Gretchen. Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
"Wilhelm. It has gone to the opera."
To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female—tomcats included, of course; a person's mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and NOT according to the sex of the individual who wears it...However.
There is at least one psycholinguistic study that implies that grammatical gender does too matter, somewhat. I hope you don't mind if I quote myself:


There's a study (http://www-psych.stanford.edu/%7Elera/papers/gender.pdf) by Lera Boroditsky on grammatical gender: it goes against the notion that grammatical gender has "no" meaning. She picked words that have opposite genders in German and Spanish (male/female; she ignored neuter words). For example, key, and bridge.

Then she got Spanish/English and German/English bilinguals to come in for the study, and showed them these words -- in English. And asked for adjectives describing the words.

What she found was that if a word was feminine in the bilingual's other language, they'd use "pretty", "golden", "delicate", and so forth to describe it. If it was masculine they'd use words like "strong", "iron", and such.

In English.

That's from this thread (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=627347).


German capitalizes all nouns -- does this contribute to what always seemed to me to be an excess of abstract concept nouns, which somehow seem more impressive when capitalized (e.g. Gestalt (http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/gestalt), Weltanschauung (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&as_qdr=all&defl=en&q=define:Weltanschauung&sa=X&oi=glossary_definition&ct=title), Sturm und Drang (http://www.bartleby.com/65/st/Sturmund.html)).

This I don't know about, but let me guess. I'd guess no, this doesn't matter. Because the primary form of the language is spoken, and capitalization doesn't actually reflect intonation or any other information you get in spoken language.
As much as we love writing, it is at best a secondary form of communication for most language users, and typographic oddities don't seem to have much effect on cognition or semantic change.

That being said, languages seem to develop more complex syntax if they have a written form, so it's not like writing has no effect.
So I'm back to "I dunno".


Romance languages sound so, well, romantic when spoken -- Dutch sounds to me as if the speaker is clearing their throat of a big chunk of mucous. After all, just compare two versions of "I love you," and say them out loud: je t'aime (French, which I don't speak) vs. Ich liebe dich (German, which I speak a little). One sounds to me like music, the other -- definitely not music.

But for all this, germanic and romance languages aren't really all that different. If you want different sounds, look at tonal languages (like Chinese) or click languages (like some African languages, Xhosa being a good example)

Most languages sound really weird and unmusical to people who aren't familiar with them; beyond that, we have a cultural presupposition that Germanic languages are ugly and Romance languages are pretty - and I don't know how much that's affecting our perceptions.


What about cultures in which many languages are spoken?

There's some evidence, again from Boroditsky, that bilinguals do think differently depending on which language they're speaking. They're kind of in between monolinguals of either language at any time, but they're more like the monolinguals of the language they're currently speaking.

Which I think it pretty awesome :)

Shweta
04-19-2007, 11:47 PM
Interesting observation, aruna -- and fine thread topic. Is it the language that influences the culture, or is it vice versa? I'd suspect it's some of both.

Hmph, fine, read my mind :D


I can imagine a bevy of diverting cultural offshoots from this topic: Language vs. ... :
music/dance (could samba music ever have originated in Russia?)I'd guess this had more to do with culture than language per se.



politics (will countries with more strident, strong-sounding languages be more prone to revolution?)You mean like those French in 1789? :D
I would guess revolution had more to do with intolerable living conditions, but hey, I never understood politics.




food (borscht, fleischkase, wiener schnitzel, tempura, vichysoisse)

...And does the name affect how it tastes to us?

More whacky psycholinguistics

Someone (I've forgotten who) posted pictures of people to "Hot or Not" with different names attached to them. So they posted every picture N times, each time with a different name.

Um. That was probably unclear. So suppose they had two female pictures and two names, Marylin and Gertrude. They would have posted each female picture twice, once with the name Marylin and once with the name Gertrude.

What they found was that people rated the faces differently based on the name associated with them. The voters just found some names sexier than others, and that affected how they saw the faces.

ETA: Darlinghusband says this was one of Boroditsky's students. I should have guessed. boroditsky is kind of a breath of fresh air in experimental languagey stuff.

Shweta
04-19-2007, 11:50 PM
I find that definitely, the German language reflects the mentality I find here: orderly, precise, meticulous, following the rules. I'll go into this more later - have to run.

Whereas English has more mongrel vigor?
It's interesting that you mention precision. I suspect that where word choice is concerned, English allows for more precision than most languages (since it happily mugs other languages for vocabulary) but does not necessarily demand precision.

That's a guess.

Shweta
04-19-2007, 11:53 PM
What about a language like Japanese which has very codified courtesy built into it, and differences for male speakers and female speakers

I've seen some really interesting talks on gender differences in Japanese. I wish I remembered details, but conferences always go fuzzy in my head. At least one talk was about use of "Hai" vs a less formal agreement marker in women speaking Japanese, and the conclusion was something like... younger women are starting to talk more like men?
I think.
So some of the codified gender differences seem to be breaking down as (I guess) corporate power structures overrule older power structures.

Shweta
04-20-2007, 12:06 AM
I suspect you're right. But which one was the initial influence?

The chicken.
I mean, um.
I would guess culture - we've been cultural tool-using critters longer than there's any actual evidence for language. And other great apes clearly have cultural transmission of knowledge without language.


Beyond that, I would suggest that a given culture or society reflects patterns that are not always what they appear to be and/or are not always being followed without awareness of what they are.

Yeah. I don't think it's impossible to figure out what at least some of the patterns are with close analysis/experimental work, but just looking at superficial things is a great way to be mislead.

If everything in a society is symmetrical, that's not evidence that they can't tell right from left. But if a society has everything be symmetrical and members can't tell mirror imaged pictures from one another at all, that might indicate a cognitive difference.
Or just a different idea of "same" and "different".


We tend to accept cultural differences as reflective of cognitive differences, I think. And that's a mistake, imo. There is an awfully lot to be said for "going with the flow."

Yeah. There's more to cognitive differences than just cultural differences, even if they do often pattern together. And, even more insidious, we take English linguistic tendencies and Western-European culture as indicative of How Cognition Works.
On the other hand, 'going with the flow' for years and years would probably affect the way one thinks.
Bah. This stuff's complicated :D

Shweta
04-20-2007, 12:10 AM
I'm fascinated by the fact that there is vocabulary in some languages for abstracts, with no corresponding vocabulary in other languages. That's just...remarkable.

It's pretty cool, ain't it?
But really it's weirder that we have vocabulary for concrete, directly-experienced things in some languages that we don't have in others.

For example, the Dani don't have any term that directly corresponds to "red". They might have something that means "the color of that red object", analogous to "scarlet" or "crimson" or "blood-colored" - I don't know. But I do know they don't have a single term that just means red, without reference to actual objects.

That kind of blows my mind. It's such a basic experience. How could they not have a word for it?

More abstract notions often have a large cultural/historical background to them, I suppose. It's still weird though.

ETA: On further thought, I guess "red" without any particular red object is a pretty abstract notion, so ignore me.

Shweta
04-20-2007, 12:19 AM
my persona changes when i switch to another language -- friends who've watched me have told me so, often chuckling.

That's pretty awesome :D


since i believe that the culture of a people is shaped by outside influences -- geography, topography, climate, abundance or scarcity, etc. -- and this is/was there before 'language' became the main form of communication, in my own little mind it follows that language is shaped by culture.

...Oh yeeeah there's that whole physical environment thing. And that whole "human physiology" thing that interacts with the whole physical environment thing.
Yeah. That matters too :)


Changes in living conditions usually result in changes in language -- note the street slang reflected in rapp music for example. Rapp was preceeded by Jazz and blues, but those are no longer the mainstream form of artistic expression. Okay, this is music, but still a form of language / expression, methinks.

So there's a difference between changes in vocabulary and "deeper" changes in the structure of a language. Changes in vocabulary happen all the time, lightning-quick. People are creative and easily bored. Changes in language structure are slower, but might be a better indication of changes in cognition.

Though y'know, not always. I dunno where rap falls there - it seems to have at least popularised somewhat different syntax from standard American English.


Hell, everything is connected, we all exist in the same lil bubble...

Man did not weave the web of life, etc? (I really wish that line was authentic)

Shweta
04-20-2007, 12:23 AM
Take, for example, dropping a pencil in English. We'd say, "I dropped my pencil." In Spanish, they'd say, "Se me cayo el lapiz," which literally means "The pencil dropped from me." Chela would use that as an excuse to discuss how in my culture, we feel like we have more control over the world around us than people in hers did. We DO things. Things happen TO them.

I'm sure some of the theories we came up with were sheerest BS, but it was a blast to talk about them!

It seems to me like what you came up with here, at least, is an excellent hypothesis that someone should test :D


Ack--me, too! My personality and freakish sense of humor simply fit into Latin culture better than American culture, and I tend to be a lot more relaxed and to joke more in a place where people think I'm hilarious instead of a couple of beats off. Very, very weird.

I think different languages/cultures have different timing, too, and since humor has a lot to do with timing, it's possible that your sense of timing just fits the Latin culture better?
I know that the kind of pause that would be just thinking in British English is enough to signal "end of conversational turn" in American English, so that moving from the UK to the US I used to get interrupted a lot.

Maybe that's what you're saying, I dunno, but I think it's neat.

Shweta
04-20-2007, 12:40 AM
It seems to me that language is often a reflection of our thoughts, a way of communicating them to others, as well as a way of providing form to abstract concepts. Based on that, language must be a reflection of culture rather than the other way around. It is a way of expressing the abstract courtesies and social nuances which form the culture.

I think there isn't any "rather than" here. Language is a part of our culture, and as such the links go both ways. But yeah, I think the effect of culture on language is more blatant, especially at any given point in time, than the opposite.


That's pretty much the way I see it, too. But that's a generalization. To me the interesting question is in the details, in how specific attributes of particular languages might relate to the cultures they swim in.

Hm lemme see. I don't want to venture into the scary zone of politics, but I think it'd be useful to look at how American conservatives and liberals (I'd consider these two different cultures) use language. I think it reflects how they think and how their cultural assumptions are different, but I think it also shapes how they think, and which cultural assumptions are maintained, and how.

If (for example) it's a "war" on drugs, then we can make some assumptions and reason based on them. There's an "enemy", there are issues of loyalty, patriotism, etc... and that affects the cultural understanding of a problem in ways that thinking of drug abuse as an "illness" would not.

I do agree that the devil's in the details.


What I find I'm pondering is the pronoun 'You'. In many languages, there exists a formal 'you' and an informal 'you.' For example, in German, it is Sie and du. If you go with the idea that culture shapes language, then it would be reasonable to argue that the cultures where the informal and formal you is utilized have a more formal structure in place...

Actually this is consistent with the idea that culture shapes language and the idea that language shapes culture and the idea that one of them shapes cognition and that shapes the other.

Not that I'm arguing exactly; I think all of these are true and consistent; I'm just trying to clarify why I think your view as stated is leaving something out.

Anyway, I think modern Dutch might be a fun example to contrast with archaic English. English defaulted to the formal pronoun. When I lived in the Netherlands I was told that it was becoming impolite to use the formal 2nd person pronoun, "U", unless the addressee was really clearly old or in authority. Because it was implying that they were old, I guess. This could well be a case of a society moving towards egalitarian, affecting the language. So I would guess that this was a case of culture influencing language, but also, as "u" dropped out of use, it'd become more marked, so using it would have a greater cultural meaning, thus having language affect cultural understanding, continuing the cycle.

This is a guess.

Shweta
04-20-2007, 12:44 AM
Might this discussion be similar to the chicken/egg question? Language in common use has a way of "marking" certain expectations of behavior. If a person participates in such specific behavior, language usually reflects that behavior. So, certain use of language prescribes certain behavior and certain behavior initiates certain language.

Hear, hear :)

....And language is, of course, a form of behavior, not just a way of talking about behavior. It's lots of things, but it's worth remembering that one of those things is a complex set of motor routines.

Shweta
04-20-2007, 12:51 AM
Ooh, good one. I found it fascinating that some Ecuadorians had their children refer to them as the proper "usted" instead of the friend/peer "tu" for you. How would the choice of pronoun affect your view of your parents? Or did they just do it because they had to teach their five-year-old not to call the mayor "tu," which would be horribly rude behavior?

I've wondered about this one too. Many Hindi speakers refer to their small children with the respectful form. The familiar form* turns up later. Tamil speakers (Southie Indians) use the familiar form for their children right from the getgo. It did have a different "feel" to me.
Another thing I always wondered about as a kid was why I was supposed to use the familiar form with my mother and the respectful with my father.


The difference reminds me a lot of the variation between forms of address in the South and the North.

The North and many other formal/hierarchical cultures! I have had so much trouble with this. I spent several years calling my professors "Um" because they laughed at me if I said "Professor", and many more years calling my now-in-laws "Um".


* The familiar form: used for slightly older children, social inferiors or peers, mothers, lovers, and God. What does that say about culture?

Shweta
04-20-2007, 12:53 AM
Obviously, it didn't become less formal for every person that spoke it at exactly the same moment. In fact, there are some for whom it is still not all that informal.

