Thursday 1 March 2018

Linguistic Culturism (2018)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVI No. 1 Spring 2018

An argument for Common World-views based on a Shared Linguistic Heritage

By Lina Ufimtseva

Many have attempted to explain the relationship between language and thought, or even philosophised on the topic of the building blocks of language (or morphemes) and the conveying of a meaning. Here, I will investigate the specific question of whether meaning is created from within or without us.

If we were to take words out of a language and thereby simplify it (think, for example, of the ‘Doublespeak’ of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984), our ability to express thoughts would surely diminish, and thus the breadth of our worldview would also start to perish. The process is often how leaders – dictators – have used language as propaganda to control masses of people.

It would make sense to say that, yes, language does create thought, and that meaning is created linguistically based on external factors. After all, if you don’t have the words, you can’t describe it. Yet when we come across a word that describes a very specific situation, there is a click of recognition, an a-ha! moment that is universal, wherever you may hail from. For example, many have experienced what the Scots call a tartle – the panic-like hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember. Would this not indicate that meaning is, actually, created cognitively, meaning from within, and that we simply assign references to help us construct meaning? If we don’t have the words, we can’t describe something, but we can still experience it.

Then again, there's the idea that one word can signify different concepts. Here lies the middle ground between linguistic and cognitive references. Let us take the concept of time. Compare how the English in Britain speak about time – how precise and punctual they are about it – and the casualness with regards to the same things in South African English. Distinctions embodied in terms like ‘now now’ and ‘just now’ seem nonsensical to the typical Westerner, yet they are much more than simply a label for ‘coming another twenty, perhaps twenty five minutes later’. Such dialects comprise an entirely different mind-set, and thus also, a different world-view.

In Chinese, the expression ‘Form is empty’ is rendered as se bu yi kong, or 色不异空. At first glance, this seems to make little sense. However, the first character 色 originally meant ‘sex’. Semantic change saw that the meaning evolved into ‘sexiness’, then ‘beautiful features’, before lastly coming to mean ‘colour’ or ‘form’ today.

The Germans have a special word: Weltansicht, which refers to ‘the general attitude towards life and reality that an individual or character demonstrates’. Weltansicht is closely allied with the words which we speak that it is difficult to escape their pull. Thought is not objective and some chance difference in what language or linguistic dialect you were raised in can indeed shape the way you think and perceive things. For composing the same thought in different languages may yet yield different meanings.

And so I propose that we understand language as being ultimately not only culture bound but as encompassing an entire cultural identity. This is why even the same language spoken in different parts of the world evokes modified meanings.

However, let us take a step back to look at the how language and perception have been classified in the past. Theories regarding language and thought range between two logical extremes. Followers of the American socio-linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf hold that each language both represents and leads to its own modestly different Weltansicht, or world-view. This is linguistic relativism.

At the other extreme is linguistic universalism, which holds that every language is a manifestation of the same human cognitive system, and therefore obeys the same principles. But, as argued above, language is determined by the current culture it is spoken in. I specify ‘current’, because culture is certainly no static entity. If anything, it is evolving Or regressing, depending on how cynical one is! Language is thus culture-bound and is part of a cultural identity, and so the nuances of translated words are not universal. If world-view is culture bound – ethno-liinguistically bound – and not language bound, then we could speak of linguistic culturism.

In terms of the first position of the linguistic relativists or Whorfians, some languages may be virtually untranslatable, while in terms of the second, true translation can be done, even if it cannot be done word for word. This may not satisfy relativists, but the point is clear. An apparent problem with the hypothesis of linguistic relativism is that concepts are very much translatable. They just require more words to describe them. Think of the various forms of love in ancient Greek: eros, philia, ludus, pragma, philautia, agape. Non-Greek speakers understand what they mean, even if it takes a full sentence to explain a word – for instance that agape is selfless, unconditional love, and comparable to the love which is described by most religions. If linguistic relativism were entirely correct, a concept in one language could not be understood in another. And so, only in certain cases of poetry, humour, and other creative forms of language are ideas truly ‘lost in translation’.

