Does Language Affect Culture? Part 1

As I’ve been working with the Matthew Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, I’ve been amazed at the way so many fields are interlinked together and that are applicable to this area.  One subject area I recently discovered was that of linguistics and whether or not it can affect your view of the world.  I picked up some books on linguistics, and then I found that the February issue of Scientific American had an article on the very subject I was exploring entitled “How Language Shapes Thought!”  Such  serendipity has been occurring often as I go deeper into the field of security studies…

I haven’t really taken any English courses since grade school, so I decided a refresher course on linguistics was in order – especially after seeing the new Star Trek movie where Uhura mentions Xenolinguistics as her major.  To that end, I checked out Language, The Big Picture by Peter Sharpe because I wanted a book that was a general introduction to the field.

This was not that book.

It IS a good survey of the research in the field.  Sharpe begins with the origins of language and how our anatomy is related, and then moves on to why language change over time and variations by culture.  He discusses Noam Chomsky, who was the biggest influence on linguistics in the Twentieth Century, and various theories of how language is structured.  This is followed by a survey of semantics – how meaning is formed, and a discussion of semiotics, the symbols and signs of culture.  His final wrap-up talks about the mental representation of language.

This book is probably very good for use in a classroom, but not by someone who has little or no background in linguistics.  To be honest, I was looking for more detail on, as Jim Kirk said, “MorphologyPhonologySyntax.”

I’ll be tackling Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages next.  I also found this video by Lera Boroditsky to be quite fascinating.  In the meantime, does anybody have any good suggestions for an introductory text on Linguistics?

Scott
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4 thoughts on “Does Language Affect Culture? Part 1

  1. Scott, frightfully good post … Reminds of recent NPR story on the language of prairie dogs, and more generally of discussion of how modern humans (homo sapiens) may have differed from earlier less successful species such as cro-magnon & neanderthal: again, language shaping thought?

  2. Sharpe actually covers the differences between H. Sapiens and the others in the chapter on origins. Language is distributed through the brain, and not centered in any one spot – H. Sapiens apparently had brains that were able to do this distributed model, whereas the others did not.

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