But what went on in England--and carried over to America--was a change in who was doing the speaking, really. In other words, the middle class found a much larger voice, just as it started to become more sizable and more significant (all inter-related, obviously). The American entrepreneur was no aristocrat either, even when well-educated.

:hooray:

Thank you. That's more sociolinguistic sensitivity than most linguists show.
Yay for sense.


Fascinating.
American English useage seems to be changing, rather fast (in my opinion). My kids rarely know their friend's last names, until I insist. Like KCathy's example of using Sir, it's become unusual to hear someone addressed as Mr. or Mrs.

I rarely know my friends' last names. This is not what I grew up with, and it does seem rather dizzying.


Language, and attitude, has become less formal. Good manners are no longer on most 'must have' lists (maybe not in this group, but, remember, we're writers, we probably tend to be more formal and like it.)

I'm not sure it's that "good manners" are no longer necessary - it's that what counts as good manners is different. Being formal is interpreted as "stuffy" and distant, and showing familiarity is a way of showing friendliness.

The tension between familiarity/friendship and respect/distance is a real one in many languages, and I think what's going on is probably that the cultural norm is tipping towards the familiar side?

I wonder if that's of a piece with "Howzit goin'" being a standard phrase meaning "Hello", at least here in California. It's got more superficial friendliness to it - inquiring about how you're doing - but it's not really polite to respond with "Oh you know, I had a sleepless night and my poodle is cheating on me".

I know I keep getting tripped up because I try to actually answer this question and that's not socially condoned. (Not, I note, that I have a poodle.)


Didn't Webster add like a zillion new words to the dictionary just last year? I remember seeing a list. Many words were tech-related, and quite a bit were music-themed.

Changing vocabulary is often a kind of superficial reflection of cultural change - a lot of it is just that new stuff exists and needs a word.


This makes me curious the evolution of a language. Seems like English is constantly changing. Or at least the useage changes. And those changes seem linked to cultural/economic/technology changes.
Do other languages experience the same thing?

Yep. Languages are all constantly changing. Well, living ones are. Latin doesn't change much. Neither does Sanskrit now; it's kind of an undead zombie language being preserved in an artifical stasis.
The Academie Francaise is trying to make French a zombie language too, but it's not succeeding terribly well.


I know many languages have regional dialects, are those influenced by regional culture?

I know at least some are, and I'd guess they all are to some extent. But the only example coming to mind is that there is at least one rural dialect of Tamil that has only absolute directions (North, etc) but urban Tamil has right/left terms. You can see why, I think; "Turn North" is much more useful out in the countryside and much less in a maze of city streets.

ColoradoGuy
04-20-2007, 01:24 AM
I just read a fascinating article in the Apri 16 New Yorker about a tribe in the Amazon called the Piraha, who apparently speak a language like no other. Most interesting is that it is a language completely rooted in the present. They have no future tense. They also have no words for left, right, numbers or common terms of quantification (many, few, most, etc.), or colors. Of particular interest is that they have no system of recursion, of inserting one modifying thought inside another. (The example given is that one can say "The man is walking down the street," and "The man is wearing a hat." Recursion would be to say "The man wearing the hat is walking down the street."

This language appears to reflect (or determine -- you decide) this particular tribe's culture and view of the world.

The reason this is especially interesting is, for those Chomsky haters out there, this language apparently contradicts most of Chomsky's theories about a universal grammar.

The New Yorker doesn't give online access to this article, unfortunately, but the article is well worth reading.

Shweta
04-20-2007, 01:41 AM
Here's a reasonable online link (http://www.jcrows.com/withoutnumbers.html). Not the New Yorker but it's available. Oh and, here's another (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_24_168/ai_n16029317).

Chomsky, of course, hates this and claims that Everett, the guy who studied the Piraha, is just wrong. Interestingly, I think Everett used to be a Chomskyan before he studied the Piraha. They changed his mind :D

But the real problem as I see it is - who's gonna do a verification of his study? Go hang out in the rainforest for 27 years to make sure he got it right?
Not me.

I think if he's right the Piraha stuff is amazing - but one never can be sure that one has asked all the right questions...
Still. 27 years.

Medievalist
04-20-2007, 03:40 AM
I think if he's right the Piraha stuff is amazing - but one never can be sure that one has asked all the right questions...
Still. 27 years.

Well, no, we can't. But I know Chomsky's nuts . . . :D

robeiae
04-20-2007, 04:54 AM
But I know Chomsky's nuts . . .
You wanna rephrase, before I ask the obvious question? :tongue

robeiae
04-20-2007, 04:59 AM
Thank you. That's more sociolinguistic sensitivity than most linguists show.
Yay for sense.How is it possible that we are on the same page now, given our previous disagreement. I am sorely vexed.

Seriously, two books:

Albion's Seed (http://www.amazon.com/Albions-Seed-British-Folkways-America/dp/0195069056)
Domination and the Arts of Resistance (http://www.amazon.com/Domination-Arts-Resistance-Hidden-Transcripts/dp/0300056699/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/103-8573116-2435816?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1177030635&sr=1-1) (which I seem to be recommending all the time)

Oh okay, three:

Veiled Sentiments (http://www.amazon.com/Veiled-Sentiments-Poetry-Bedouin-Society/dp/0520224736/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/103-8573116-2435816?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1177030712&sr=1-1)

My opinions on this thread are substantially influenced by these. Have you read them? Just curious...

Shweta
04-20-2007, 05:30 AM
Well, no, we can't. But I know Chomsky's nuts . . .

You wanna rephrase, before I ask the obvious question?

Arright, you asked for this:

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=772#comic


Have you read them? Just curious...
Read? Whaddya think I am, part of the liberal elite?
I mean, ahem.
Nope. I'll look 'em up :D

robeiae
04-20-2007, 05:33 AM
Arright, you asked for this:

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=772#comic

Scrabble? Or maybe Yahtzee...

Medievalist
04-20-2007, 05:34 AM
You wanna rephrase, before I ask the obvious question? :tongue

Dude, I worked for him. Trust me. Nutbar city. I lasted maybe a week as his R.A., and I've worked for some really difficult folk.

robeiae
04-20-2007, 05:36 AM
Dude, I worked for him. Trust me. Nutbar city. I lasted maybe a week as his R.A., and I've worked for some really difficult folk.
Ummm...look again. Is "Chomsky's" a contraction, or is it a possessive?

The nutbar appellation, I have no problem with. But Bravo will be in here cryin' pretty soon.

Medievalist
04-20-2007, 05:51 AM
Ummm...look again. Is "Chomsky's" a contraction, or is it a possessive?

The nutbar appellation, I have no problem with. But Bravo will be in here cryin' pretty soon.

Chomsky's nuts, dude! It's a contraction; the copula with syncope. Maybe. I think it's syncope . . .

Chomsky is nuts :D

But it's like totally a curse, too. You know?

Shweta
04-20-2007, 08:44 AM
I am so using that as a curse.
Ideally when the people I'm around have no idea where I came up with it.

ColoradoGuy
04-21-2007, 12:24 AM
My opinions on this thread are substantially influenced by these. Have you read them? Just curious...
Albion's Seed is one of my very favorites. It's refreshing to see a historian leave the micro-micro history behind and take some risks with Big Theories.

KCathy
04-21-2007, 05:19 AM
There's some evidence, again from Boroditsky, that bilinguals do think differently depending on which language they're speaking. They're kind of in between monolinguals of either language at any time, but they're more like the monolinguals of the language they're currently speaking.

That's just so weird and yet makes perfect sense.

What's REALLY fun is when you get a bunch of bilinguals together and they start throwing in words from both languages, switching back and forth, or cross-speaking (my just-invented word for when I speak Spanish to Catherine Hidalgo and she speaks English back through an entire conversation). I can't begin to imagine what our brains are doing.

Or how about simultaneous translation, like what the UN translators do, when you're hearing Spanish and speaking it into English while hearing what you're going to translate next. Talk about multitasking. I'm surprised steam doesn't come out of their ears.

While I'm babbling, I wonder how simultaneous translation would differ from interpretation for the deaf. You're using motor skills to express language, but most types of sign language do have their own rules and syntax, so you're translating, too. I bet you could light up an MRI like a Christmas tree in an electrical fire.

Higgins
04-21-2007, 06:43 AM
I just read a fascinating article in the Apri 16 New Yorker about a tribe in the Amazon called the Piraha, who apparently speak a language like no other. Most interesting is that it is a language completely rooted in the present. They have no future tense. They also have no words for left, right, numbers or common terms of quantification (many, few, most, etc.), or colors. Of particular interest is that they have no system of recursion, of inserting one modifying thought inside another. (The example given is that one can say "The man is walking down the street," and "The man is wearing a hat." Recursion would be to say "The man wearing the hat is walking down the street."

This language appears to reflect (or determine -- you decide) this particular tribe's culture and view of the world.

The reason this is especially interesting is, for those Chomsky haters out there, this language apparently contradicts most of Chomsky's theories about a universal grammer.

The New Yorker doesn't give online access to this article, unfortunately, but the article is well worth reading.

I have little interest in Chomsky, but if this one language "looks really odd" then aren't the vast majority of languages in some kind of conformity with some kind of universal grammar? Or...to think of it another way, most languages hit a certain average level of potential expressive complexity even if some parts are simpler, chances are they make up for it in another area. For example, English and Navajo have roughly the same number of phonemes, but Navajo has more compound consonants with phonemic glottal stops. Similarly in the lexical area, English has a larger possible vocabulary but Navajo has verbs that are of unimaginable possible elaboration (supposedly over 300,00 possible forms of the verb "to walk"...most of which don't exactly make sense in any particular context ). So one way or another all shades of meaning between the two languages are expressible, though it may involve some round-about forms.

Shweta
04-21-2007, 10:45 AM
I have little interest in Chomsky, but if this one language "looks really odd" then aren't the vast majority of languages in some kind of conformity with some kind of universal grammar?

Well... if you actually look closely, none of them are. The Universal Grammar stuff doesn't even work for English. Interestingly (I think), the majority of UG folks only study one or two languages, and simply assume that others follow*.

But proponents of Universal Grammar really really like to "add more features" to their theory rather than reconsidering their presuppositions. Most people do, when they're wedded to a theory. The Piraha data's only one piece of a larger picture, but if it's right it might be the one piece of evidence they cannot handwave away.
Which is why there's a lot of money in questioning the credibility of the study. That's politics much more than it is science.

* Historically, field linguists, who study multiple languages, have been less enamored of Universal Grammar than ... um, I don't know what to call them, armchair linguists? That's not quite right, but it's closer than I wish it was. It's worth noting that Sapir was a field linguist, and Chomsky is a total monolingual.

kdnxdr
04-22-2007, 03:28 AM
I read a book, Genesis in the Chinese Language, and found it so intriguing. The book gave a brief history of the formation of the chinese language. It explained how it worked as a pictographic language and that the "words" were composed of radicals which are the elements of the "alphabet".

The book is written by a christian and demonstrates how the story of Genesis can be found in the construction of chinese words.

For example: The word for boat is a combination of three radicals, each representing: 8 + mouths/persons + vessel which can be seen as Noah and his family at the time of the flood.

Another example: the word for light is composed of the radicals : man + fire, man on fire. Within Genesis, many christians believe that it was not Adam and Eve's nakedness that was revealed at the time of the fall but that previous to the fall, they had been covered with the Shikanah glory of God, God's light. It was the loss of that covering of light that was what they perceived to be their "nakedness". Previous to the fall, Adam and Eve would have been man/people covered in light/fire.

It was definately an interesting read. I understand she also wrote a second book.

I am no linguist and have no training in that field. Regardless if there is a "common language" template or not for humanity, we do all have, at birth, the inherent capacity for any language. Lots of things atrophy if not used so it makes sense that something unnecessary or unused would cease to function or function poorly.

truelyana
04-22-2007, 03:38 AM
Language is culture

ColoradoGuy
04-22-2007, 04:15 AM
Language is culture
Explain.

Melisande
04-22-2007, 04:53 AM
Fascinating.
American English useage seems to be changing, rather fast (in my opinion). My kids rarely know their friend's last names, until I insist. Like KCathy's example of using Sir, it's become unusual to hear someone addressed as Mr. or Mrs.
Twice this week, someone has addressed me as Mrs. (Delarran,) which was met with snickers from those in earshot. I'm sure there's other examples. Seems to go along with some cultural changes I've observed in my lifetime. Language, and attitude, has become less formal. Good manners are no longer on most 'must have' lists (maybe not in this group, but, remember, we're writers, we probably tend to be more formal and like it.)
Didn't Webster add like a zillion new words to the dictionary just last year? I remember seeing a list. Many words were tech-related, and quite a bit were music-themed.
This makes me curious the evolution of a language. Seems like English is constantly changing. Or at least the useage changes. And those changes seem linked to cultural/economic/technology changes.
Do other languages experience the same thing? I know many languages have regional dialects, are those influenced by regional culture?

But of course they do. Every language evolves. I don't believe that any language is static. And dialects might be influenced by regional culture, though I truly believe that they have evolved into dialects because of isolation originally. And look how they are almost disappearing now, with the world getting "smaller".

