Culture Matters! How Cultural Knowledge Influences Language

And why lack of cultural smarts make you a linguistic dunce.

Posted Mar 06, 2015

In an earlier post in this blog, Why Did Language Evolve? I examined the relationship between language and mind in creating meaning.  I proposed that meaning arises in the mix, from the complex interplay of what I called 'analogue' knowledge in the mind’s conceptual system, and the 'parametric' knowledge embedded in the grammatical system of a language.  But there’s a third factor that contributes just as significantly to meaning: namely culture, the subject of this blog post. 

The Cultural Tool Hypothesis
Daniel Everett, an anthropological linguist, and one of the world’s leading authorities on the relationship between language and culture, has observed that, in certain respects, language itself appears to be a cultural invention.  For Everett, language is a tool, moulded, and honed by culture, in order to facilitate the shared values and ideas that form the backdrop to the collective lives of the individual members of any given community.  And just as language is, in part, shaped by culture, so too are the concepts that it helps express.  Writing in 2012, in his book, Language: The Cultural Tool, Everett puts things this way: “Living in a culture and acquiring cultural knowledge enables us to gain meaning from the world around us and from each other.”  Hence, no account of the unprecedented capacity exhibited by our species to create meaning would, or could, be complete without considering the role of culture in giving rise to meaning.         

Language: A crucible of cultural knowledge
A moment’s reflection reveals that language is a repository of cultural knowledge, one that captures and provides effective cues to a complex body of shared values, experiences and even a common past.  For instance, Everett, in the same book, discusses the use of the word Dickensian in the following utterance: The living conditions were Dickensian.  

The word itself amounts to a label—a shorthand cue—pointing to a complex body of knowledge shared by all literate native speakers of English.  It evokes the inequality and moral decrepitude of aspects of Victorian England: the poor sanitation, overcrowding, and the misery of the have-nots compared to their lords and masters, as brilliantly captured in the didactic works of Charles Dickens.  The word itself neatly ‘packages’ this body of shared knowledge, and the value-laden judgements, both implicit and explicit, in Dickens’ oeuvre.  Moreover, even those who haven’t read Dickens’ novels will nevertheless understand the term, through shared cultural knowledge of the Victorian world of Dickens. The word, then, neatly labels a large, and diffuse web of culturally-shared, and culture-specific information, and the values that apply. 

During the 1990s, I spent a year living in South Korea, and experienced, at first hand, real culture shock.  Take one example, the Korean word nunchi.  This relates to a cultural body of knowledge, and set of shared values, arguably alien to English-speaking cultures.  The term might best be translated, in English, as ‘eye-measure’.  It relates to Korean values of propriety and, in part, hospitality; for example, a good host is judged by virtue of their ability to read their guest’s desires, by offering sustenance without the guest having to make a request for food or drink, thereby embarrassing the guest—in Korean culture, requesting something, such as food or drink, is perceived as impolite.  Hence, nunchi concerns, in part, the host’s responsibility for, as well as their ability to assess, a guest’s unspoken needs, by reading their body language; and in so doing, this reflects well on the host, as the guest is not potentially faced with the loss of face that being impolite—making a request for something—would entail.  In short, the word serves as a short-hand mnemonic for a complex set of shared cultural values, which form a complex matrix of social norms, behaviours and expectations that guide daily interpersonal encounters and interactions, and imbue, in part, Korean social contexts with their meaning.

A golden triangle
The discipline of anthropological linguistics is concerned with the study and description of language in a cultural context, especially the complex interplay between language, culture and thought.  These three aspects of human cognitive and social life—language, mind (or thought), and culture—I liken to a ‘golden triangle’.  A full account of the evolutionary development of the meaning-making capacity of our species, as well as the realisation of meaning and communication in our everyday world of experience, must, ultimately, grapple with their intersection.  They fulfil complementary, and often, overlapping roles, enabling us to make sense of our interactions with others, and ultimately, ourselves. 

The modern discipline of linguistic anthropology—at least in the Anglo-American tradition which informs my own perspective on language—can be traced to the work of the German-born anthropologist Franz Boas working at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Boas famously emphasised the “psychic unity of mankind”: roughly, the idea that commonalities across the world’s languages reflect shared aspects of human cognition (thought). 

