The University of Hong Kong
Human Language: Nature or Nurture?
Is Language Influenced by Culture?
Culture and language have long been believed to be intimately interrelated. Defined by anthropologist Tylor (1871, p.1), culture is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." People learn culture through language. Language, one of the most distinctive characteristics of human, is unique to human with its productive and creative nature (Hockett, 1960). This essay aims to discuss how language is influenced by culture. CL7 and Gossophilia groups’ works, which investigate the relationship between language and culture, will be discussed in the entire paragraphs.
CL7 focuses on the effect of culture on human’s vocabularies. They raise a number of examples of different places, such as Japan, Hong Kong and North America, providing audience with adequate convincing evidence and clear explanation to understand their viewpoint that vocabularies could reflect distinct cultural characteristics of different cultures. An interesting, yet the only arguable, point would be loan words in Hong Kong. Though it is claimed that this unique loan word language is caused by the unique history of Hong Kong (Lin, 2003), it also shapes Hong Kong’s, but not the Mainland’s, unique culture of using loan words (Sun, 2013). It can therefore be perceived that culture and language, especially vocabulary, has a mutually influential relationship.
Glossophilia emphasizes the effect of social environment, which they defined as cultural milieus within defined groups of people, on human’s language. They divide social environment into physical environment, social beliefs and social status. Although social environment includes culture that people are born in and live in (Barnett & Casper, 2001), their arguments seem not strong, logical and unambiguous enough.
Glossophilia suggested that physical environment could have some effect on ideas, customs and social behavior which are parts of culture. This point may have confused people that what concrete effects there actually are. To me, the linkage between physical environment and culture and the relationship between physical environment and language are ambiguous that Glossophilia could have elaborated more about that by raising examples. After some research, it is found that, according to Hawkes’ (2003) speech at the Outback Summit of the 15th National Conference of the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand, physical environment, comprising of climate, topography and natural resources, prodigiously determines the cultural arrangements of a society. This view could be justified by two prestigious examples, naming Indus Valley Civilization in India and Nile Valley Civilization in Egypt. Major agricultural settlements and cultural activities are located on fertile land area near river banks with enormous supply of water (Medow & Kenoyer, 2000). This shows that physical environment shapes a society’s culture. To better illustrate the relationship between physical environment and language, one example is Australian aboriginal language of Pintupi, suggested by group CL7. According to deGroot (2010), there are numerous words for “hole” in the Pintupi language, such as “pulpa” as “a rabbit burrow”, “Yulpilpa” as “a shallow hole where ants live in” and “Makarnpa” as “a goanna burrow”. It is believed that the existence of this language may be because of the multifarious types of holes found in Pintupi of Western dessert part of Australia. This example, hence, may show that physical environment, which is linked to culture, influences language.
Glossophilia also claimed that social beliefs, including religion and traditions, shape people’s language with examples of English speakers usually saying “oh my...
References: Barnett, E., PhD, & Casper, M., PhD. (2001). A Definition of “Social Environment”, American Journal of Public Health, 91, 3
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Hawkes, J. (2003, October 23). The Link Between Culture and Environment. Keynote speech at the Outback Summit of the 15th National Conference of the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand, Broken Hill.
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