Shweta
04-22-2007, 08:09 AM
I am no linguist and have no training in that field. Regardless if there is a "common language" template or not for humanity, we do all have, at birth, the inherent capacity for any language.

Absolutely; or we wouldn't be able to figure it out. The question is what kind of capacity that is. It might be a "language module", a kind of innate knowledge of language - but evidence suggests it's not. It seems to be more like a combination of abilities - tracking eye gaze to figure out what mommy's paying attention to, making associations, making abstractions, etc. - which we also have for other reasons.


Lots of things atrophy if not used so it makes sense that something unnecessary or unused would cease to function or function poorly.

Yeah :)

Shweta
04-22-2007, 08:32 AM
And dialects might be influenced by regional culture, though I truly believe that they have evolved into dialects because of isolation originally. And look how they are almost disappearing now, with the world getting "smaller".

Yeah, though the isolation isn't always physical - social isolation leads to dialect formation too.

...And it's not just dialects of languages that are disappearing, it's entire languages and in some places even language families. The rate at which we're losing language variation is pretty scary.

Shweta
04-26-2007, 09:33 PM
In case anone's still reading along, this is a pretty cool summary (http://languagerealm.wordpress.com/2007/04/25/universal-grammar-ghosts/) of the problems with UG, and the effect of Piraha..

C.bronco
04-26-2007, 09:48 PM
I'm fascinated by the fact that there is vocabulary in some languages for abstracts, with no corresponding vocabulary in other languages. That's just...remarkable.
I think vocabulary has a lot to do with how an individual sees the world and assesses life. When we learn a new term, we are able to make more distinctions between similar things, further classify and understand.

kdnxdr
04-28-2007, 09:39 AM
When we learn a "new term" does not necessarily indicate that we will be better equipped to make associations, gain greater understanding or interact more efficiently with the world around us. Depending on what the "new term" is and what kind of vaue that term has regarding the "larger world". I believe some terms are specific to very narrow life experiences and can be used to suppress a person's thinking abilities. I think propaganda, indoctrination, and terms that are misrepresentative can work against a person/culture.

eliflauta
04-28-2007, 10:41 AM
I'm reading a great book about languages and music called Singing Neanderthals. It explains how language evolved in humans (and how it evolved differently in other animals) and how it relates to music. It agrees that some languages simply aren't meant to be used in some types of music, like the example used in this thread about samba and Russian. It's ridiculous; Baroque wouldn't have evolved in Chinese, for instance. Even accents make a difference. For example, a strong British accent would ruin a blues song. It just doesn't work. Likewise, language affects culture because there are some cultures that wouldn't seem to fit certain languages. It gets blurrier here, but I'm mostly defining culture as a combination of history and religion and, of course, language. In foreign countries, people can pick out a tourist by accent if not dialect even if that visitor does everything else right in order to fit in.

louiscypher
05-06-2007, 04:00 AM
Three best books on the subject:

Kant and The Platypus (Umberto Ecco)
Telling The Truth (Barbra Foley)
The Principles of Human Reason (George Berkley)

J

Mac H.
05-06-2007, 06:11 AM
There is a very similar effect in computer languages. They are an artificial language that really does affect the 'culture' of the program - and of the entire community of programmers.

Consider the freedom loving C programmers, compared to the boring, rigorous ADA fanatics.

Mac

Shweta
05-06-2007, 08:29 AM
I'm reading a great book about languages and music called Singing Neanderthals. It explains how language evolved in humans (and how it evolved differently in other animals) and how it relates to music.

Now that's a controversial issue. There are about a dozen, maybe more, hypotheses on how language evolved, and really the fact is: nobody knows. But several researchers are making big claims.

One that I find actually kinda plausible is that human language was originally based in hand gestures rather than speech -- but again, it's just a hypothesis.

kdnxdr
05-06-2007, 05:53 PM
I don't know anything about language and linguistics, but the language that I so amazed by is the one in Australia/Africa(?) that uses to vocal "clicks" to communicate.

kdnxdr
05-06-2007, 06:12 PM
I understand that Chinese is one of the oldest/if not the oldest pictographical alphabets that is still in use, pretty much as it functioned when it was first developed. I'm curious if there is an older pictographical alphabet.

I think vocal sounds are just vocal sounds until they become synthesized into a "universal" code specific to a group/society. I believe that to make the transition from being only vocal sounds, a value system must be developed that supports those sounds. Example: a certain vocal sound, i.e. a grunt, would be rewarded with food. Once that exchange is in place, a marking system is then developed that records the societal recognition/acceptance of that exchange. The "mark" could be a hand gesture, a marking on a surface of any nature, a echoing vocal response, etc.

I'm assuming that if social groups were isolated from one another, each group developed their own code/value system/markers.

Language, at its base, seems very Pavlovian. Language is utilitarian on one side of the coin.

I believe its spirituality is the other side of the coin.

kdnxdr
05-06-2007, 06:16 PM
Another interesting "language" to me is how American Indians used smoke signals, bent trees, stacked stones, and the myriad of other ways nature was employed to communicate.

Medievalist
05-06-2007, 06:49 PM
I don't know anything about language and linguistics, but the language that I so amazed by is the one in Australia/Africa(?) that uses to vocal "clicks" to communicate.

That's Africa; there are several (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Click_language).

There's Nushu (http://www.ancientscripts.com/nushu.html) in China; a written language for women (http://www2.ttcn.ne.jp/~orie/home.htm).

louiscypher
05-06-2007, 11:59 PM
Women, clicking to communicate ... so what's new about that!
And they don't click here in Australia btw...they cluck and clank and clonk! Trust me, I've bruises to prove it lol

I''ve many aboriginal friends (life long) and never heard them click to communicate. Click go the (shearer) shears though! Mind being hunter/gathers, African clicks as language is a brilliant device to avoid be mauled by predators...but that's a production of fear of another culture (predators) rather than enculturation, ain't it?

J

rosebud1981
05-20-2007, 04:01 AM
Here's a reasonable online link (http://www.jcrows.com/withoutnumbers.html). Not the New Yorker but it's available. Oh and, here's another (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_24_168/ai_n16029317).

Chomsky, of course, hates this and claims that Everett, the guy who studied the Piraha, is just wrong. Interestingly, I think Everett used to be a Chomskyan before he studied the Piraha. They changed his mind :D

But the real problem as I see it is - who's gonna do a verification of his study? Go hang out in the rainforest for 27 years to make sure he got it right?
Not me.

I think if he's right the Piraha stuff is amazing - but one never can be sure that one has asked all the right questions...
Still. 27 years.

While all the information about Piraha has come from Everett, I believe some other linguists have visited the region (not spending 27 years there obviously) and verified some of his claims, Peter Ladefoged being one of them. So it seems more than genuine to me, even it blows UG out of the water.

You've mentioned some of Boroditsky's experiments already, which are all fascinating and back up the theories of linguistic relativity. Here's another one. This paper gives evidence that Mandarin and English speakers conceptualise time in different ways due to the ways that their languages describe time. In brief, English speakers view time as moving on a horizontal axis, while Mandarin speakers view it on a vertical axis. Consider a sentence like "August comes after July". In Mandarin this sentence corresponds to "August comes below July".
http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers/mandarin.pdf

And having mentioned time with relation to the language/thought/culture debate, here's another interesting case. The Aymara language in South America conceptualises time as moving from "back to front", where the future is behind the speaker and the past is in front.
http://www.physorg.com/news69338070.html

formlit
05-20-2007, 04:52 AM
I've wondered about this one too. Many Hindi speakers refer to their small children with the respectful form. The familiar form* turns up later. Tamil speakers (Southie Indians) use the familiar form for their children right from the getgo. It did have a different "feel" to me.
Another thing I always wondered about as a kid was why I was supposed to use the familiar form with my mother and the respectful with my father.



The North and many other formal/hierarchical cultures! I have had so much trouble with this. I spent several years calling my professors "Um" because they laughed at me if I said "Professor", and many more years calling my now-in-laws "Um".


* The familiar form: used for slightly older children, social inferiors or peers, mothers, lovers, and God. What does that say about culture?

I dunno. But I must have grown up different from you; I addressed both my parents the same way, and all strangers more formally. The thing I always found off was when we were older, our parents didn't refer to each other with the formal you.


There is a very similar effect in computer languages. They are an artificial language that really does affect the 'culture' of the program - and of the entire community of programmers.

Consider the freedom loving C programmers, compared to the boring, rigorous ADA fanatics.

Mac

lol well, c++ does offer more freedom . . . it can also offer more headacks.

Shweta
05-20-2007, 09:49 AM
While all the information about Piraha has come from Everett, I believe some other linguists have visited the region (not spending 27 years there obviously) and verified some of his claims, Peter Ladefoged being one of them. So it seems more than genuine to me, even it blows UG out of the water.

Innnteresting. I didn't know Peter Lagefoged was into this.


You've mentioned some of Boroditsky's experiments already, which are all fascinating and back up the theories of linguistic relativity. Here's another one. This paper gives evidence that Mandarin and English speakers conceptualise time in different ways due to the ways that their languages describe time. In brief, English speakers view time as moving on a horizontal axis, while Mandarin speakers view it on a vertical axis. Consider a sentence like "August comes after July". In Mandarin this sentence corresponds to "August comes below July".
http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers/mandarin.pdf (http://www-psych.stanford.edu/%7Elera/papers/mandarin.pdf)



Apparently people have tried and failed to replicate this experiment. Which is odd and interesting, I think. There's been no trouble replicating Boroditsky's other experiments, so it's not a huge problem with her methods, but somehing more complicated might be going on with the up/down time stuff.

There are two recent papers in Cognition on this, one by Chen and one by Koko.


And having mentioned time with relation to the language/thought/culture debate, here's another interesting case. The Aymara language in South America conceptualises time as moving from "back to front", where the future is behind the speaker and the past is in front.
http://www.physorg.com/news69338070.html

And they gesture this way too, they don't just speak this way.
What makes Aymara unique is that there seems to be no conceptualization of the future as forward.

rosebud, not to toot my own horn, but you might like this thread. (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=34133) I keep meaning to resurrect it; if you do look, and have any questions/comments I'd love to hear them.

Shweta
05-20-2007, 09:51 AM
I dunno. But I must have grown up different from you; I addressed both my parents the same way, and all strangers more formally. The thing I always found off was when we were older, our parents didn't refer to each other with the formal you.

:perks up:

Which language, formlit?

formlit
05-20-2007, 08:25 PM
:perks up:

Which language, formlit?

Hindi. ;) but my Hindi sucks (a truly bad hindi vocabulary, lack of knowledge of hindi sayings and oddly conjugated words and other fancy langauge. but if you stick to the hindi found in bollywood movies, i am perfectly fine and don't need any help understanding what they said), my accent is even worse and i know nothing about the other Indian languages. i will recognize Punjabi if someone speaks it but as to actually understanding it? not really.

Despite that - in case anyone is interested and because someone mentioned bilingual speakers (you could argue I am not really bilingual, because my Hindi so bad) - I have moments when I see something and I cannot think of the english word for it (this generally happens with veggies). Also, when someone speaks in hindi, I usually reply in english. I suppose at some level I must be translating what I heard into english (since I think in english) but it doesn't feel like it, you know? If you speak movie hindi, there is no difference in understanding hindi and english. What is truly odd is that if i try to say something in hindi, usually I can't even think of the words and it takes a lot of effort, but understanding what others are saying isn't really all that hard.

Shweta
05-22-2007, 07:34 AM
Hindi. ;)

Ah see, my experiences were with Tamil. But it's interesting that your experiences with Hindi aren't the same as some other people I know.


Despite that - in case anyone is interested and because someone mentioned bilingual speakers (you could argue I am not really bilingual, because my Hindi so bad) - I have moments when I see something and I cannot think of the english word for it (this generally happens with veggies).

Ha, happens to me too. Sometimes I remember the Hindi word, and I don't speak Hindi at all.


What is truly odd is that if i try to say something in hindi, usually I can't even think of the words and it takes a lot of effort, but understanding what others are saying isn't really all that hard.

Actually this isn't unusual at all. There is a difference between what's called people's "passive" knowledge (understanding) and their "active" knowledge (speaking). Many (most?) non-native speakers have a much better passive understanding than active.

formlit
05-22-2007, 05:27 PM
Ah see, my experiences were with Tamil. But it's interesting that your experiences with Hindi aren't the same as some other people I know.
really? What are their experiences?




