Does Language Influence Culture?

We all use language to express our thoughts. But new research suggests that inherent structures in languages shape our thoughts without us realizing it. In fact, differences in languages seem to impact how people act and interpret their surroundings.

Lera Boroditsky, professor of psychology at Stanford University and editor in chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, provides some fascinating examples in a recent Wall Street Journal article. The Russian language contains an extra distinction between light and dark blues; in tests, Russians are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue than those who speak other languages. The language of the Piraha tribe in Brazil doesn’t have words for numbers (like 10 or 100) but instead have terms like few and many; they are unable to keep track of exact quantities.

Caitlin Fausey at Stanford has shown that language can shape how we understand cause and effect, and thus dramatically impact eyewitness memory. For example, English speakers don’t use the passive voice as often as other speakers in other languages. If I knock over a water glass and accidentally break it, an English observer is likely to describe this event as “Jonathan broke a glass.” A Spanish speaker, however, is more likely to say that “the glass broke” or “the glass was broken” when talking about an accident.  Because my name is not encoded in the phrase, Spanish speakers are less likely to remember who broke this glass; only that it was broken. This difference only seems to apply in the case of an accident; for intentional events, Spanish language speakers encode the agent and are equally likely to remember who did it.

It’s intriguing to speculate whether these language differences might be responsible for culture and society differences. The American criminal justice system emphasizes the search for the transgressor and the subsequent personal punishment. This emphasis might not work as well with a language that didn’t encode agents. If English was structured more like Spanish, perhaps our criminal justice system would instead focus on finding the victims and providing them appropriate restitution. After all, we would be less likely to remember ‘who done it’.

Fausey tested this theory by asking English language speakers to watch a video of the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl.  Immediately afterwards, they read one of two reports which only differed in the last sentence; one used the agentive phrase “ripped the costume” while the other included the passive phrase “the costume ripped.” Even though every person witnessed the same event, the people who read “ripped the costume” blamed Justin Timberlake (the agent) more often than those who read the passive wording. When asked about appropriate punishment, they also recommended fines that were 53% higher. Language influenced actions.

For those of us who have to market in multiple languages, these differences have profound impact on how we approach our jobs. We know that language and culture matter but they probably matter more than we realize. It’s likely that native language speakers are critical for true market success.

And one more thing: if I’m ever in an accident, I hope it’s in a non-agency language like Spanish. They’ll never remember if I caused it.

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11 Responses to Does Language Influence Culture?

  1. theotherthomasotter September 13, 2010 at 4:04 am #

    Thoughtful stuff.

    Given your employer I’m mildly bemused that you didn’t discuss German speakers and the passive.

    Or alternatively:
    There was mild bemusement that the passive speaking of German was not discussed.

    As a South African I have the opposite problem. We use the imperative form when none is required. We must have a coffee next time you are in Walldorf is not a command, merely a suggestion.

  2. Jeff Winter September 13, 2010 at 6:25 am #

    So taking this one step further, is this theory then suggesting that language influences culture? Or rather, that culture influences languages? In other words are characteristics such as being more / less passive or more / less transparent or more / less focused on individuality borne from language, or are they determinates and guideposts?

    Unfortunately, I am only a English-speaking office drone, and can offer no more…

  3. muthu ranganathan September 13, 2010 at 8:01 am #

    We all think in our native language and transalate it to speak. Of late I have started to think in english, but not always.
    In india, we have 24 + languages and absolutely the culture varies by language. This was a reason why indian states were primarily split by languages. Of course language had a role to play in dominating one over other based on majority. E.g english worldwide or hindi within india

    Good perspectives in this blog

  4. James Farrar September 13, 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    I think language is a tool, a vessel for the cultural environment. We transform our culture through the subversive power of language. For example the political ideas behind absurdism, satire and the non sequitir.

    I love how the gay community reclaimed and drained the hate out of the term ‘queer’.

    Incidentally, in the Irish language there is no straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’. So, even today if you ask an irish person: ‘do you like bananas?’ you are likely to get ‘I do’ or ‘I don’t’ as an answer rather than yes or no. You might even hear ‘I do, do you?’

  5. Holly Roland September 15, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    Isn’t it really the other way around? Since it tends to hold true that “Actions speak louder than words”, I would surmise that language is not the influencer, but the result or indicator of a culture.

    And yes, we marketers generally do not respect enough the differences between cultures when hawking our wares in other countries, usually relegating these considerations as a simple matter of translating our collateral into the local lingo and ignoring cultural business norms altogether.

