This paper discusses the inseparability of culture and language, presents three new metaphors relating to culture and language, and explores cultural content in specific language items through a survey of word associations. The survey was designed for native Chinese speakers (NCS) in Chinese, as well as for native English speakers (NES) in English (see Appendix). The words and expressions associated by NCS convey Chinese culture, and those associated by NES convey English culture. The intimate relationship between language and culture is strikingly illustrated by the survey, which confirms the view that language and culture cannot exist without each other.
Inseparability of culture and language
It is commonly accepted that language is a part of culture, and that it plays a very important role in it. Some social scientists consider that without language, culture would not be possible. Language simultaneously reflects culture, and is influenced and shaped by it. In the broadest sense, it is also the symbolic representation of a people, since it comprises their historical and cultural backgrounds, as well as their approach to life and their ways of living and thinking. Brown (1994: 165) describes the two as follows: ‘A language is a part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language; the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture.’ In a word, culture and language are inseparable. Some people say that language is the mirror of culture, in the sense that people can see a culture through its language. Another metaphor used to symbolize language and culture is the iceberg. The visible part is the language, with a small part of culture; the greater part, lying hidden beneath the surface, is the invisible aspect of culture. This author’s understanding of language and culture is conveyed through the following three new metaphors. From a philosophical view:
Metaphors about language and culture
language + culture -> a living organism blood flesh Language and culture makes a living organism; language is flesh, and culture is blood. Without culture, language would be dead; without language, culture would have no shape.
ELT Journal Volume 54/4 October 2000 © Oxford University Press 2000
From a communicative
view: -> swimming (communication)
language + culture swimming skill water
Communication is swimming, language is the swimming skill, and culture is water. Without language, communication would remain to a very limited degree (in very shallow water); without culture, there would be no communication at all. From a pragmatic view: language + culture -> transportation traffic light vehicle (communication)
Communication is like transportation: language is the vehicle and culture is traffic light. Language makes communication easier and faster; culture regulates, sometimes promotes and sometimes hinders communication. In a word, language and culture, as different as they are, form a whole. Cultural content Many linguists explore the relationship between language and culture. Nida (1998: 29) holds the view that ‘Language and culture are two symbolic systems. Everything we say in language has meanings, designative or sociative, denotative or connotative. Every language form we use has meanings, carries meanings that are not in the same sense because it is associated with culture and culture is more extensive than language.’ People of different cultures can refer to different things while using the same language forms. For example, when one says lunch, an Englishman may be referring to hamburger or pizza, but a Chinese man will most probably be referring to steamed bread or rice. The word dog in English, and the character gou in Chinese, refer to the same kind of animal. However, most English people associate dog with man’s best...