Ha, happens to me too. Sometimes I remember the Hindi word, and I don't speak Hindi at all.

lol




Actually this isn't unusual at all. There is a difference between what's called people's "passive" knowledge (understanding) and their "active" knowledge (speaking). Many (most?) non-native speakers have a much better passive understanding than active.
The trouble with that is that I am not really a non-native speaker of Hindi. But we left India when I was 7 and I was just begaining to read and write in it, but than we came here and I forget what little I knew about reading hindi (just the letters really. maybe a few words) But I'd already learned to read/write english too (because i went to an english medium school and i guess we learned that first) and my written/reading english was much stronger and only become more so when we came here, to the point i can barely pernounce some hindi words. so . . . does all that make me a non-native speaker of hindi? because i didn't it was possible to change native languages like that, not at 7.

cooltouch
06-16-2007, 02:41 AM
An interesting thread. I wish I would have come across it sooner. I just finished scanning through the four pages of posts here and did not find one comment on Benjamin Lee Whorf, the man who put for the Whorfian Hypothesis, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Here's a link to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis at Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapir-Whorf_hypothesis

So. The whole discussion/debate as to which influences which: does language influence culture or does culture influence language? has been going on for about seventy years. Most linguists agree nowadays that Linguistic Relativism (the weak SWH in which language influences thought) has more validity than Linguistic Determinism (the strong SWH in which language shapes thought), and I also concur with this.

The above article briefly discusses the Piraha of Brazil. Focusing on the counters in their language of one, two, many (which btw is not at all uncommon), Gordon attempts to argue they have problems with numbers any larger than three. Critics argue that their environment is such that it precludes the necessity of having to count to higher numbers, thus influencing the language. Works both ways. And so it goes.

Best,

Michael

ColoradoGuy
06-16-2007, 02:53 AM
Thanks for joining in. We have hashed over Sapir-Whorf in a few other threads: here (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1213067&highlight=sapir#post1213067), and here (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1044024&highlight=sapir#post1044024), as well as the interesting case of certain Amazonian Indian languages (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1278847&highlight=Amazon#post1278847[URL=)

cooltouch
06-16-2007, 02:56 AM
Something kinda told me that would be the case. A number of the folks posting in this thread seem to have a good handle on linguistics.

Best,

Michael

ColoradoGuy
06-16-2007, 03:01 AM
A number of the folks posting in this thread seem to have a good handle on linguistics.
That really wouldn't include me, but we are always looking for anyone with interest and knowledge. So start a thread about your favorite linguistic fetish.

aruna
06-16-2007, 09:42 AM
Ah see, my experiences were with Tamil. But it's interesting that your experiences with Hindi aren't the same as some other people I know.



Ha, happens to me too. Sometimes I remember the Hindi word, and I don't speak Hindi at all.



.

Shweta, I had no idea that Tamil was your first language! Since my second home is Tamil Nadu, I've been immersed in this language from time to time for at least thirty years, and know many Tamil-speakers. But I never once had the urge to learn it, beyond a few key words and sentences. I just don;t like the sound of it; it sounds rough, loud, untamed. Though I understand it is in fact a beautiful, diffentiated language and extremnely difficult to learn.

Hindi, on the other hand, has always fascniated me. I just love the sound of it and sometimes I almost think I can understand it. I've made several attempts to learn it - using tapes, watching movies with subtitles, learning Hindi songs off by heart. I get quite weak when I hear Hindi-speakers - I just love it - and one day I definitely learn it.

At the moment I am moving back and forth between germany and England quite frequently and note a distint difference simply through walking throuh the airport and hearing the language. There is a cool levelness to German - the very sound of it - which immediately puts me in a different mode.

As for the familiar and formal pronouns in Germany: these are indicative of the German need for distance. It goes along with their habit of leeping up the person;s title even after years of aquaintanceship. Though we have lived inthis house for 10 years, our neighbours are still Herr and Frau soandso, and naturally we use the formal Sie. One has to be very close friends - (or young 20 year olds together, for instance) to use the Du.

My mother-in-law calls me by my first name but uses the formal Sie. We are only just starting to build a relationship, so that may change,. Once, on the phone, she forgot and addressed me as Du - I was quite pleased, as she is a difficult woman and I am steadily courting her!

A compromise is to use first names with Du. For instance, on some game shows the presenter will use the contestant's first name, but address them formally. Definitely, though, distance is maintained in German through these pronouns and titles, and I notice what a difference it makes. I would not dream of addressing my bank manager in Germany by his forename; in England it's normal.

aruna
06-18-2007, 09:01 AM
Developing from my last comments about how the formal "Sie" helps keep a distance, I am wondering if this is the reason why, compared to the English for example, the Germans can be so downright rude to strangers? They like to call it directness, but sometimes I am really left speechless.

For instance: a few weeks ago, my dog strayed. He almost NEVER does this. And I hadn't realised he was gone. Then I get a call from a lady a few houses down, a lady I had never seen in my life (at least, not knowing who she is). She said my dog had been in hger garden and if that happens another time she's going to cal the police.

I mean, hello? If someone's dog turned up in my garden and I had the person's phone number I;d cal them up, inform them, tel them I'd keep the dog safe till they pick him up.

And then there's a little ongoing research I've been doing over the past few years: if you bump into someone in England, say in the street, or in the supernarket, they wil INVARIABLY apologize. Even if it's obviously your fault. Just the other day I stepped backwards into a lady in Tesco's, and immediately it came: oh, sorry!

If you bump into someone in Germany it's usually "look where you're going!"

There are many other examples - including the fact that a few years ago, at the check-out counters at supermarkets, the cashiers suddenly staretd smiling at customers and saying goodday and goodbye and have a nice weekend. It really happened overnight - some Englis- speaking friends of mine and I had a good laugh about it the other day. We think they had all undergone some kind of politeness training.

So again, the question is: does the language - keeping a distance through words - affect the culture or does the culture influence language?

talkwrite
06-18-2007, 07:13 PM
So again, the question is: does the language - keeping a distance through words - affect the culture or does the culture influence language?

Excellent question. Chinese have few exclamatory expressions compared to American English. Such as Wow, oooh awesome etc. A cultural affectation. After taking a group of Chinese consuls on a tour of a historical town along with some American tourists I noticed the Chinese imitating the Americans expressing admiration ("oohing and ahhing" ) I was later asked to teach the consuls as many expressions as possible. They tried to offer up equivalents- a frustrating task. BUT their nature was equally as complimentary and friendly as the Americans .
So I have seen both culture be reflected in language and language influence culture.

ColoradoGuy
06-18-2007, 08:17 PM
Developing from my last comments about how the formal "Sie" helps keep a distance, I am wondering if this is the reason why, compared to the English for example, the Germans can be so downright rude to strangers? They like to call it directness, but sometimes I am really left speechless.
But Spanish, and probably lots more languages I don't know about, has familiar/formal second person forms. Maybe it's something else about German culture?

English did have formal/familiar second person until the mid-seventeenth century or so before going to using the previously formal you/yours for everybody (thou/thine had been the familiar). One can speculate about what it means for a language to lose the familiar: is it safer to be formal with everyone and avoid the du/Sie issue? Does it say something about evolution of social classes in England? The mid-seventeenth century was a pretty turbulent time there.

cooltouch
06-18-2007, 08:50 PM
Excellent question. Chinese have few exclamatory expressions compared to American English. Such as Wow, oooh awesome etc. A cultural affectation.

Now, this is interesting. I'm married to a Chinese woman -- she immigrated to the US from Taiwan about 25 years ago. She speaks Mandarin Chinese (the official language of both mainland China and Taiwan), as well as Taiwanese (and English, of course). I've never really thought about the way she uses exclamatory expressions -- but then her being here for as long as she has has probably had some effect on this. I'll have to talk with her about it.

One item to keep in mind, though -- China is, in many ways, a monolithic culture, but not entirely so. Most Chinese people speak their own regional "dialects" in addition to Mandarin. And it would seem to me the regionalisms might have some effect -- even on things like exclamatory expressions. It would be a nice linguistics topic for investigation. There's a paper in there somewhere :)

One of the things I've wondered about for years -- and which I have discussed with my wife -- is how do Chinese convey sarcasm in their speech? For those of you who are not familiar, Chinese, like many other Asian (and some non-Asian) languages, uses tones, which are phonemic. Mandarin has four tones.

In English, sarcasm amounts to reversing the meaning of a statement through altering the tonal delivery of the statement. Think of your breakfast danish slipping out of your fingers and landing face-down on the floor, at which point you might say to yourself, "Isn't that just great!" Now, think of how you've changed the tone of your voice when you expressed this.

So, I was curious how Chinese folks can express sarcasm without affecting the tones (and thereby the meaning) of their statements. As I mentioned above, in English we use sarcasm to reverse the meaning of a statement. But in Chinese, you start playing around with tones, you don't reverse the meaning. You'll change it into gibberish. For example, get the tone wrong for 'mother' and you can wind up saying 'horse' or 'scold'.

Well, when I put the question to my wife, she just said, "I don't know." I asked, "You do have sarcasm, don't you?" She replied that they did indeed. So how do you express it, I asked again. She clearly had to think about it. And she even gave me an example or two. Well, the nearest I could describe it was, even though the four fundamental tones were not affected, she was able to overlay additional colorations to her speech to indicate the sarcasm. I could hear the difference, but I found it very difficult to duplicate. (I confess, I am not a very good speaker of Chinese, even though I do try).

So anyway, to sum up that little anecdote within the ongoing topic, I guess I'd have to say that some languages are quite adaptive at meeting a cultural need, even if they would appear to be incapable, or inflexible, at a cursory glance. IOW, in this case, it would appear to be one of culture influencing language.

Best,

Michael

cooltouch
06-18-2007, 09:28 PM
I honestly do not believe that the "rudeness" vs. "politeness" issue is a language phenomenon. I believe this is entirely cultural.

I've heard of the abruptness of the Germans, but not to the extent that has been indicated here. I've never been to France, but I've heard from a number of folks that the Parisians were some of the rudest people they ever met. And the US's own New York City is well known for the abrasiveness of many of its native residents. Down here in Texas, us good ol' boys aren't known for our political correctness. There do not appear to be any significant language factors involved here.

I've been to Taiwan and Japan, and the cultural differences are vast. The Japanese, as a society, have to be the most polite people I have ever met. However, although it is fairly well hidden, there is often an animosity toward outsiders -- especially among the elder generation. In a personal or casual setting, they still tend to be rather formal, especially toward outsiders. The Taiwanese are not nearly as polite. They are much more like Americans in this regard. They, especially the younger generations, tend to be informal and casual, and while not rude in a formal or business setting (say I'm being waited on in a store), the service is often minimal. But the Taiwanese people, in a more informal setting, tend to be a fun-loving bunch. They enjoy having a good time, and are inveterate partiers, I've come to believe.

Now, one may point to the layering of formality that is intrinsic to the Japanese language. But I tend to say, "So what?" The different levels of formality available in the Japanese language have come about because of a cultural requirement, it seems to me. You know, it is possible to speak in a very crude and unrefined way in Japanese -- but you won't learn how to do so in any language class. You'd have to hang out on the streets with the "young toughs" who speak that way to pick it up. Once again, this uncouth manner of speaking has come about because a social element has demanded it. Or so it seems to me.

Once these layers have been established, can it be argued that language influences culture in Japan? I believe it can, to the extent that the language sort of reinforces the societal status quo. It delineates and defines the options available for speech, forcing the speaker to choose. What happens more often than not is that the speaker will usually choose a particular level of politeness based on their position within the group. But the fact that the group itself is, for the most part, polite instead of rude, is a matter of culture and not language, I would have to argue.

Best,

Michael

ColoradoGuy
06-18-2007, 09:54 PM
I honestly do not believe that the "rudeness" vs. "politeness" issue is a language phenomenon. I believe this is entirely cultural.
But can culture ever be entirely divorced from the language embedded in it?

cooltouch
06-18-2007, 10:38 PM
No, of course not. It's just that I see culture as being the determinant here, not language. That is, I haven't seen clear evidence (yet) that would cause me to believe otherwise. I'm open to the possibility, though. As I mentioned previously, it seems to me that language acts more as a reinforcement factor in this case, and not the cause. Based on my own observations and encounters, and the observations of others, this just seems to be more of a cultural issue.

Best,

Michael

Dawnstorm
06-19-2007, 12:55 AM
Hi, this is probably going to be a long post, so I'll tackle the less abstract things first.

1. Piraha:

I haven't followed the discussion too closely, but I'm aware of it. Language Log has plenty of entries. This one (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004387.html) has a link to Everett's article (which I've downloaded, but not yet read). This one (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004592.html) puts the Everett vs. Chomskian Linguists into perspective (apparantly blown out of proportion by the media). Here's (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/moveabletype/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=2&search=Piraha) the search results for "Piraha" on language log. If you're really interested, you can click through them.

2. German and capitalisation:

I'm Austrian; my mother tongue is German. When I first leaned English, I had no problem with the idea to only capitalise proper nouns. I didn't realise this conferred special significance on proper nouns until I came across "[word] with a capital [letter]" phrases. (And reading Terry Pratchett really drove the concept home, with Death speaking in all CAPITALS.)

The concept of special importance conveyed through capitalisation does exist in German, with the pronouns also mentioned: "Du" and "Sie".

When I was a child (born '71) I was still taught to capitalise both "Du" (you - informal) and "Sie" (you - formal). I never did it at all, and none of the letters I received did it, though I have a hunch that capitalised "Du" was somewhat more common in letters than, say, in dialogue (but I'd have to verify that).

"Sie" (formal you) I have always capitalised without a second thought. It's one of things you do, like shining your shoes, or shaving extra carefully. It's about the situation, not about the addressee.

