Language and Culture

In an article recently republished on Tor.com, the linguist David J. Peterson took dead aim the underlying premise of Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao. Vance postulated that language influences cultural behavior and that changing a culture’s language could change the culture. Peterson’s assessment was blunt: “The premise of this book is pure fantasy and has absolutely no grounding in linguistic science.”

In a less direct manner, he also mentions Suzette Hayden Elgin’s Native Tongue, noting that the language creation was “extraordinary,” but reiterates the idea that changing culture solely through changing language is “pure science fantasy”

Oh… really?

Peterson’s certainly not the only authority on linguistics, and his blanket statement is a bit suspect (as are most vast generalizations). While he has an M.A. in linguistics and has created a number of languages, Suzette Haden Elgin had a Ph.D. in linguistics and was a professor of linguistics at San Diego State University for a number of years, and also created at least one complete artificial language. She apparently didn’t seem to think that the use of language to change culture was infeasible or pure science fantasy. And for years, she taught people how to use language more effectively. Peterson seems either totally unaware of this, or chooses to ignore it, neither of which is exactly praiseworthy or honest.

Also, from a logical point of view, one can argue that language has no impact on culture or that it has some impact. I don’t see how any rational individual can claim that language doesn’t have an impact on human behavior, and anything that affects human behavior affects culture. It seems to me that the question of impact is only one of degree.

To be fair, Peterson makes the argument that changing a language alone can’t change culture. But that’s a straw man argument, an all or nothing argument. No single factor will by itself change society. Society is influenced by a myriad of factors, and the use of language is definitely one of them. Witness the use of language by demagogues, notably by Adolph Hitler, but also by Donald Trump in the U.S. Presidential campaign of 2016.

I’d be the first to admit that both Vance and Elgin exaggerated the effect of language in their books, but authors often exaggerate to make a point. I’ve certainly been known to do so. What Peterson doesn’t seem to get is the fact that, while language by itself may not change an entire society in a generation, over time language and its patterns do reshape society, and that individuals in every generation use language to do just that, turning nouns into verbs and vice-versa and inventing new terms and usages, not just in reaction, either – and that’s not “pure science fantasy.”

3 thoughts on “Language and Culture”

  1. JakeB says:

    It’s a matter of . . . doctrine, perhaps is the fairest word . . . in linguistics that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language influences thought) is completely incorrect, with the exception of a few border cases like color distinctions and the like–these get a lot of argument. My own observation was that some of the animus against the hypothesis was directed against Whorf being an amateur, rather than a professional linguist. That said, a lot of experiments have been conducted to attempt to demonstrate Sapir-Whorf’s validity, with very little success. There’s also the issue that if it were true, given what we know about the diminishing plasticity of the brain with aging, it would be difficult for adults to learn to speak new languages with respect to syntax and semantics, and those are areas where sometimes they can learn more quickly than children do.

    I’m not going to read Peterson’s article, but one thing I did think was pretty neat about Languages of Pao was the development of a creole language that the various groups create to be able to communicate between themselves. That’s not really inaccurate if I recall what happens in the story correctly.

    One last note — there is some good linguistics in Sheri Tepper’s _After Long Silence_.

  2. Hanneke says:

    This reminded me of an article I read recently about a geographical language: a language that does not use egocentrical directions like left and right, before and behind, but always uses geographical cardinal directions (north, south, east and west). So you don’t have a left foot and a right foot, you have a north foot and a south foot; and if you turn around what was your north foot has now become your south foot.
    Native speakers of such languages have a very great sense of orientation, which can seem near miraculous to those raised in non-geographical languages.
    People raised in a tonal language like Chinese tend to have absolute pitch, while people who have been raised in non-tonal languages have that much more rarely.
    If language can have such profound impacts on the way people routinely perceive the world, it seems unlikely for that not to have any impact on culture at all. Though the amount of impact is debatable, and isn’t clear yet, I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t any.

    See here for a longer explanation: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html

  3. Daze says:

    Speaking of exaggeration to make a point, the use of Sapir-Whorf in the movie Arrival to suggest that you could learn to ignore time and causation if you knew the language to do that is brilliant.

    Plus, what does it mean to change a culture? How big a change does it have to be? Hanneke’s examples surely are changes in culture, if small ones, and there are many other examples. To be specific, I personally have no doubt that poverty of language in expressing emotions, and dominance of terms like honour in that expression, makes a huge difference to the likelihood of violence in a culture.

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