Whether you live in a tribe of Kalahari bushman, an Inuit settlement in sub-Arctic Canada, or are a city-dweller in the heart of London, we all share a common cognitive apparatus—an embodied cognition, a consequence of shared neuroanatomical architecture, irrevocably fused with similar bodies.  We are also co-participants in a shared physical environment—the physical world is broadly similar the world over.  For instance, the laws of gravity are the same, whether you live in the Arctic, an African desert, or the south-east of England.  For Boas, commonalities across human languages and cultures arise from this common psychic unity.  But variation nevertheless abounds; and this arises from the specific sets of values and histories of a given community—a culture—which interprets this psychic unity in community-specific ways, imbuing it, often, with considerable local variation. 

Those who followed Boas, especially the influential linguist Edward Sapir, and later, Benjamin Lee Whorf, essentially reversed this line of argument, emphasising the ability of habitual patterns found in a language to influence, and even transform key aspects of thought.  This idea, based on the work of Whorf in particular, is sometimes referred to as the Principle of Linguistic Relativity, which I discuss in some detail in C hapter 7 of my book The Language Myth.  And indeed, while language does appear to influence aspects of the way we think—findings from contemporary cognitive neuroscience reveal that perceptual processes can even be restructured as a consequence of habitual differences across languages—culture can also be instrumental in influencing and shaping both thought, and language. 

To my mind, what this reveals is that the points on the golden triangle are inextricably linked; our unprecedented capacity to mean, and to communicate, must ultimately arise from the symbiotic relationship between all three.  And language science must, of necessity, grapple with their complex interplay if we are to fully account for the nature of meaning.  As Everett puts it in his 2012 book: “all human languages are tools. Tools to solve the twin problems of communication and social cohesion. Tools shaped by the distinctive pressures of their cultural niches—pressures that include cultural values and history and which in many cases account…for the similarities and differences between languages.”

Culture matters: How culture influences thought
To give a flavour of the relationship between language, thought and culture, here I dwell on the way in which culture—a system of shared values, norms, behaviours, practices and history—can influence both language, and thought. 

Take the domain of time, one of the foundational domains of human experience.  I want to briefly focus on the way in which Aymara, an indigenous Andean language spoken in Bolivia, Peru and Chile, conceptualises time—based on my discussion in my forthcoming book The Crucible of Language (chapter 4).  In Aymara, the future is located behind, and the past as in front.  The Aymara word for past is 'front time', while the word for future is 'behind/back' time'.  Moreover, the Aymara gesture behind them when talking about the future, but in front when talking about the past.  In short, the way time is conceptualised in Aymara is at odds with conceptual systems for time in many other known languages, including English.

So what might be the explanation for this?  The rationale appears to be cultural.  The Aymara culture places great value on information that has been witnessed at first hand, privileging information directly witnessed, with one’s own eyes, rather than gleaned through hearsay.   A linguistic reflex of this is that Aymara features a rich evidential system: Aymara speakers are obliged, by their grammatical system, to signal whether an assertion has been perceived at first hand, or learned about indirectly.  And consequently, it is likely that the way the Aymara conceptualise the orientation of time—where in space, the past and future are metaphorically ‘located’ is also organised due to this cultural logic:  an event that has been experienced, such as a past event has been seen, whilst one that has yet to be experienced, one that lies in the future, has not yet been seen.  Given the organisation of the human body—our eyes are located in the front of the head—what can be seen is the terrain in front of us, whilst what lies behind us remains unseen.  And in light of this cultural privileging of evidence—especially visual evidence—experiences, like the past, that have been experienced at first hand, are metaphorically conceptualised as lying in front, whilst the future lies behind. 

But as a ‘conceptual metaphor’ system, such as that for time  concerns a structural principle of thought, embedded in the human conceptual system, in this case culture is influencing conceptual organisation.  It is through the gestures and language used by the Aymara people that we obtain the evidence for this.  And what the evidence points to is that the way in which the Aymara think about time is influenced, and constrained, incontrovertibly by cultural values, habits and norms.  The cultural privileging of visual experience leaves an indelible mark on the mind, shaping the way Aymaran conceptualise time.  Culture, it seems, influences, and, in part, constrains aspects of the way we conceptualise time, a fundamental aspect of embodied experience.

Knowing a culture; or, how not to be a linguistic dunce.
So, what about cases where culture influences representations in language? A particularly striking illustration, made famous by Everett’s field work, concerns the Pirahã.  The Pirahã, are an indigenous tribe of around 400 hunter-gatherers living on the banks of the Maici River in the Amazonian rain forest, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. The Pirahã people refer to themselves as the Hi'aiti'ihi, which means ‘the straight ones’.  And they refer to all other languages as ‘crooked/twisted head’, a designation both reflecting the Pirahã’s perception of the inferiority of other languages, and their playful sense of humour. 