So from the perspective of a native speaker I would hypothesise that capitalisation does not really mark importance in German, and phrases such as: "That's funny with a capital F," are quite hard to translate (though the words themselves are not). If I were the translator, I might keep the wording as cross-cultural reference; I'd have to look and see how such lines have been translated in the past.

3. First name + "Sie"; politeness rules


My mother-in-law calls me by my first name but uses the formal Sie. We are only just starting to build a relationship, so that may change,. Once, on the phone, she forgot and addressed me as Du - I was quite pleased, as she is a difficult woman and I am steadily courting her!

This is very interesting to me. I've heard the reverse ("Herr X" + "Du"), in places where "Sie" is quite rare (rural areas, or places further up the mountains, I think, but don't quote me on that [or if you quote me include the quote on not quoting me {sorry}]).

I know of "first name + Sie" only from dubbed American movies, where I always thought it was a sign of translators struggling with foreign politeness structures. (As Aruna notes, using first names is a much stronger indicator of "closeness" in German than it is in other languages.)

An example: Cop movies. Old partner dies. Cop gets new partners. They use first names from the get go, but grow closer in the course of the movie. For a German translator, this is an awkward situation. Their more reserved behaviour in the beginning doesn't support "Du" (and until Aruna's post I thought it wouldn't support "first names" either); their more familiar behaviour near the end doesn't support "Sie". Yet, a change in pronoun isn't really viable, either, because this is usually accompanied by a ritualised and mutual decision to switch from "Sie" to "Du". A study how this is handled in actual movies would be interesting.

3. language = culture

I tried typing about this, but I got helplessly confused. In a nutshell: Where people live togehter, regularities occur in their behaviour. These regularities are "cultural" to the extent that they could have been different. Therefore the differences between languages could be viewed as differences in cultures.

The confusing thing is that a "culture" is not a thing. We grow up within one (and partake in sub-cultures, and visit in alien cultures...); but we don't interact with "a culture", we interact with other people who have pretty much the same fuzzy idea of what "their culture" is (unless, of course, their idea of "culture" is different, heh). "Culture" exists only in our heads, and yet it predates and trancends us.

I think of things as "centralised existance", and of "culture"/"language" etc. as "decentralised existance". But thinking about this gives me a head-ache.

talkwrite
06-23-2007, 12:53 AM
But can culture ever be entirely divorced from the language embedded in it?

I will prove up a yes, in response to that question based on culture out-living usage: Thee and thou were simply standard ways of addressing anyone. Try using it today-even if only in your mind and it will conjure up a higher level of respect.
Then to argue with myself ( everyone else has today so I will beat the next one in line to the punch) the Amish that I have met and spoken to still use these terms.
And their culture is based on common courtesy.
May thou-all haveth a good weekend
Southern style.

ColoradoGuy
06-23-2007, 02:07 AM
. . .the Amish that I have met and spoken to still use these terms.
And their culture is based on common courtesy.
May thou-all haveth a good weekend
Southern style.
Old Quakers also use those terms, which they call "plain speech." They're usually pretty curteous, too.

Interestingly, however, Quaker usage often morphed the accusative thee into the nominative thou, so one would say "may thee have a good weekend."

cooltouch
06-23-2007, 02:34 AM
I will prove up a yes, in response to that question based on culture out-living usage: Thee and thou were simply standard ways of addressing anyone. Try using it today-even if only in your mind and it will conjure up a higher level of respect.

Yup, but what I find fascinating about the old usage is that "thou/thee" was the informal/familiar, while "you" was the formal term. Yet, most Americans (dunno about the Brits or other native English speakers), when they hear this, they automatically assume it to be more formal. I suspect this is because of its frequent usage in the King James version of the Bible, which is an object of high respect for a great number of English speaking people. Thus, the formality became reversed as the old usage fell into disuse.

Best,

Michael

cooltouch
06-23-2007, 02:37 AM
Interestingly, however, Quaker usage often morphed the accusative thee into the nominative thou, so one would say "may thee have a good weekend."

So us moderns aren't the only ones to get their nominative and accusative cases mixed up, eh? Makes me feel a little better.

(anybody catch my case error?)

Best,

Michael

Shweta
06-23-2007, 03:05 AM
Case systems are appearing and disappearing and morphing in languages all over, anywhere we look at the historical data. While this happens, people get them "wrong" :)

Medievalist
06-30-2007, 09:41 PM
There's an interesting article in the June 30, 2007 issue of The New Yorker on Piraha; you can find it here (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_colapinto?currentPage=all).

maxmordon
10-23-2007, 02:34 AM
This thread was waiting for me, a gem in fron of my eyes without noticed it!



I'm fascinated by the fact that there is vocabulary in some languages for abstracts, with no corresponding vocabulary in other languages. That's just...remarkable.

It's really quite fascinating; according to an international poll, the hardest word to translate is an African word describing a man that accepts the first blow, holds the second one and attacks after the third one

I was talking yesterday with this British girl about the diference between "Conocer" and "Saber" , both are verbs whom meanings are "To Know" sometimes they aren't interchangables. "Conocer" has more about expirience and discovery (also used in Spanish for "to meet") while "Saber" in my opinion is more about theory



Do you want something that will blow your mind? Uqbar, Tlön, Tertius Orbis. In this, a fictional civilization has a language with no nouns! because its navites doubt about the existence of reality itself

ColoradoGuy
10-23-2007, 02:47 AM
This thread was waiting for me, a gem in fron of my eyes without noticed it!
The best place to hide something is in plain sight.

Shweta
10-23-2007, 03:18 AM
It's really quite fascinating; according to an international poll, the hardest word to translate is an African word describing a man that accepts the first blow, holds the second one and attacks after the third one

Seems like you just did, though, if not in one word.
At that, try translating "snicker" :)


I was talking yesterday with this British girl about the diference between "Conocer" and "Saber" , both are verbs whom meanings are "To Know" sometimes they aren't interchangables. "Conocer" has more about expirience and discovery (also used in Spanish for "to meet") while "Saber" in my opinion is more about theory

This is a traditional distinction in a lot of European languages; English just lost it.

Connaitre/Savoir in French
Ken/Wat in Scots; similar to older English but I'm not sure of spelling in older English. Maybe ken/wot?
Kennen/Weten in Dutch

etc.


Do you want something that will blow your mind? Uqbar, Tlön, Tertius Orbis. In this, a fictional civilization has a language with no nouns! because its navites doubt about the existence of reality itself

There's (was?) a real language that has(had) no nouns. Penobscot.
The speakers did not doubt the existence of realtiy, as far as we know, though.

maxmordon
10-23-2007, 03:47 AM
There's (was?) a real language that has(had) no nouns. Penobscot.
The speakers did not doubt the existence of realtiy, as far as we know, though.

Sounds interesting and intriguing


My aunt is a translator and she agrees with that quote of Borges that says is impossible to translate something without losing something there. That the nap you take is not the same that our siesta, for example

ColoradoGuy
10-23-2007, 03:49 AM
There's (was?) a real language that has(had) no nouns. Penobscot.
The speakers did not doubt the existence of realtiy, as far as we know, though.
That's amazing. Got a link? I'd love to read more.

Shweta
10-23-2007, 04:20 AM
Umm I could look, but I only really know because I have a friend who did a dissertation on it and babbled a lot :)

ColoradoGuy
10-23-2007, 04:27 AM
Nah--I'll Google. I just thought you might have something handy.

Higgins
10-23-2007, 08:02 PM
Nah--I'll Google. I just thought you might have something handy.


Languages may not have nouns as isolatable gramatical elements, but the idea of a object and a designation for it are there. I checked on the rumors of some Northern California indian language that "had no nouns" a few years ago and what I found was that (at least in the examples I saw) you just never had nouns that did not have a verbal suffix of some kind so a house was always at the very least "housing" in some location. By the same token you could say that Navajo has no verbs because there is always a pronoun structure embedded in the verb (with the usual third person singular null-form thing, but close) and that would be a bit misleading since the non-verbal verbal structures are very elaborate and act like verbs in the usual SOV sentence structure. Here's a little item I found while googling around:

http://scholarpedia.org/article/Language

maxmordon
10-24-2007, 02:26 AM
Article of Wikipedia about Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

One of the imagined languages of Tlön lacks nouns. Its central units are "impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs." Borges offers us, for what would be our own "The moon rose above the water" a Tlönic equivalent: hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, meaning literally "Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned."

Higgins
10-24-2007, 04:27 AM
Article of Wikipedia about Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

One of the imagined languages of Tlön lacks nouns. Its central units are "impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs." Borges offers us, for what would be our own "The moon rose above the water" a Tlönic equivalent: hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, meaning literally "Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned."

O come on. "outstreaming" is a noun. The outstreaming. Definite article and a word that just happens to have a -ing ending, a gerund, a noun built out of a verb. How about "Its singing scared her." Is singing a noun? Yep.

And what about "It mooned"? the whole thing would not function as a noun phrase in English anyway. In fact except for the fact that "to moon" is already taken as a verb in coloquial English...the whole "literal" translation is just plain English. Which I guess was Spanish in Borges originally.

Medievalist
10-24-2007, 05:51 AM
A gerund is not a noun Sokal; not really.

Shweta
10-24-2007, 06:02 AM
Even if it was (even to the extent it is) that just means this sentence cannot be translated into English without nouns.
Which... proves what, exactly?

Higgins
10-24-2007, 07:23 AM
A gerund is not a noun Sokal; not really.


Even if it was (even to the extent it is) that just means this sentence cannot be translated into English without nouns.
Which... proves what, exactly?

That all languages have something that functions like nouns. After all if gerunds aren't nouns then you can have English sentences without nouns or pronouns.
Or just verbs in the imperative.

I think the "languages without nouns" idea either calls for a lot of grammatical work on sentences that appear not to have subjects and objects or suggests that the idea of a noun is a bit too confined to be of much use. However, I think the grammatical ground has in fact been covered and all languages have something that operates like a noun in its sentences.

Shweta
10-24-2007, 09:26 AM
..But why do you think that, beyond the fact that you're assuming that all languages must have nouns?

This is a universalist's argument, and a lot of such arguments seem entirely circular.

aruna
10-24-2007, 10:46 AM
This is a traditional distinction in a lot of European languages; English just lost it.

Connaitre/Savoir in French
Ken/Wat in Scots; similar to older English but I'm not sure of spelling in older English. Maybe ken/wot?
Kennen/Weten in Dutch



Kennen/Wissen in German.

Re languages without nouns:

Come to think of it, I know some Sanskrit, but not one word for a "thing", maybe because in that culture too, our releality is only relative; all things, they believe are made of the same "stuff", or energy. Sanskrit has many unstranslatable words; it is the most abstract language I know, much of it having to do with consciousness and states of consciousness.

Higgins
10-24-2007, 04:41 PM
..But why do you think that, beyond the fact that you're assuming that all languages must have nouns?

This is a universalist's argument, and a lot of such arguments seem entirely circular.

Obviously I can't cover the topic in a few paragraphs, but think about this: it is possible to analyze the grammar of lots of languages and in fact that analysis has been done. The results seem to be that there are noun-like structures in all languages since all languages have subjects and objects and verbs. Clearly since even in English you can construct good sentences without using nouns or pronouns (and let's accept the idea that a gerund is not really a noun, it just has many grammatical features of a noun) the idea of a noun is a matter of grammatical structure: sometimes its there as a pure noun and sometimes its there as some other construct, but you still have subjects and objects so you still have nounlike constructs. I would say you could take that analysis a lot further and go in to ideas of location and motion and relative position...but subject and object cover the basic aspects of sentence structure.

Higgins
10-24-2007, 04:44 PM
Kennen/Wissen in German.

Re languages without nouns:

Come to think of it, I know some Sanskrit, but not one word for a "thing", maybe because in that culture too, our releality is only relative; all things, they believe are made of the same "stuff", or energy. Sanskrit has many unstranslatable words; it is the most abstract language I know, much of it having to do with consciousness and states of consciousness.

Yes, Sanskrit has absolutely classic nouns. It has a case structure like any early Indoeuropean language. Ie case as in the Latin accusative, nominative, ablative, genative, locative, dative, vocative, which only works on nouns or the parts of verbs that are being used in a nounlike way.

Medievalist
10-24-2007, 06:01 PM
Kennen/Wissen in German.

Re languages without nouns:

Come to think of it, I know some Sanskrit, but not one word for a "thing", maybe because in that culture too, our releality is only relative; all things, they believe are made of the same "stuff", or energy. Sanskrit has many unstranslatable words; it is the most abstract language I know, much of it having to do with consciousness and states of consciousness.

The "thing" word in Sanskrit is an affix, a particle, which "thing" used to be in English--it is, in fact, an I.E. marker trait.

Medievalist
10-24-2007, 06:02 PM
Yes, Sanskrit has absolutely classic nouns. It has a case structure like any early Indoeuropean language. Ie case as in the Latin accusative, nominative, ablative, genative, locative, dative, vocative, which only works on nouns or the parts of verbs that are being used in a nounlike way.

Well, no, not exactly; it's got what, four additional cases, plus the so-called infix cases.

