Language and Mind/Culture


Hi everyone!

I will do another language post, on a request long ago by Troy Headrick. Thanks Troy!

I will talk about the relation between language and culture, which necessarily includes individual minds because culture happens when individual minds get together. This will be a bit longer but bear with meJ

I will start with the best–known and maybe the most controversial hypothesis about language and mind (because this is when everything roughly started): Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

This hypothesis states that your language determines your worldview. Crucial word here: determines

It was and is an interesting idea, because we linguists want to have a clear picture of the relation between language and mind. That is our main goal. So, this hypothesis was as clear as it can get, if it could be proven right. Then, our job would be more or less done. We would have solved the language problem.

But we did not. Because nothing in language studies is unidirectional and we need to consider many other factors. It turned out that language did not determine our worldview. Among the many counterpoints to this hypothesis were the following:

  • If we were bounded by our language, how do we learn new concepts? How do we dream about things unknown? For example, computers did not exist in our lexicon before because they did not exist in the world before. So how did we imagine and understand them at all?
  • Languages may not have some word. For example, the word frustrated does not exist in Turkish. But all languages definitely have ways to describe anything. You can perfectly describe frustration in Turkish; we just don’t have a word for it. But the strict understanding of Sapir-Whorf says that frustration should be unthinkable for Turkish speakers. (Well, frustration is a human feeling and every human being can understand it, regardless of whether they have a word for it or now).
  • Same argument as (ii) goes for grammatical features as well. I will give an example in the cultures part).

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was very exciting and it definitely brought linguistic variation to the focus of language studies (which was more western-focused at the time), but it was a bit too extreme. The conclusion then is: we are still in search of ways to establish the relation between language and mind. So many questions remain.

Similar points (that language shapes worldview) were made for the relation between language and culture as well. For example, some studies (for example, by the economist Keith Chen claimed that speakers of languages with strong future tense are less likely to save up, be responsible for their future plans etc. That is, language affects how we are as a society.

Clarification: A strong future is when future is marked with something in the sentence overtly, as in English I will go home, where will marks future. According to Chen, speakers of languages like English tend to see the future as something distant because they separate the future from other times (specifically present time). On the other hand, many languages mark future the same as present, which means the speakers of these languages think of future as if it is the present and be more responsible (example in the next paragraph).

What does a present-as-future marking look like? Well, we have that in English. For example, in I have a meeting tomorrow, the sentence is present but time is future.

Wait, did you notice something here? Did we not already say that English marks future overtly? Then, how is it marking it the same as the present as well?

Hmm, can you see the counter argument here already?

Yes, this study was challenged in many ways by linguists (also note that Keith Chen was not a linguist), starting with questions about how the correlation was established and whether there were better alternatives to it. But I will only mention one counter-argument and move onto something else. One that I already mentioned. We just saw that English marks future tense separately, but it also has a lot of present-as-future sentences like I have a meeting tomorrow, I am going home tomorrow etc. And these are very common expressions too. What do you do with these? Does English have separate future marking or present-as-future marking or both? How do you categorize English if both, which seems to be the case?

The idea was exciting, but again, it was too unidirectional. The conclusion here too is the same: we are still in search of ways to establish the relation between language and culture and so many questions remain.

I can count many other example studies, trying to determine how the relation between language and mind/culture but I will stop here and conclude. I think these give the idea roughly. The idea is that we don’t know how the relation works. There are some correlations, but almost all have exceptions and vagueness.

So, let’s wrap up now.

Notice that I never said that language does not affect the mind or the culture at all; it just does not determine or restrict it. Language might be influential in our practices. But if so, there are (at least) two questions to be answered here and let me tell you, they are very difficult questions:

  • How do we determine how and when language affects culture if it does not do it all the time?
  • How do we eliminate the alternative: that the culture influences language?

Do you have any intuitive or studied ideas on these relations? Did you notice anything in the correlations between different languages and cultures? I want to hear your thoughts now 🙂




18 thoughts on “Language and Mind/Culture

  1. This is basically the driving point behind my blog. Our words shape our thoughts. But first it begins with the noun – the nous, our name/s, which form our identity. When we know ourselves, we can recognise what is of us and what is not… etc etc.
    Self identification, self determination, self mastery.

    1. Yes, words do play a role in shaping how we think and we tend to form unity with people who use the same words, because we know that they think similarly. That is how we identify ourselves and who is with us.

      1. Language, words, accent, jargon, slang, codes, in jokes, syntax, grammar, tone, voice, volume, pronunciation, but also facial expression and the body are all part of how we communicate and connect with others. Transcend the barriers that technicalities of language can present.

      2. Thank you for helping to remind me of a purpose I had found and had since forgot… Let’s hope this sticks around with me in my mind a bit longer this time. LOL

      3. I am so happy that this post helped you in that way! I am sure you are going to stick to it longer this time, because we value things we lose and find more than things we just grasp initially!

      1. I haven’t had a chance to read your post yet. I started with the comments. Now I’ll go back and look at the piece. How about “oof ya”? That’s a phrase that indicates frustration. Back when I lived in Ankara, I used to hear Turks make that utterance all the time. They might add an eye roll when saying it.

      2. We do have things that indicate frustration but these are exclamation phrases. What I meant here was a word that directly translates as ‘frustration’. Like a dictionary equivalent. In general, I think Turkish does not have as many feeling adjectives as English does.

  2. As far back as “knowledge of history” can take us, language has always depicted a culture’s core essence; along with the other 3 pillars (food, spirituality, entertainment). Although language has suffered numerous definitions, topography, used and misused, it has, is, and surely will always be part of mind/culture.

    I forgot who said “we are what we speak”

    1. Yes, but I should add that there is a part of language that is independent of culture. This part just marks us as humans, regardless of what the culture is.

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