Yet the problems with linguistic universalism seem equally obvious. There are considerable differences between languages, even different dialects of the same language, and the language which I speak is deeply affected by the linguistic society in which I live and the culture it has developed in. Wilhelm von Humboldt, The diplomat and pioneer of the theory of language, correctly observed that the diversity of languages ‘is a diversity of the world-views (Weltanschichten) themselves'. Without accepting the entire edifice of Humboldt’s theory of language, one may grant him this: language has everything to do with culture.

It may be helpful to survey the matter from a descriptive point of view. Chinese characters include a range of meanings, so related concepts tend to be compounded into one collective word. The aggregation of concepts into one word leaves a great deal of ambiguity and room for interpretation. Everyday Chinese speech is riddled, so to speak, with figurative speech. Many examples exist: ‘boiled water’ is called ‘rolling water’, revenge is called ‘snowed hatred, ‘stranger’ is ‘raw man’, and a ‘friend’ is a ‘cooked man’.

And so to this question: how do cultural influences on language affect everyday thinking? Cultural influences that influence modern thinking are discovered especially from old scriptures. The Heart Sutra, or ‘The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom’, is the best known Mahāyāna Buddhist scripture. In it is famously stated, ‘Form is empty’ – in Chinese: se bu yi kong, or 色不异空. At first glance, this seems to make little sense. However, the first character 色 originally meant ‘sex’. Semantic change saw that the meaning evolved into ‘sexiness’, then ‘beautiful features’, before lastly coming to mean ‘colour’ or ‘form’ today. Taking that into consideration, the intentional meaning of the phrase ‘Form is empty’ could be ‘Lust is empty’. This is how, when Chinese speak about the appearance or shape of something, they automatically link it to the concept of transience – something short-lived and ephemeral.

In Russia, babushkas – old women or grandmothers – endure long hours of standing in church because there are rarely benches provided to sits on. The thinking behind this is that people come to church to worship God, not to be ‘comfortable’. That people should exhibit a kind of suffering as the Christian deity suffered for his people. This shared cultural knowledge, or awareness, infiltrates the language, and is present in many ways in everyday life.

Another example. If a Chinese person asks an English speaker to verify something, a perfectly acceptable response is ‘You could say that,’ or ‘That's okay.’ But China has a collectivist culture which values the group above the individual. Hence, the response from a native Chinese speaker would be ‘We don't say this.’

Traditionally, the Chinese speakers have a greater inclination to see themselves as a part of a national identity than most Westerners. The factors which play into this mentality include Confucianism, as well as the long history of dynasties and communism. It may even be as simple as people’s close proximity to one another.

Russia, too, values the group above the individual, and ‘fitting in’ means more than just ‘not standing out’. Not being accepted into a group typically means that there something ‘wrong’ with you, creating. The Japanese have a proverb for this: ‘The nail that sticks out will get hammered down.’ Russians would say, ‘We, with our friends, are going to dinner,’, not ‘My friends and I are going to dinner.’ If a Russian were to use the latter phrasing, the underlying meaning would convey that he or she does not want to associate with the group of friends, and dislikes the group. Saying ‘We, with our friends (family/class)’, reinforces the idea that one shares the same values, and finds identity in that group.

The communist era saw seven decades of Soviet-ordained gender equality for women in the workplace. Even today, Russia is a global leader in gender equality in the professional arena. However, the Russian language had always had a subtle way of expressing this equality. In recent years, gender bias in language has stirred some hot debate, and we are seeing English terms such as ‘businessman’ or ‘businesswoman’ being dropped for the gender neutral ‘business executive’. Russian has long escaped such issues. Words for terms that in English have a strong masculine connotation are far more descriptive in action, rather than descriptive in responsibility (meaning whether the man or the woman was traditionally responsible for something). Or Russian simply omits gender all together. For instance, the word ‘manpower’ is translated as ‘labour force’ (Рабочая сила). No-man’s land is translated as no one’s (ничейная) territory. In Russian, pronouns can be omitted. In English, it would be grammatically correct to say ‘Somebody forgot his or her cellphone.’ Instead, many people drop the feminine pronoun and simply say ‘Somebody forgot his coat.’ Russian grammar avoids such an issue altogether by omission: ‘Someone forgot cellphone (кто-то забыл мобильный).’