Higgins
10-24-2007, 06:05 PM
Well, no, not exactly; it's got what, four additional cases, plus the so-called infix cases.

Yes...lots of interesting cases in the declensions, but anything with a declension is very much like a noun.

Medievalist
10-24-2007, 06:06 PM
This is a traditional distinction in a lot of European languages; English just lost it.

Connaitre/Savoir in French
Ken/Wat in Scots; similar to older English but I'm not sure of spelling in older English. Maybe ken/wot?
Kennen/Weten in Dutch.

We did not!! :D English doesn't lose words, she just hides em.

Wit in Modern English is the cognate of weten in Dutch. It's from Old English witan, and part of the *I. E. weid (http://www.bartleby.com/61/roots/IE556.html)- complex, which also gives us video and wise. It's the see/know group.

ETA: I think, possibly savoir is cognate with English see, via I.E. * sek (http://www.bartleby.com/61/roots/IE448.html)- I've packed Pokorny already, so can't check, but ...

Shweta
10-24-2007, 11:22 PM
I'm pretty sure it is, Lisa.

And that's real semantic change -- I'd say in the original sense, we did lose 'em :)

LaceWing
12-14-2007, 01:49 PM
Red Words

Shweta and others, but mostly Schweta -

I had myself a high ol' time tonight reading this thread and much of that long thread recovered from google's cache. Thank you, thank you.

My only formal training that is semi-relevant consists of undergrad courses -- Philosophy in Literature and Philosophy of Language. No linguistics except incidentals. I do read the subject when it's accessible (I hate looking up techie language). So, I really appreciate the efforts you (all) have made to share your knowledge.

Okay, Red Words. I had a little aha! while reading. Colors reveal their qualities and ephemerality most strongly in contrast to each other. Think optical illusions involving color. We can make red redder placing it with green, blue with yellow. And I'm sure the rods and cones can explain how this works.

What interests me are the non-technical cultures who use light+warm or dark+cool words only. Because natural light in a non-tech environment changes throughout the day, they may think of color being primarily relational and ephemeral. It is not a constant thing or quality, and so it gets short shrift in the naming effort.

On the other hand, tech cultures with artificial daylight available and understood as the default setting for everying will think differently about color. Colors are grokked as constant things and therefore deserving of Names.

Maybe this was brought up farther downthread than I read. If so, oh well. If not, got comments?

Shweta
12-14-2007, 08:21 PM
Interesting thoughts, Lace Wing. I'm not sure how much the quality of light affects our color terms, partly because the visual system's really good at coping with different types of light -- but it might well play a part.

One thing that (I'm almost certain) does affect the number of basic color terms is how many artificial dyes a culture has. And that depends on the tech level.

Because if, for example, there's only one thing in your world that is a particular color (e.g. sky-blue, lavender, mustard...) then you don't really need another name for the color. You just use the thing's name. But if you can artificially make a color, you suddenly have a thing that is (for example) YELLOW that isn't actually mustard, or turmeric, or buttercups. And so more specific color terms become useful, and end up entering the language.

But as with any discussion of basic color terms, it's really really important to be clear: people who speak the languages that have very few basic color terms (e.g. light-warm and dark-cool) do not name everything light-warm or dark-cool. They'd say grass is grass-colored, and the sky is sky-colored, and so forth. They just don't have specific, abstract color terms (like "green").

robeiae
12-14-2007, 09:37 PM
This explains platinum blonds...

LaceWing
12-15-2007, 01:00 AM
Shweta, thanks for the clarification. Makes excellent sense.

ColoradoGuy
12-15-2007, 01:32 AM
Red Words

Shweta and others, but mostly Schweta -

I had myself a high ol' time tonight reading this thread and much of that long thread recovered from google's cache. Thank you, thank you.
We have a small, but dedicated group of language junkies who drop by.

Dustry Joe
12-30-2007, 10:16 AM
Spanish has a word for "lend" but not "borrow".

A question I have asked in articles about Mexican slang is: what would you predict for a culture that speaks a language in which the word for "cool" is the same as "father" and the word for "mother" is a slur that can't be printed in a newspaper?

Shweta
12-30-2007, 02:16 PM
I wouldn't, without knowing the history that linked those words :)

Dustry Joe
12-30-2007, 06:55 PM
Oh, I don't think you have to know much history to draw conclusions on something like that.
It's kind of like, if a culture uses the words "woman", "bitch" and "ho" interchangeably, then it's probably not a good idea to date or marry into that culture.

Shweta
12-31-2007, 12:54 AM
That, sure. But the obscene meaning of "mother" could come from something like "mother of an <obscenity>" or something like mother f**er -- if it's a shortening, you could get a nasty meaning of a perfectly good word without a direct link.

For example, "Yo mama" is an insult because of a set of insults starting with that. It's insulting because the recipient is expected to feel defensive about his/her mother, not because the existence of a mother is insulting.

In Hindi you can use "Ma" to mean "Divine mother goddess". That does not mean Indian culture is a great one for a woman to marry into.

So I'd hesitate to make strong conclusions without some idea of context. Generalizing without context is a great way to end up utterly wrong.

maxmordon
01-06-2008, 09:10 PM
Following Dusty Joe's logic is plain dumb; this is like saying people who speak English are automatically ugly or don't appreacte beauty because Spanish language has more words to define beauty

Shweta
01-07-2008, 01:40 AM
No, that's not quite what he's saying.

It's not about how many words there are, but how they are used.

For example, if a language used the word for "ugly" to also mean "wise", you could maybe make a generalization about how its concepts of wisdom relate to its concepts of beauty . That's what he's saying.

I'm saying that's sometimes true, but that you also have to look at history and social context. Words don't exist in isolation.

As far as I can tell, he's not saying anything about how this affects how people actually are, just how they think about things; and he's not saying anything about number of words.

Keyan
03-14-2008, 10:52 PM
I offer you "sala" - the hindi word for brother-in-law, and also an insult used much the same way as "bastard" in spoken English...

Craig Gosse
03-14-2008, 11:04 PM
my persona changes when i switch to another language -- friends who've watched me have told me so, often chuckling.

Likewise; but, the same also happens when I switch 'voices'. In this particular case, however, I *can* speak to 'cause and effect': Writing or speaking, my mannerisms change to reflect to 'voice' I am using because I have put myself into another persona; without having done so, I couldn't be using that persona's 'voice'.

On another note: I'm an informal student of history, and I find this thread amazingly interesting. I'm practically bursting with things to say - but, having seen the effect of posting overly-long posts in another thread, I'll confine myself to one-at-a-time observations. this time, I would just like to note:

English, as a generalization, is German spoken with a French accent, and French spoken with a German accent, with some Latin and Greek thrown in for 'technical' matters. (Actually, originally philosophical and/or theological.)

As such, we have a hidden 'caste' system, rising and falling, within English, coming from this linguistic duality. As an example:

While still on the hoof in a (Saxon) peasant's holding, it's a 'cow' - from the German 'kuh'. When prepared and ready for the (Norman) table, it's 'beef' - from the French 'boeuf'.

Craig Gosse
03-14-2008, 11:19 PM
...I am wondering if this is the reason why, compared to the English for example, the Germans can be so downright rude to strangers...?

Unfortunately, this is very difficult to theorize upon, because of other, unavoidable factors that come into play.

Both Canada and the U.S. are 'young' nations - we've still got plenty of 'elbow room'. On the other hand, European cities not only tend to a high population density, but have done so for centuries longer than their North American counterparts. In order to achieve a sort of 'psychological privacy', there tends to be a habit to build emotional, rather than physical, barriers. (The same is becoming steadily more noticeable in North American cities, as well.)

This, itself, however, is a question-begging phenomenon regarding cause-and-effect; something easily seen if you compare the same situation in Eastern cultures as opposed to Western ones.

Even then, it's hardly a simple, set-piece situation.... or am I the only one who has noticed that island nations, (e.g., Britain, Japan), tend to be more polite than nearby mainland neighbors?

Shweta
03-15-2008, 04:48 AM
Even then, it's hardly a simple, set-piece situation.... or am I the only one who has noticed that island nations, (e.g., Britain, Japan), tend to be more polite than nearby mainland neighbors?

And I'm not sure it's this simple either. German people and Dutch people are often much more brusque than English people, but I've certainly dealt with much ruder behavior from the English people I didn't know.

Part of it is -- rudeness is a function of two people. The person who says/does something, and the person who finds it rude. When you hit a cross-cultural situation, that gets pretty complicated.

So for example, a British MP can say "The honorable gentleman" and make it a dire insult. But it's only going to be taken that way if you understand the cultural context though; a foreign visitor might well think "Oh how polite". When in fact it is formal but not polite.

Similarly you can deliver a dire insult in Japan by your choice of register. Which English speakers are likely to miss entirely.

On the other hand, it's easy to take brusqueness as rudeness if you come from a culture (like the US) where you're supposed to smile and tell people to have-a-nice-day.

ColoradoGuy
03-15-2008, 05:47 AM
This, itself, however, is a question-begging phenomenon regarding cause-and-effect; something easily seen if you compare the same situation in Eastern cultures as opposed to Western ones.
Slightly off topic--I find it oddly annoying to hear "begging the question" used incorrectly. TV pundits do it constantly. I know I should be more tolerate of this new language development, but I'm not. So it's refreshing to read you using it in the correct sense. Thanks for that.

robeiae
03-15-2008, 06:10 AM
Nice strawman argument, ColoradoGuy.

ColoradoGuy
03-15-2008, 06:42 AM
Nice strawman argument, ColoradoGuy.
The first two lines were a tease.

matt_the_cook
03-19-2008, 08:48 AM
In Urdu there really isn't a convenient word for 'please'. When asking for something Urdu speakers just use a more formal verb form, which has no equivalent in English. As a result of this which Pakistanis and Indians immigrate to English-speaking countries they often have a few extra problems making relationships. Since they don't use they word 'please' naturally they often don't use it at all, and then they are seen as rude.

ColoradoGuy
03-19-2008, 08:55 AM
Interesting, Matt, and welcome. Does that situation apply in written as well as spoken Urdu?

matt_the_cook
03-19-2008, 12:11 PM
Thanks for the welcome, and yes it does. Some people, in order to be as polite as possible, might add a bit of an awkward phrase on their request that means 'in doing kindness', but generally they just change the verb form. There are three ways of saying any given imperative. Formal, moderate, and familiar. So when they want to be nice they just use the formal.

maxmordon
03-19-2008, 10:46 PM
The Spanish word fro "Scabbard" became in Venezuelan Spanish a synonym for a woman's genitallia and the Spanish word for Main-mast or Crow's Nest became a vulgar way to call male genitallia

Also "Pendejo" which is the Spanish word to define both: pubic and anal hair, is quite used in Latin America like people in US use Dumbass

DamaNegra
03-25-2008, 06:18 AM
A question I have asked in articles about Mexican slang is: what would you predict for a culture that speaks a language in which the word for "cool" is the same as "father" and the word for "mother" is a slur that can't be printed in a newspaper?

I have trouble understanding this question. Our use of the word "mother" and "father" somehow makes us less as a culture?

And I think you're confusing mama with mamá here, unless I'm mistaken. If you don't want to use the slur in public, PM me with what you think it is.

maxmordon
03-26-2008, 10:31 PM
I have trouble understanding this question. Our use of the word "mother" and "father" somehow makes us less as a culture?

And I think you're confusing mama with mamá here, unless I'm mistaken. If you don't want to use the slur in public, PM me with what you think it is.

I think he was refering with "Qué madres" or "Te voy a madrear" and such. I am not sure, but I found offensive he thinks this make us less of a culture

ColoradoGuy
03-26-2008, 11:15 PM
Conclusions about a current culture based upon its language seem tricky to me, although it may tell you something about the history of that culture as the language evolves. I don't know much Spanish, but, for example, the American English usage of he/him/man as the default third person is changing to more gender-neutral terms.

Ken
03-27-2008, 12:26 AM
Insight into a culture or epoch might also be obtained by noting specific words that are avoided in conversing, as the ones Colorado pointed out, like he/him/man. So cultural linguists not only have to study what people say, but also what they don't say, which can become very difficult, after certain words have been out of circulation for awhile and become extinct. In truth though, they haunt language and continue to have an impact on it, from behind the scenes.

Just a hypothesis, in attempt to add something to this interesting discussion.
Plz don't grill me on it. ;)

Ruv Draba
03-27-2008, 06:01 AM
Conclusions about a current culture based upon its language seem tricky to me, although it may tell you something about the history of that culture as the language evolves.It seems more than tricky to me CG. It seems as fraught with bias and misconception as judging someone's values by looking at a bag of clothing they give to charity. It also enshrines the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapir%E2%80%93Whorf_hypothesis) as ideology, rather than testing its limits as an hypothesis.

Most of the lexicon we use, we inherit. But we don't necessarily inherit the meanings, values or associations that went into the original etymology of the word. Even the associations of a word may be fluid, shifting generationally -- for instance the use of the words 'sick' or 'wicked' amoung young English speakers today.

