This question resurfaces time and time again throughout history, spawning many theories and hypotheses that lead to a true rabbit hole. Let’s try to tackle the subject in a short and comprehensive manner.
What exactly is culture?
The simplest definition of culture is the ways of life of a given society. But this doesn’t tell us much, does it? Culture itself is a very broad subject that can be interpreted in many ways. This is largely due to its lack of defined boundaries and constant changes.
The most common and largely agreed upon concept describes it as the sum of acquired knowledge passed from generation to generation that’s used for interpreting experiences and shaping behaviours.
Culture consists of many elements such as beliefs, dress-codes, norms of behaviour, art and many more. But for today’s topic, the most important part of culture is language.
The relationship between culture and language
It’s safe to say that each society that grew independently has its own language. This tendency is best represented by small clusters of indigenous people whose culture is confined to just one village. Even if their languages have common roots, their dialects would evolve independently to the point they will seem like a foreign language to one another. Dialects can develop in relatively small areas, a good example of this for the English language is the so-called cockney. This dialect was originally confined to a single district of London, East End, and was spoken solely by the working class that lived there.
But let’s take a step back and look at what lies in the core of a language. Simply put, it’s nothing more or less than a tool to describe the world that surrounds us and express our thoughts and culture. That’s right, culture gives meaning to the words we speak. So without cultural context, words would be just noises without any significance. For example, a society that developed in the middle of an African savannah wouldn’t have a word for snow, while Eskimos that live surrounded by it have over 20 different words for it. This means that even if you have a good grasp on a second language, it might be difficult to communicate your thoughts to a native speaker due to different cultural background, especially in a written form. So while conveying your important content into different languages, make sure to employ localisation services, this way you can be sure that it will end up culturally appropriate and bring intended effect.
Furthermore, culture determines if a given word carries positive or negative meaning. A good example of such cultural language differences is the word ‘jealous’. In Greek (Zήλεια) it’s derived from the word Ζέω that means hot/warm and is associated with the word meaning life/to live (Ζωή), thus carrying a positive connotation and means ‘to be in a hot/warm state’. On the other hand, we have Swedish, in which its equivalent is svartsjuk. It combines two words – ‘black’ (svart) and ‘ill’ (sjuk), both with strong negative overtone. So to someone from the Scandinavian culture, jealousy is considered an illness.
As already mentioned, culture is rather fluid and prone to changes. And language promptly follows – changes in culture are reflected in the language. The changes can be subtle, e.g., slightly altering the pronunciation of some words, and sprung from accidental events, but over time they can transform a given language into something far different from its initial form. We don’t have to look far for an example of such a makeover – modern English is so far off from its old iteration, that the latter is mostly incomprehensible to the proverbial average Joe. For people that don’t speak English as their first language, it just sounds like gibberish. Single changes in the vocabulary can also greatly influence communication – let’s venture into Polish for such an example. In the times of yore, the word ‘kutas’ meant a decorative tassel that adorned belts of the nobility and clergy, while today… well, it’s a rather vulgar name for the male reproductive organ. Big difference right there.
We had a handful of examples of culture influencing language, but what about the other way around? How does language affect cultural norms? Well, people that speak the same language tend to think alike, which in turn affects their way of communicating with others. Let’s take Spanish and Japanese speakers. Spanish natives tend to be flamboyant and full of emotions, and the language itself can be considered as antagonistic as it doesn’t stray from conflicts – the arguments between Spaniards can be really heated. The Japanese speakers fall on the other side of this spectrum, they are rather reserved and seldom let their emotions out. Their conversations are very polite and tend to avoid conflicts, as the language is considered conformist.
Another instance of how language affects culture can be this, the vocabulary we use affects the way others perceive us and our status in the society. A foul-mouthed person would have lower social status in the eye of the beholder than someone expressing themselves in a socially accepted manner. So language affects society in a big way.
Are you looking for other languages to expand your business? Take a look at our post on most spoken languages in Europe and learn, which of them have the most promising business potential.
Can a language function without culture?
Judging by the fact, that culture is the source of language, this seems highly unlikely. Even the most wide-spread languages have their roots in a specific culture and are rather strongly based on it. Sure, we have Latin with its long-dead culture, but nowadays, it’s rarely used outside scientific purposes.
What about ‘artificial’ languages based on universal grammar, such as Esperanto? They, too, borrow from already established cultures.
How to communicate properly with other cultures?
Getting your point across to a different culture requires a deeper understanding of a given language. This is especially important in business and legal dealings. To avoid any embarrassing error, use professional translation services, here at TEXTOLOGY we can provide you with highly qualified native-speaking translators that can handle medical, technical, and legal translations for many popular languages. So don’t wait and request a free quote today!