Ask Chris: I always feel that differences between cultures and differences between languages are somehow correlated, although linguists seem not to stress that. How do you see the influence of cultural differences on the differences between languages? Do you think the influence of cultural diversity on language has been severely underestimated in linguistics?

Chris answers: To be frank, after I started answering the questions online, I found that so many people tried to bind language and culture together, which is, from the point of view of a linguist-to-be, a bit annoying. The point is not that linguists do not, cannot, or should not put language and culture together, but that we have connected them properly in terms of the scientific research of language, while people outside the field of linguistics always believe that we need to do more – when there is nothing more to be done. If you ask me to estimate the influence of cultural diversity on language, I will say that it is far from what you describe as an “underestimation.” I should admit that the current focus of linguistics is not on the correlation between cross-linguistic diversity and cultural diversity, and we do not have an adequate explanation for the reason of any such correlation. But that is not to admit that we are ‘underestimating’ such influence of cultural diversity. And I hope you will get why I say so after reading the following.

We can now say that at a particular stage in the history of linguistics (or philology) the influence of language diversity was overestimated. By saying so, I am referring to the famous book titled The heterogeneity of language and its influence on the intellectual development of mankind by Wilhelm von Humboldt, as well as the popularisation of linguistic relativity. The latter one is more frequently called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but since Sapir and Whorf never collaborated to produce such a hypothesis, it is actually inappropriate to use that name. Both pieces of work suggest, based on different evidence, that the structure of a language can influence the cognition of the speakers of that language, and also that to some extent the culture established by those speakers can influence the structure of the language. Von Humboldt’s book was first published in 1836, while Edward Sapir was active in the first decades of the 20th century; the idea of the correlation between cultural diversity and linguistic diversity was rather popular a hundred years ago.

So why is it no longer as popular? That boils down to the linguistic analysis of a language. The word ‘language’ I use here includes not only the systematic structure of a language (‘langue’ as per de Saussure), but also the conventions of speech shared by the speakers of that language (akin to ‘parole’ as per de Saussure). By analysing how culture can and cannot influence a language, we can establish how far the influence of cultural diversity can go. Fortunately, comparative descriptive linguistics and socio-linguistics provide a series of fruitful clues to us, and that’s why I’m rather confident when answering your question.

The systematic structure of a language includes the sound system (the choice of phonetic inventory, the structure of a syllable, the phonological rules when we put sounds or syllables together etc.), the so-called ‘grammar’ structure (the structure of a word, the structure of a sentence, etc.), and the meanings of the language. Neither the sound system nor the grammar structure is significantly influenced by culture, if we observe carefully the differences and similarities between different languages. We can find similar sounds and structures from two historically unrelated languages whose speakers are from two totally different cultures, while at the same time we can get different sounds and structures from two languages whose speakers are friendly neighbours. It would be astonishing to everyone if Germans in Europe and Kashmiris in South Asia were observed to share a similar culture, just because both of the languages need the main verb to appear in the second position of a sentence. So you see, it is not very plausible to establish reliable links between cultures and linguistic structures, at least based on what we know at this point in time; I hope you agree when I say that culture and the (sound or grammar) structure of a language are independent of each other.

That established, we can move onto the meaning system. Meaning can be divided into two parts: propositional semantics – what a sentence mean –, and lexical semantics – what a single word means. In general, propositional semantics is universal: we are able to use a sentence to express meaning, and the way we pile up words to get meaning is roughly the same across cultures. You may want to say, “wait, but in some case a sentence may have different meanings in different cultures”; I know, but please save that for later, because that is not the meaning we get by combining words together. The word meaning, especially the connection between a word and a concept, is another story. Word meaning is more susceptible to cultural diversity in two aspects. Firstly, different cultures may have different classifications of concepts and different prototypes for a concept, and that can be reflected in the matching between a word and a concept. Years ago, when I stumbled upon the question for the first time, I gave the example of sweetcorn and potatoes (see here): potatoes are classified as vegetables in Chinese, while it is a prototype of starchy foods in English; sweetcorn is the opposite. Such differences are pervasive, even in household terms: just last week I  had a discussion with my supervisor, whose native language is Dutch, on whether a glass is a cup. It is all about how concepts are categorised and represented prototypically in a culture, and factors like these can definitely influence the language in use.

Furthermore, there are some culture-based concepts that can only be described in the language associated with that culture. This includes normal words and idiomatic expressions. For example, traditional Chinese medical practitioners believe that anger comes from the heat in the liver, so many Chinese sayings connect liver and anger: for example, ‘I’m so angry that my liver hurts’, or ‘She got fire in her liver.’ Expressions like these would be far from comprehensible to my British colleagues unless they have some experience of alternative therapy. Such concepts and the corresponding verbal expressions are again culture-specific and subject to the influence of cultural diversity. Although we do not have a systematic analysis of the reasons for such differences, we can find books and journal articles on the comparison between languages spoken in two cultures.

In terms of the non-structural part of language, such as the conventions and rules of language use, we may observe more influence of cultural diversity on language. Maybe you have noticed that more linguists (perhaps many sociolinguists) are starting to talk about ‘intercultural communication.’ That is because cultural diversity may influence the manners of communication, and thus influence the language an individual uses. Sometimes we talk about how ‘people from Culture A talk directly and people from Culture B talks indirectly’; such ‘directness’ or ‘indirectness’ is not related to the structure of the language they use, but whether they use implicatures to convey their intended meaning or not. The strategies of politeness and the preferences of implicature are both related to cultures. In sociolinguistics, we investigate the act of speaking between people in different cultures, and we see that even the use of silence and the competition of turn-taking vary from group to group. When the ‘language’ we discuss is not limited to the linguistic system, and when it extends to become the medium of communication in a community, we can see that cultural diversity plays an important role to influence the language.

However, we should always make a clear cut between the structural and non-structural parts of language – they are not equal, and sometimes not even related to each other. In the real world, a language is not tied up with a culture, or vice versa. Speech activity, just like one’ preferences for eating, drinking and clothing, and also rituals and ceremonies, is a part of the customs shared by a community, but language is not. It is highly likely that we change some traditions of speech activity without influencing the structure of that language, or switch to another linguistic code without changing the speech traditions. To simplify a little bit, it is like ladies wearing trousers or skirts: no matter what you select to wear, the trousers and skirts themselves will not change at all, and the fact that we need to wear something to cover our lower part will not change either.

There may be ways in which cultural diversity influences language that we are not able to observe yet, maybe because we still do not have a good methodology to quantify cultural diversity. But that is not because we are not paying attention to such influences. Now you may understand why I have chosen ‘Give back to culture what is culture’s’ as the title for this answer: we do need a clear cut here, even for people who do not study linguistics. Give back to culture what is culture’s, and to language what is language’s.


To have a look at how culture may influence language, you may want to read these:

Basso, Keith H. 1970. ‘“To Give up on Words”: Silence in Western Apache Culture’, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 26.3: 213–30

Jarvis, Scott, and Aneta Pavlenko. 2008. Crosslinguistic Influence in Language and Cognition (Routledge)

Link, Perry. 2013. An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press)