If we want to understand comparative cultural values, I don't think we can safely stay blinkered with etymology or lexicography. Cultural values reside most clearly in intention, interpretation and behaviour. Language floats over the top of these; sometimes reinforcing them; sometimes propagating them and sometimes they change without the lexicon changing much at all.

Shweta
03-27-2008, 06:04 AM
Not disagreeing with anyone here (I know, how weird!) but just wanted to throw in a little extra information. It's pretty well-known in linguistics that there's a big difference between "open-class" words and "closed-class" words.

Open-class words are things like nouns. A language is always adding new ones. What exists or doesn't exist doesn't tell us much about how people are thinking, or about their culture. Even if it was true that some group had 50 words for snow, that wouldn't tell us anything too interesting (English-speaking skiers have a lot of words for snow too; nouns are open-class).

Closed-class terms, like for example prepositions in English, or pronouns, tell us much more about the cognitive/cultural underpinnings of a language.


Ruv -- I may need to hunt up my other thread for details, but just to note -- there's been a lot of testing of Sapir-Whorf, and a great deal of evidence in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and psychology that supports the weak version of the hypothesis.

Ruv Draba
03-27-2008, 07:14 AM
It's pretty well-known in linguistics that there's a big difference between "open-class" words and "closed-class" words. Thanks for an interesting distinction.


Open-class words are things like nouns. A language is always adding new ones. What exists or doesn't exist doesn't tell us much about how people are thinking, or about their culture
Yes, especially since concepts can be circumlocuted or described rather than named. It often happens that familiar concepts don't get their own names. For instance, there's a particular discomfort you get from having nose-hairs plucked out that's unlike any other discomfort you're likely to experience. It hurts, it makes your eyes water, and it might make you sneeze - all from one event. It's familiar to anyone who wants to experiment with tweezers, so it's a fairly universal human experience but as far as I know, nobody has given it a name. :) (How's lachrymosnuzzouch sound?)

Closed-class terms, like for example prepositions in English, or pronouns, tell us much more about the cognitive/cultural underpinnings of a language.But not about values, I would suspect - or not reliably, and not thoroughly. We can tell in English, for instance that humans (who get their own pronouns) are more important than non humans (that all get the same pronouns). We can also tell that it's important to English-speaking humans to distinguish one another by gender - because our grammar forces us to refer to individual humans by a gender pronoun -- and if we don't know someone's gender our language still forces us to either guess it, or acknowledge that we don't know. If this was unacceptable (as it's gradually becoming), we'd change it (though not easily, as we're discovering).

But does this mean that speakers of Romance languages, which more commonly use gendered pronouns for non-human objects, are more obsessed with gender, and perhaps more likely to see animals, vegetables and buildings as sex objects? And since they give many objects 'people' pronouns, does that make them animists, while English-speakers are human-supremacists? ;) It's easy to draw misleading conclusions from this stuff. It may be handy in generating speculation but I think that you really need behavioural evidence or confirmation of intention to substantiate such speculation. If our Hispanic-speaking readers were getting offended by superficial analyses of some lexical subset of their language, I could well understand why. :)

Ruv -- I may need to hunt up my other thread for details, but just to note -- there's been a lot of testing of Sapir-Whorf, and a great deal of evidence in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and psychology that supports the weak version of the hypothesis.Thanks Shweta. I'd love to see a statement of the weak form and where the support lies. Meanwhile, let me blather some more from just a personal observational perspective.

We know qualitatively that choice of language influences behaviour - otherwise advertising language wouldn't work. We much prefer to be told for instance, that our car is 'prestige' rather than simply 'expensive', or that it's 'economical' rather than simply 'cheap'.

It's a huge, huge step though to suggest that language controls behaviour rather than merely influencing or reflecting it. In one glib sweep this assertion dismisses a slew of behaviours for which we don't even have language while insisting that we must think using native language in all our decision-making. Who has time to actually think out in language what they're trying to do anyway? Most of the time I'm not using written or spoken language at all in my personal decisions unless they involve some other person. It takes me conscious effort to put my observations and decisions into language at all, and I'm seldom satisfied with the results.

And I sometimes wonder too: if language controls behaviour then must speakers of new languages necessarily change their personalities as they become fluent?

In my personal experience, our values change only as we experience new values. They needn't change much at all when we learn new language unless we also learn new behaviours to which the language refers.

Japanese people for instance, have a particular style of politeness that's visible in both their behaviour and language. But if you study Japanese from a book without learning the behaviour you learn virtually none of it; you just learn grammar. But if you go to Japan and live with Japanese people, you can learn nearly all of it without ever picking up a word of Japanese. If you happen to learn the lanaguage as well, then the language forms begin to make sense, rather than simply being grammatical rules.

I'm happy to admit some weak form, Shweta - cos one weak form seems trivally true to me anyway - but I don't think that a "strong form" dog will hunt. :tongue

Shweta
03-27-2008, 07:45 AM
But does this mean that speakers of Romance languages, which more commonly use gendered pronouns for non-human objects, are more obsessed with gender, and perhaps more likely to see animals, vegetables and buildings as sex objects? And since they give many objects 'people' pronouns, does that make them animists, while English-speakers are human-supremacists? ;) It's easy to draw misleading conclusions from this stuff.

Well, for one thing, gender and sex are different.

For another, yes, there's psycholinguistic work that shows that gendered pronouns affect how people see inanimate objects. Not in the ways you're suggesting, of course, but that's just an argument against armchair theorizing. The misleading thoughts come from not knowing the data that exists.

Spanish and German speakers showed language-specific biases in
memory. Both groups remembered object-name pairs better when the
gender of the proper name given to an object was consistent with
the grammati- cal gender of the object name in their native
language (82% correct) than when the two genders were
inconsistent (74% correct), t=2.55, p<.01. Since the object names
used in this study had opposite grammatical genders in Spanish
and German, Spanish and German speakers showed opposite memory
biases -- for those objects that Spanish speakers were most
likely to remember female names, German speakers were most likely
to remember male names (and vice versa), F(1, 39)=6.21,
p<.05. These findings suggest that people’s ideas about the
genders of objects are strongly influenced by the grammatical
genders assigned to those objects in their native language.

From Boroditsky and Schmidt's paper Sex, Syntax, and Semantics (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.mit.edu%2F%7Elschmidt%2Fgramm atical_gender%2Fgender-cogsci2000.pdf&ei=NhXrR6fzH4HUpgSd2YGHAQ&usg=AFQjCNFEZ72RZnSI4WuO9HO9XoFf6eFvDg&sig2=jv5nb-VL09EuucGB-FY-OA)
In the study cited, people were all tested in English, but native Spanish and German speakers showed effects based on grammatical gender in their native language. They show other even more fun effects -- for details, see my thread linked below (push push).


It may be handy in generating speculation but I think that you really need behavioural evidence or confirmation of intention to substantiate such speculation. Yep! I have behavioural evidence. Would you like more citations? Plenty, with expanations/summaries, on this thread (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=34133), if you're willing to take the time to go through it. It has like two or three pages of Sapir-Whorf discussions. I should go back to that thread & add to it sometime, haven't been sure if anyone's interested any more, but this conversation sounds like people might be.

Medievalist
03-27-2008, 07:55 AM
But does this mean that speakers of Romance languages, which more commonly use gendered pronouns for non-human objects, are more obsessed with gender, and perhaps more likely to see animals, vegetables and buildings as sex objects? And since they give many objects 'people' pronouns, does that make them animists, while English-speakers are human-supremacists? ;)

Err.... hold on.

You're confusing sex with gender, and, as I keep reminding folk, gender is not a substitute for sex.

Gender in lingustic terms, that is the gender of nouns, for instance, has very little semantic content of the sort you are thinking of.

It has to do with internal vowel changes in the words. There are in Indo-European languages about ten "types" of nouns in terms of the internal vowel changes, and the m, f, n, 'genders' refer to the kinds of patterns and adherence to those patterns the nouns have--"weak" and "strong" are sometimes used instead of m, f, n.

The other kind of gender, the one that's increasingly subsuming linguistic concepts of gender and sound change, is a socio-psychological construct; it's in our heads, and sex is, broadly speaking, between our legs.

Shweta
03-27-2008, 08:02 AM
Gender in lingustic terms, that is the gender of nouns, for instance, has very little semantic content of the sort you are thinking of.

That's the traditional view. But there are cognitive effects of even grammatical gender. The more fun Boroditsky et al result on this is that when Spanish and German speakers were asked (in English) to describe objects that had opposite genders in their native languages, their adjective choice varied by grammatical gender in a way that very clearly patterned with sociocultural-gender-associations.

Evne though these objects have no grammatical gender in English.

Medievalist
03-27-2008, 08:39 AM
That's the traditional view. But there are cognitive effects of even grammatical gender. The more fun Boroditsky et al result on this is that when Spanish and German speakers were asked (in English) to describe objects that had opposite genders in their native languages, their adjective choice varied by grammatical gender in a way that very clearly patterned with sociocultural-gender-associations.

Evne though these objects have no grammatical gender in English.

Yeah, I read that. But that's something I see a lot with ESL students -- I'm not sure that there's only one explanation for the behavior.

Shweta
03-27-2008, 08:48 AM
Yeah, I read that. But that's something I see a lot with ESL students -- I'm not sure that there's only one explanation for the behavior.

I'm not sure Boroditsky et al even offer explanations, beyond saying there's an effect.
My guess would be that linguistics constructions that share a meaning are co-activated to some extent, and so are constructions that share a form, and it's basically a priming effect.

Judg
03-27-2008, 08:51 AM
My linguistics classes are too far behind me to be of much use in this discussion, so I hope it's OK if I throw in a couple of anecdotal observations.

I have, on occasion, had a very clear concept in my mind, but am unable to find the word in any of the languages I know. Pure abstract thought? Or just Alzheimer's? ;)

When I was first married, whenever I thought of my in-laws, I would immediately start thinking in French. Which is strange, because they're Albanian-speaking Italians. But I guess my psyche had them pegged as non-English, for which my default value was apparently French. That eventually faded away.

German has a nifty word for the excited anticipation of an upcoming trip: Reisenfieber, literally, travel fever. When I was in university, one of the German professors (an Austrian as it happens) was quite offended when I told her I wasn't getting excited yet about my upcoming summer in Germany. Did the existence of the word make it a required part of preparation for travel? I'm afraid I live too much in the present to get excited about the future; I just enjoy it when it gets here. Nobody else seemed to mind, but she seemed to think I was showing signs of being spoiled. Apparently I was supposed to be having trouble sleeping...

The older books of the Bible (in Hebrew) contain no abstract colour words; colours are depicted by devices such as blood-coloured or emerald-coloured. Apparently Hebrew did not develop words corresponding to red and green until later in its development. Interesting that it happened after the language had been written for centuries. (Please don't quote me on this. I'm dredging up un-footnoted trivia from the rummage bin of my mind.)

An important part of truly learning another language is learning the body language that goes with it. The Gallic shrug, the German head-bobbing, the bouncing Italian hands... That probably was a major component of the perceived persona shifts mentioned near the beginning of this thread. I once found myself in the company of two Germans, two French Canadians and another English Canadian. After making the standard observation that the French talked with their hands, somebody said, "But Germans talk with their heads," at which point the Germans said, "Ja, ja," while nodding vigorously, quite unaware that they were doing so. You don't lose an accent, no matter how well your mouth speaks, until the rest of your body gets with the program. I just returned from a trip to Italy. It was amazing to me that as I mangled the microscopic amount of Italian at my command (hmm, more like at my request), I seemed to become louder, more expressive, more expansive - more Italian. It was fun. Also a little strange, seeing as I've been hobnobbing with Italians for 30 years now. Somehow, being completely surrounded made a difference.

It has been argued that you don't really know a language till you can speak it when you're drunk. I contend that speaking it during childbirth is also a pretty good indicator...

I don't know how useful any of this is to the discussion, but have fun kicking it around.

Ruv Draba
03-27-2008, 10:09 AM
Well, for one thing, gender and sex are different.Please don't destroy my fun arguments with pernickety distinctions! Arguably, we care about gender primarily because we care about sex and various roles associated with procreation... therefore my (utterly spurious reductio ad absurdem) argument is right! Which means it's wrong!

There. Now I'm satisfied. (Lewis Caroll's Humpty Dumpty would understand, anyway.)



For another, yes, there's psycholinguistic work that shows that gendered pronouns affect how people see inanimate objects. Not in the ways you're suggesting, of course, but that's just an argument against armchair theorizing. Actually I was arguing against politically ideologising off flimsy and pre-selected evidence, which is nearly the same. :)


The misleading thoughts come from not knowing the data that exists.Thanks for the links, Shweta - I will read them! Meanwhile though, did I misunderstand or did your excerpt show exactly that if you think of something one way, you'll remember it better that way? Who knew!?

(Going back to being serious very soon, I promise.)

Shweta
03-27-2008, 10:53 AM
Please don't destroy my fun arguments with pernickety distinctions! Arguably, we care about gender primarily because we care about sex and various roles associated with procreation... therefore my (utterly spurious reductio ad absurdem) argument is right! Which means it's wrong!

