Does Language Affect Culture? Part 2

In a previous post, I noted that I was exploring the notion of whether or not the language you speak can influence the way you think.  For example, our concept of justice may be completely different from what someone who speaks a different language uses their equivalent of the word to refer to.  Currently, most linguists will tell you that there is no difference, and that all languages are the same.

Guy Deutscher disagrees.  In some ways, he sets out to prove, culture CAN make a difference in the way we see the world.

In Part I of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Deutscher notes that in both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as Old testament Hebrew, there is no use of the color blue to describe things.  For example the sea (blue) is referred to as wine colored (red!).  In the Bible, heifers (brown) are referred to as red.  Theory once held that their eyes hadn’t evolved the ability to see those colors, but this was proven false when the same type of thing turned up in modern tribal langauges.  These languages – speakers of which are still alive – often refer to things as black, white, and maybe red, but not green or blue.  Brightness of the color seems to indicate which bucket it goes in.  Yet their eyes are identical to ours!  Further tests showed that they easily distinguish that blue and green are different – they can see the colors.  So the reason is cultural, not physical; i.e., it’s nurture, not nature.

In Part II, the author notes that although not all languages express all ideas, they are capable of expressing any idea and the speakers are able to comprehend them.  He then states his main point:

“The real effects of the mother tongue are rather the habits that develop through the frequent use of certain ways of expression.”

He gives three examples (I’m seriously oversimplifying these; read the book for more):


1) Spatial coordinates and orientation and memory:  Certain groups, rather than saying turn left or right, use north, east, etc all the time.  They are much better at knowing which way is north than someone who doesn’t.  It also affects the way they remember an event since they can’t say they jumped back, they jumped south.

2) Gender – In English, gender is gone from most of our words.  But in German and other world languages, each noun is either masculine, feminine and neuter.  And lest you think that’s simple, remember that most words for females in German are neuter, but many inanimate objects are feminine!

3) Color – as above, but also note that even the definition of each color can vary – for example, in Japan, green goes further into the blue area than in the United States.

There is much more in the book including how these examples can affect thought patterns.  Deutscher also notes that research is really just beginning on this area and that one of the major roadblocks right now is our lack of understanding of the brain works.  How language processing and thought take place is pretty much a black box.

This will be an interesting area to keep an eye on in the future! In related news, I have The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett in my antilibrary, so keep an eye out for that review coming up…

8 thoughts on “Does Language Affect Culture? Part 2

  1. Orwell also had thoughts on how language shaped thought. I’m not sure if his dire predictions have come true in all cases but in some they have been shaped as a result of propaganda. Sadly individuals like Jared Loughner have taken some of these ideas to the extreme.

  2. Great post! This kind of research is vital to a lot of things, from trying to understand if language plays a role in deeper philosophical differences between culture, to trying to come up with effective programming languages, to everything else.

    I have a theory that all thoughts are analogous to essentially organic shapes, and our brains are forced to extrude those shapes through language, into familiar forms. Deutscher’s theories comply with this- every human being has the same tendency to produce the same thoughts, but our languages force us to cut and cleave our thoughts into pieces so that our brains can understand them fully. So everyone can ‘see’ blue, but if your brain doesn’t have the concept of blue, your brain will force the concept of ‘blue’ into a shape it understands. Make sense? I look forward to more!

  3. A relevant topic. Communication is crucial, so is understanding. I’d be curious to see if speakers of obscure languages (Ahtna of Alaska)have concepts we are unfamiliar with or the reverse.

  4. Hi Scott,
    There has been much debate on this issue. I think there is not as much consensus between linguistic experts as you suggest, and that very few would really say “all languages are the same”. There is debate between those emphasise evidence for universal structures for language in the brain, giving a commonality to the fundamental structure of all language (vide Chomsky:, and those that emphasise the way that language structures thought itself and has a reciprocal relationship with social structuring (vide Saussure: ). I suspect that these may not end up being mutually exclusive positions. A very easy introduction to some of these ideas is Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice

  5. Thanks for your excellent comments!

    Stephanie: To be honest, that wasn’t my suggestion – it was Mr. Deutscher’s statement and I was just repeating it. My jury is still out on the whole thing – but I find it a very interesting area to research and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on it!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s