    Bridging the gaps between cultures was difficult enough for marketers when we were primarily only concerned with marketing to the “first world” countries, that is, US and Europe (clearly I’m going back a few decades here…). At least we shared a generally common history and a “lingua franca”, and so we generally could laugh away any gaffs that offended local custom.

    But now, with the emergence of the BRIC markets, a “lingua franca” no longer exists. Marketing language which works for established countries often loses meaning entirely — or worse, offends — when exported “as is” to China.

    Putting the challenges of marketing aside, I often find it humorous (and valuable and informative) to see how language reflects the cultures from which they spring. For example:

    In Germany, the culture tends to value precision and completeness, and so produces long words which embed multiple attributes of their subjects. According to About.com, “The classic longest German word is Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, which in English becomes four words: “Danube steamship company captain.” With German spelling reform rules (a debate which has been raging since 1880), this longest word actually becomes even longer, by adding an “s”.

    It is also interesting to consider the various uses of the English language across the UK, England, and Australia. The UK version tends to sound very formal and excessively wordy to the more casual and direct Americans and Australians. Further, some forms of English used in the northern UK are virtually unitelligible to people from southern England — much less other countries. For their part, the English tend to view American communications as brash and ill-considered, and often more than a little too friendly for their tastes.

    A finally, I am fascinated by the many languages of the Middle East, India, and China. First, they all have a prolific and elaborately decorated “alphabet” as well as significant regional differences in the spoken and written word. Despite their voluminous alphabets, these languages tend to be *less* specific than their European counterparts. This lack of specificity reflects the culture: using direct language or being too emphatic about emphasizing a point offends the audience. To me, this presents the most daunting marketing challenge — if there is no specific way to describe the value of my products and services without offending the audience, how do I get the point across without writing a book?

    Anyway… I have a day job. Back to the grind.

  6. Jonathan September 19, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    Not surprisingly, the best part of a blog is the readers’ reactions. It’s what makes writing worthwhile.

    Thomas, I didn’t use German as an example intentionally. Too obvious — plus I had just spent a week in Barcelona. The coffee can be had by us.

    Jeff, it’s an unresolved debate whether language drives culture or vice versa. Sort of like the chicken and the egg. But research is leaning towards more than just correlation; language *causes* culture.

    Muthu, it’s important to remember culture diversity *within* a country. Too many of us forget the wide differences within India (or China, …).

    James, good example of how changing culture acceptance can affect language. In my lifetime, the word “cool” has come and gone — and appears to be on the way back.

    And finally, Holly, a comment worthy of an entire post. the topic is so rich and so varied, we could dedicate the entire blog to the subject.

  7. Carmen September 19, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    Couple of thoughts on this topic.

    1. I actually think culture in large part fashions language a particular way. But so does the environment (think type of language, rapidity of speech, etc. needed in certain climates for example).

    2. For sure language is reflective of culture. I marvel at what an expressive language Greek is, for example. My husband and his family & friends joke constantly and the language lends itself to word play more easily than English. The implications from a business or marketing standpoint are likely that much more than words get lost in translation, but also the spirit of the culture that would shine through in a native context. Who knows how many customers may be deterred by that, without even realizing it?

    3. At the end of the day, like many complex principles, I’m guessing the directionality goes both ways. Culture/surroundings may have precipiated a certain type of language development, which in turn influences the acquisition and emphasis of certain cultural traits. And so on.

    4. I’ve always found it fascinating and telling that English is such a hodge podge linguistically – reflecting our unique cultural blend (Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue” a good summary). But what seems completely natural and all-inclusive to us as native speakers may be in fact the opposite to someone hearing it with their own distinct cultural & linguistic framework.

  8. Paula A. December 13, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Language does influence culture… And your thoughts about personal responsibility and punishment makes me sadly think about Argentina and how we are always blaming everything on some external cause (not to mention a recent very shameful court ruling…)

  9. Sulley Massamby June 19, 2013 at 1:03 am #

    taking into account that i am a foreign learner of english, i insist in believing that language is what influences the culture.

  10. Sulley Massamby June 19, 2013 at 1:15 am #

    we as africans our cultures has different features according to the country where an individual is coming from…but going directly to english, i have found out that all african teachers of english they have their means of living,their relationship, friendship, there way they wear their clothes closely related to the language they teach ‘”english”” their culture is completly shifted to english culture.

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