There. Now I'm satisfied. (Lewis Caroll's Humpty Dumpty would understand, anyway.)

http://www.fishingmagic.com/members/images/21297/humpty-dumpty.gif
"I don't really get that Ruv guy..."



Thanks for the links, Shweta - I will read them! Meanwhile though, did I misunderstand or did your excerpt show exactly that if you think of something one way, you'll remember it better that way? Who knew!?

No, that's the presupposition. The excerpt shows that people who use grammatical genders do have some kind of gender effects on their understanding/conception of inanimate objects.

Ruv Draba
03-27-2008, 11:17 AM
http://www.fishingmagic.com/members/images/21297/humpty-dumpty.gif
"I don't really get that Ruv guy..."
Treacherous ovum! Damn you for a fence-sitter! :wag:



The excerpt shows that people who use grammatical genders do have some kind of gender effects on their understanding/conception of inanimate objects.I have a gravitational effect on the gold in Fort Knox, I understand. It's measurable too. But I'm not sure what import this fact has, cos even when I eatz cheezburgrz, the gold doesn't fall in my lap. :e2smack:

So you've read the references, Shweta, and I haven't yet. More than that, this is your field (whereas my degree is in Stupidology). We may not know what the import is yet, but what might it reasonably be, and why might it be that?

My personal experience is that the biggest impact on our values and behaviour comes from what we see in others. The language seems almost incidental, and more often the passenger than the driver in change. In my home of Australia we've had at least 5 significant cultural shifts in my lifetime, including a shift away from littering, toward more responsible alcohol consumption, toward safer sexual practices, away from public smoking and an emerging shift toward better water conservation. None of these has required the creation of new words, alteration of the language we use or even its semantics. Each involved heavy advertising, but it was values-, behaviour- and relationship-based rather than buzzword-based.

So... I'm reminded of my gravitic pull toward the gold in Fort Knox: sure, it may exist, but is it or might it be material and if so, why?

(That's a serious question, albeit phrased flippantly.)

Shweta
03-27-2008, 11:42 AM
Well, short form - language is a cultural and cognitive phenomenon, and there is evidence that language can affect how we think. It certainly doens't determine thought, but it can direct/focus attention, certainly.

So it's not like there is a simple cognition-causes-languages-causes-culture type connection. All these things affect one another, over time. Some cultural changes aren't reflected in or caused by language changes at all. Others are. It's not like "Thought", "Language", and "Culture" are three Completely Separate Things.

Ruv Draba
03-27-2008, 03:14 PM
Some cultural changes aren't reflected in or caused by language changes at all. Others are. It's not like "Thought", "Language", and "Culture" are three Completely Separate Things.
Thanks, S. To get back to the title question - what determines when language does or doesn't affect culture? What are the preconditions enabling or inhibiting greater influence?

Some random speculations from someone who hasn't read your links yet:

A word or phrase representing new insight that's timely, relevant and useful can induce cultural change. That insight might be an object, some quality, a new action or a new way of doing an action - so something verb-like or adverb-like. For instance, it's arguable that the appearance of the number zero in Western thought had a huge impact - it was immediately useful for practical purposes, but also helped to shape Western thought itself. Similarly, the advent of Industrial Revolution language (and their underlying concepts) offered new metaphors by which to understand our bodies - and hence changed the way we viewed our health.
A word or phrase capturing some new aspiration or dread can shape behaviour. Consider phrases such as 'Catch-22', 'Big Brother', 'Corporate Raider', 'Global warming' or 'Dot Com billionaire'. There are not just new concepts there - there are associated behaviours we might either seek or avoid.
I'm running out of ideas here. Maybe I lack imagination, or maybe there aren't many ways in which language changes culture. Any others?When is new language unlikely to create new behaviour? Idle speculation but here we go:

When the word or phrase is just a synonym for something that is already well understood. E.g 'Feedback' for 'Commentary' or 'Critique'. We've always given people commentary on their behaviour. I don't believe that calling it 'feedback' has changed what commentary we give, or how we give or receive it.
When the word or phrase proves to embody concepts that are empty, meaningless, impractical or irrelevant. 'Follicularly challenged', say - doesn't change how we think about or treat baldness. We've always had sympathetic, humorous, contemptuous and factual ways of saying that someone is bald.
When we don't like the values associated with the word or phrase - even if it's useful. As an Australian, my culture is particularly bombarded by phrases invented in the US - whose size and economy produce a lot of technological, economic and cultural innovation. Some we adopt; others only slowly accept or reject outright. We were happy to adopt the term 'Downsize' - and a set of behaviours that went with that. But we're uncomfortable about the term 'Supersize' - and I suspect that we'll actually reject it in time. There's no doubt though that excess sells here - just not as much, and not using that term.My examples all seem to have been "open class" words. I'm trying to think of some "closed class" words that may have appeared in my lifetime and drawing a blank. Not to say that there aren't any - but maybe they're more subtle and harder to find. They also don't really address idiosyncracies of language - like for instance adding a gender tag to objects that don't procreate - or removing such a tag. Does that change the way that we use or maintain the object? Does the benefit or cost of such change have any effect on whether we continue to use the tag? I dunno.

There aren't many inanimate objects in English that get gender tags, but one exception is maritime vessels. They're always 'she', and they're always associated with a lot of superstition. Are those two things linked for English-speakers? I'm guessing that they are. Does that mean that gender-tagging inanimate objects is linked to more superstitious beliefs in other cultures? I dunno. We'd have to study how things are treated to get any sort of feel.

Meanwhile, squinting at this and my earlier comments... I don't think my position has changed much. I still feel that for cultural understanding, studying language without behaviour or thought is like trying to understand psychology by looking at a bagful of discarded clothes. If we have the others to look at then I think that language can be a very useful adjunct. If we don't then I think that we might be kidding ourselves. I certainly wouldn't credit judging a culture on the linguistics of its profanities :tongue (Well, except maybe in a SF story ;))

donroc
03-27-2008, 03:17 PM
According to Arthur Koestler, language also affects our facial expressions. One of his examples was if someone emigrates to the USA from a European country, lives here for 20 years, and returns to the old country for a visit, he looks foreign to them (nothing to do with clothes or "free" attitude) because of altered facial features.

The mantra to me and my classmates in language courses always was OPEN YOUR MOUTH. It seems many of us raised speaking Americanese talk as if we are ventriloquists.

Axelle
03-27-2008, 03:20 PM
One thing I have noticed is that writing in French and writing in English does put different challenges. For instance, the use of tu/vous. In French I can make it quite obvious whether two people know each other well or not just by using "vous" or "tu". Except if it's an underling speaking to his/her boss, in which case it will probably be "vous" no matter how long they've known each other, but I digress. If I were to write the same scene in English, I would have to find a different way to show how close or not these same two people are. Of course, the reader will find out eventually, but still - using "vous" and "tu" is so much simpler...

...yeah, I know. Quite a few people won't agree with me on this :D

Another exemple related to gender this time. If I say "the secretary", I won't know whether it's a man or a woman, while if I say "le secrétaire", I'll know it's a man (as opposed to "la secrétaire").

And I think all this actually gives a lot of trouble to translators because every now and then they just don't know which form of address is appropriate. For instance, the Amelia Peabody series, by Elizabeth Peters. If you read the novels in French, you'll see that Ramsès says "vous" to his parents, while they tell him "tu". But once he's grown up, they tell him "vous" as well. That might not be a perfect exemple though, because at the end of the 19th century, people were much more formal than nowadays, so the use of "vous" was obviously required, but sometimes it's not that clear.

I don't know how relevant that is, but well.

Also, the use of idiomatic phrases. That's a nightmare for me, because quite often it's very difficult to get the accurate translation. To use the simplest exemple, if I say "to beat around the bushes" in English, I'll say "to turn around the pot" in French. So, are there more bushes in England than in France, or what ? Do the French have a fascination with pots ? Perhaps people used to talk while cooking, and so they could turn around the pot while... okay, I might be stretching it a bit ;)

Shweta
03-27-2008, 03:28 PM
[new] Closed class words don't show up very often.
That's what closed-class means. The set of words in that category is a closed one; no new members.

That's part of why it's more useful to look at two cultures than one changing culture :)

My position is pretty much the same as yours, by the way, except that I'd add that actual linguistic analysis can tell us a fair amount about thought and culture. So it can be more than a simple adjunct.

For writing purposes, I like to imply things about my cultures with language use - word choice, imagery, that sort of thing. I think we can do rather a lot of that, and it's much more effective than infodumps.


ETA: I agree with you about the familiar vs formal pronouns. Idioms are, well, idiomatic, so while they can be used as a cue to a culture, in real life often enough they reflect something that mattered to someone witty 200 years ago. Or to Shakespeare.

Axelle
03-27-2008, 04:53 PM
According to Arthur Koestler, language also affects our facial expressions. One of his examples was if someone emigrates to the USA from a European country, lives here for 20 years, and returns to the old country for a visit, he looks foreign to them (nothing to do with clothes or "free" attitude) because of altered facial features.

I dunno. I mean, I'm European and I've been to the US and to other countries quite a few times, but I'm still not able to spot a foreigner just by his facial expression. At my school, there are quite a few foreign students, but I won't know they're foreign before they start talking. Except if I get to look at their laptop and I see they have a QWERTY keyboard, but that's cheating :D

Shweta
03-27-2008, 05:03 PM
I dunno. I mean, I'm European and I've been to the US and to other countries quite a few times, but I'm still not able to spot a foreigner just by his facial expression.

On the other hand, people in India knew I was a non-resident Indian every time. Something about how I held myself and walked. However much I dressed like anyone else there, I didn't even have to open my mouth.

Me, I could never tell. But then I can apparently miss a) the fact that very flaming classmates were flaming, b) relationships popping up petween friends of mine, and c) people hitting on me so hard my friends thought they had to rescue me.

I do wonder if it's harder for you to spot because you're - from the sound of it - pretty cosmopolitan? If you're used to people looking and acting a bit different, you might not notice difference as much.

Ruv Draba
03-27-2008, 06:05 PM
For writing purposes, I like to imply things about my cultures with language use - word choice, imagery, that sort of thing. I think we can do rather a lot of that, and it's much more effective than infodumps.
I'm an unabashed wordslut. When it comes to localising a setting, I always want words or turns of phrase or whole concepts that differentiate the environment and its people. I especially want the ones that don't make immediate sense to readers - the 'weird' ones are the ones I like most to ponder over in others' fiction.

This apparently alienates me from 80% of my potential readership who just want an easy ride in a familiar cocoon: a bit like those foreign tours where your guide is from your own culture and everything's on a pamphlet anyway. :tongue

I love how language reflects culture and thinking. I just don't believe that - other than in rare and specific circumstances - it shapes such thinking much.

Ruv Draba
03-27-2008, 06:12 PM
When Mrs Draba was in Japan, she'd often be approached by Japanese people who'd talk to her in Japanese. This is very odd because she's Chinese-Australian, with no Japanese ancestry at all, expansive Australian mannerisms and a broad Australian accent. Japanese people are renowned for their xenosensitivity, and the moment she replied, they'd almost bounce off her in shock. I'd crack up laughing every time.

So, I suspect that speaking another language - even natively - doesn't always make you look foreign.

Axelle
03-27-2008, 06:14 PM
I do wonder if it's harder for you to spot because you're - from the sound of it - pretty cosmopolitan? If you're used to people looking and acting a bit different, you might not notice difference as much.

That's possible - I've moved a lot and seen many different cultures. But I don't think my classmates do any better than me spotting foreigners, and many of them have hardly ever left the neighbourhood.

But perhaps it's more obvious in some cultures. Perhaps they have much different facial expressions or something in India, which we don't notice because we're not used to them, but they notice.


So, I suspect that speaking another language - even natively - doesn't always make you look foreign.

I agree absolutely ! When I was in Russia, people talked to me in Russian all the time, to ask where the metro was for instance. Of course they looked quite crestfallen when I replied with half sentences, bad grammar, and (I suspect) a terrible foreign accent ;)

aruna
03-27-2008, 06:55 PM
On the other hand, people in India knew I was a non-resident Indian every time. Something about how I held myself and walked. However much I dressed like anyone else there, I didn't even have to open my mouth.

.


Ans weirdly, many Indians thought I was Indian before they spoke to me. They would start speaking to me in Hindi or Bengali, even though I don't look Indian with my kinky hair. These were times when I wore a sari or a salwaar kameez and actually, inside I felt very Indian, so perhaps that's what they felt! I never felt so much at home as there. A few of them told me I give out an Indian vibe. Must have been Indian in a previous birth...

On the other hand, many Germans also speak to me in German before they know I'm not, which is strange as I definitely do not look German. But it's kind of flattering; I htink it's a sign that Germany is becoming less monocultural.

Ruv Draba
03-31-2008, 08:47 PM
Thanks for the links, Shweta - I will read them!
...and I did, for the last couple of hours, commencing at 2am when I wasn't sleeping. Just the discursive stuff - not all the references. My compliments to you Shweta for being so thorough, adventurous and entertaining in what could otherwise be a rarified field of geekery and academic pomposity.

There's nothing like explaining a technical field to writers to bring out the fun in it. :)