The Pirahã language is remarkable in a number of ways; while languages across the world exhibit great diversity in terms of the number of sounds that are used—up to 144 distinct sounds in some, such as the Khoisan languages of southern Africa; these are the languages that feature clicks on their consonants, made famous in the 1960s by the Click Song of Miriam Makeba—Pirahã has one of the fewest.  Male Pirahã speakers make use of 11 distinct sounds, and female Pirahã just 10.  Moreover, given the prosodic patterns used, and the fact that Pirahã is a tone language, it can also be hummed—as Pirahã mothers do to their babies, or to disguise what one is saying—or whistled, rather than spoken, a technique used to great effect by Pirahã men while on hunting sorties in the deep Amazon jungle.          

Daniel Everett, together with his wife and young family, spent many years living with the Pirahã, and learning their language.  He documents his life living in the Amazonian jungle in the hugely entertaining book, Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes.  It’s an exhilarating and at times poignant story, recounting the mischievous Pirahã, as well as covering the missionary zeal that took Everett to the remote Amazon jungle, in the first place, and his subsequent loss of faith. 

The Pirahã language also appears to be unique in a number of other ways.  It’s the only known language without numbers, numerals or a concept of counting—it even lacks terms for quantification like all, each, every, most and some.  It lacks colour terms, and has the simplest pronoun system known.  Moreover, and more generally, Pirahã culture lacks creation myths, and exhibits no collective memory beyond two generations.  Even more curious, Pirahã seems to lack the ability to embed grammatical phrases within other phrases: for instance, a noun phrase inside another noun phrase, or a sentence within a sentence.

This grammatical ability, deemed by many linguists to be a universal, and indeed, on some accounts, the criterial feature of human grammar, is often referred to as recursion, which I have briefly discussed in a previous post: The Shapeshifting Malleability of Universals in Universal Grammar.  Recursion provides a grammar with a means of combining grammatical units to build complex clauses and sentences, enabling the construction of complex syntactic assemblies, giving rise, in principle, to sentences of infinite complexity. 

For instance, take the following English sentence, which I used to illustrate this property of grammar in The Language Myth: Death is only the beginning, uttered by Imhotep in the 1999 movie The Mummy. This phrase can be embedded in the grammatical frame’ X said Y’, providing a more complex sentence: Imhotep said that death is only the beginning. This sentence can then, itself, be further embedded in the same frame recursively: Evelyn said that Imhotep said that death is only the beginning. But, based on his many years of working with the Pirahã, Everett has found this sort of embedding to be impossible in Pirahã.  The lack of recursion, in fact, reflects a more general prohibition, in the grammar of the language; unlike a language like English, and many, perhaps most of the world’s languages, the Pirahã language only permits one event to be encoded in each sentence.  And this keeps each grammatical sentence discrete, circumspect, and short. 

So what might lie behind the lack of grammatical recursion in the grammar of the language?  And might it be related, somehow, to wider aspects of Pirahã culture, such as the lack of creation myths—itself also highly unusual—and the absence of collective memory beyond two generations?  Everett has argued in detail that the common denominator is Pirahã culture, which influences, and shapes the nature and organisation of the Pirahã language. 

 Pirahã culture appears to exhibit a preference for immediacy of experience, “which values talk of concrete, immediate experience over abstract, unwitnessed and hence non-immediate topics”.  Everett’s conclusion is that you need to know the Pirahã culture to know its language: the culture, in a profound sense, influences and constrains the way the language works.  The lack of recursion—the lack of relative grammatical complexity—and the consequent prohibition against expressing more than one event per sentence—appears to be a constraint imposed by the Pirahã culture.  And this suggests that the meaning-making potential of the language is constrained, in important ways, by the system of values that make up the Pirahã culture.  As Everett puts it, “language is in the first instance a tool for thinking and communicating”, which is consonant with the central argument of this book.  But, and in addition, “it is crucially shaped from human cultures.  It is a cultural tool as well as a cognitive tool.”  To be able to use the language you must know the culture.  And without it, you are, in effect, a linguistic dunce!          

In the final analysis, what of the human capacity to create meaning?
In the final analysis, our capacity for meaning, and language, arises from the confluence of language and the mind’s concepts.  But collective intentionality—the culturally-sophisticated cooperative strategy exhibited by modern humans—has created systems of rich material and ideational cultures, within which the confluence of languages and minds are embedded and construe each other.  And as meaning arises in a cultural context, a full account of meaning-making, ultimately, needs to include all three points of this golden triangle: together, the golden triangle—language, mind and culture—underpin our unique prowess for creating meaning, everyday.