Let’s look at last instance in which language-culture can fundamentally shape a person’s world view. It affects even more practical parts of everyday life, such as how one counts. The Japanese would say ‘Nine tens plus five’ (九十五). The French are known for their curious way of counting. The number 95 would be said as ‘four twenties plus fifteen’ (quatre-vingt quinze). But nothing quite takes the prize like the Danish way of counting from 50 upwards: 95 is said as ‘5 and 4½ times 20’ (femoghalvfems).

Another most interesting case would be the well-known linguistic curiosities of two Amazon tribes. In 2008, researchers tested the mathematical skills of two tribes in the heart of the Amazon basin where the Pirahã and the Mundurukú tribes were studies. It was discovered that their concepts of numbers did not follow our usual counting system. For starters, the Mundurukú have no words for numbers greater than five. It would be hard for us even to play hide and seek with them, as we generally start counting down from ten. How do the Pirahã and the Mundurukú tribes count if they don’t have numbers? Counting without precise numbers is simpler than one may expect: one, two, many. The researchers were at first perplexed that the tribal people struggled to give the exact number of items that the researchers showed them: ‘In that experiment, the tribe members used the word previously thought to mean ‘two’ when as many as five or six objects were present, and they used the word for ‘one’ for any quantity between one and four. The researchers concluded that there was no need to express large numbers, as tribes simply did not think of using a monetary system. This indicates that these aren't counting numbers at all; they're signifying relative quantities.’ Numerical language was primarily intended for comparative measures such as ‘some’ and ‘more’.

This spurred further research into the field on children’s cognitive development and inherent human aptitudes. How do children learn numbers? Small children first memorise numbers in a list format – but ask them for three apples, and they are just as likely to bring you five or seven. In terms of what people do and do not do from birth, Edward Gibson, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave the following insight:
‘It is often assumed that counting is an innate part of human cognition, but here is a group that does not count. They could learn, but it's not useful in their culture, so they've never picked it up.’

I began by speaking about the difficulty of articulating one’s thoughts clearly, regardless of which language one speaks in. I would love to wrap up with a perfectly formed conclusion, but might well fall prey to what seems to me to be the interminable wont of imposing theories on our language. In name, at least, we largely abandoned prescriptive approaches to language a long time ago. I instead propose an added description to the relationship between language and thought.

In a paper ‘Science and Linguistics’ published in 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf emphasised the importance of common linguistic backgrounds to truly understand one another: ‘we are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.’ I would like to add a different crucial element. I am led to believe that not only our linguistic background, but, moreover, our cultural usage of language is what articulates our common perception of reality. Culture is bound to language, and language is bound to culture.

I think, that in order to understand the workings of language, we need to see it through a prism of what I call linguistic relatedness, in which human languages exist in harmony with one's environment. Language expresses culture, and culture is manifested in language. It is as simple as that. This is not to say that language creates thoughts, but that the context or cultural frame in which a language is used, is like a lens, through which the articulation of our thoughts elicits various frames of reference. This builds upon the lesson of Benjamin Lee Whorf's investigations too, just under a century ago.

About the author: Ms. Lina Ufimtseva is a writer in language and semantics based in Cape Town. Her article The Modern Stoic was published in 2017  at our sister site

Address for correspondence:
She can be contacted via

1 comment:

  1. “Benjamin Lee Whorf emphasised the importance of common linguistic backgrounds to truly understand one another: ‘we are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.’ ” Hence, from stage left, enters the language of mathematics. One might argue that the vocabulary, syntax, and other core features of mathematics provide the universalistic perspective—“the same picture,” per Whorf—imbuing scientists with cross-culturally shared investigation into, understanding of, and communication about the universe. Mathematics provides, one might say, the very “common linguistic background” you refer to—without our having to clear the dust off such over-worn expressions as the “elegance” or “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics. To that extent, perhaps Whorf’s sense of a “new principle of relativity”—while applicable to many culturally sensitive/subjective endeavors like the social sciences, where for example human and societal behaviors pertain—does not really describe the world of physics and related subject areas. In the context of the essay—“linguistic culturism”—I wonder, then, if mathematics as a language is an exception. Thank you, Lina, for an intriguing read.


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