How connected are language and culture?

June 18, 2010 | Posted by Chris

Huge. Language and culture are tightly linked, because culture is embedded in language and language is the vehicle for culture itself.

For example, the chéngyǔ (成语 or idiom) is an important part of the Chinese language. These are generally combinations of four characters that express meaning by referencing an ancient story that is the origin of the chéngyǔ itself. These phrases are often the richest tools of expression available to a speaker of Chinese, because they express elements of a culture that cannot be captured in isolated words. They're also some of the hardest aspects of the language to learn -- precisely because they're so deeply intertwined with culture.

What's more, recent scholarship suggests one's thoughts are literally constrained and shaped by the language in which they're constructed. Lera Boroditsky, a Stanford University psychologist conducting the research, finds that "the private mental lives of speakers of different languages may differ dramatically...even a small fluke of grammar can have an effect on how people think about things in the world."

In short, when it comes to language and culture, you can't have one without the other.

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