Recently, a lot of very smart people have been quietly studying the next impossible question: which came first, language or culture? Like the chicken and the egg conundrum – Uh, good luck solving that riddle — it does bring up an interesting concept. Does language affect the way we look at the world? Or, more precisely, do people who speak different languages think differently?
Wow! This is a huge question that scholars are going to be pondering for years, but the simple answer is … yes. Let me try to explain without sounding like some kind of philological fascist.
Every language has words that simply do not translate because every culture has concepts that don’t. For example, the Hawaiian language has no word for “weather*.” Why? When your weather is consistently Paradise 2.0, you just don’t need an uncountable noun to describe it. Meanwhile, in all Inuit languages, there are dozens of different words for snow. They describe every variant imaginable in a world where survival depends on what kind of white stuff Mother Nature is throwing at you. Both these linguistic imperatives make sense in their own neighbourhood, but they don’t to each other. Hawaiians and the Inuit have totally different concepts of weather, and their language reflects that.
Likewise, every time I go to France, it takes me a couple of days to realize I’m not getting bad service in restaurants. The problem is my concept of lunch is completely different from the French dejeuner. The words mean exactly the same thing but … they aren’t. In North America, we treat lunch as a necessary nuisance that’s done and gone, but in France it’s an important cultural ritual that can take a couple of hours. Even though the words translate perfectly– one to one– they mean wildly different things.
But it’s not just cultural differences that influence language.
English has a ton of prepositions, but let’s just use “in” and “on.” In Spanish, “in” and “on” are the same word: “en.” Spanish speakers don’t differentiate. They don’t think that way.
The Russians have a word “toska” which is kinda/ sorta,/maybe religious longing, but not really – uh — so much as a feeling of loss without knowing what is lost. But you kinda have experience it to know what it feels like.
Hygge, fernweh and forelsket are also words that simply don’t translate into English. It’s not that English speakers don’t have the same feelings as Danes, Germans or Norwegians; it’s just that we don’t think that way.
I don’t believe culture precedes language, but I do believe that, as a culture evolves, people simultaneously adapt their language to accommodate it. Once that happens, the actual words tend to veer away from their objective meaning. They get loaded up with information that’s specific to the speaker. Words are the tools we use to express our thoughts, and sometimes those thoughts are incomprehensible to an outsider. That’s why anybody who knows anything about language will tell you that to learn a language properly, you must first understand the culture.
*In contemporary usage, Hawaiians have borrow the Chinese word “huan” which loosely translates as change.