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How Language Affects Thought And Culture


The way our language forces us to speak has profound implications on our culture and way of thinking. There are many different types of languages around the world derived from various parent languages.

For example, English is a type of Germanic Language which is a branch of the Indo-European language family. It is split into three categories: West Germanic, Netherlandic, and East Germanic. English and German fall within the West Germanic category. Within this branch, English is an anomaly in that it is a future-oriented language meaning that the grammatical structure of the language forces you to think about the future and present separately. The way language forces you to speak is believed to affect the way you think and even act when it comes to certain things like money spending habits and the perception of colors.

When you see the colors such as red and pink do you think of them as separate colors or different shades of the same color? Technically, pink is just light red. However, we tend to categorize colors separately instead of pairing colors such as blue and light blue together.

Flickr Creative Commons image.
Flickr Creative Commons image.

Because English speakers refer to shades of red through distinct terms, it is believed that our perception of colors is influenced by language and the way in which we refer to them. In New Guinea, the Dani culture breaks up the color spectrum much differently than the way we do. They split it up in terms of two shades: lightness and darkness. Light shades include colors such as red and yellow while dark shades includes colors such as blue and green. Although, people of the Dani tribe distinguish colors differently, they still see the same colors and shades. They may however, experience the colors differently than we do.

Additionally, there are certain languages such as Hindi in which certain cultural values are emphasized through vocabulary. In India there is a great emphasis placed on family hierarchy.  In Hindi, one of the national languages of India, there is no generic term that is indicative of “aunt.

” Instead, there are several terms for aunt that are more descriptive of the individual’s relationship to your parents. For example, “chachii” is what one would call their father’s younger brother’s wife. The term “mami” is used to refer to one’s mother’s brother’s wife, and the term “mausi” is used to refer to your mother’s sister. These distinctions in terminology are believed to both reflect cultural values as well as shape the way individuals think.  By forcing individuals to specify a family member’s exact relationship to themselves and parents, it causes a shift in the way one perceives other people in relation to themselves. India is a collectivist society and have familistic value orientations, therefore the detailed family terminology both influences the way people think and reflects the society’s cultural values.

Americentric map of the world. Flickr Creative Commons image.
Americentric map of the world. Flickr Creative Commons image.

Not only can language give insight into a society’s cultural values, but it can also give researchers an understanding of economic trends that have manifested as a result of characteristics unique to specific languages. It helps explain why countries with similar types of economies have very different spending tendencies, and why countries with very different types of economies may have similar spending tendencies.

In particular, Chinese and Finnish languages do not speak of the future in the same sense as English speakers do. In English, there is a distinction between the past and present.  In English we say “I will go to the store tomorrow”. However, in Chinese this directly translates to: “I go to the store tomorrow.” Since the future and present are grammatically equivalent in such languages, this can have profound implications when it comes to future habits such as saving money, exercise, and drug use.

Individuals who speak a language with a weak future tense are 30% more likely to save more money, 24% more likely to avoid smoking, and 29% more likely to exercise regularly than speakers of a language with distinct future and present tenses. These future oriented trends can be seen throughout the world’s futureless languages such as Japanese and Finnish. Both Japan and Finland score relatively high in terms of saving rates. And countries that speak future based languages such as Greece, America, and Portugal all score very poorly in terms of savings rate measured in GDP. These trends are believed to be due to the sense of immediacy that comes with futureless languages. Because the present and future are merged into one, the future is seemingly less distant. Therefore, the use of weak future tense or complete omission of a future tense motivates individuals to save earlier.

Flickr Creative Commons image.
Flickr Creative Commons image.

The language we speak has many cultural and economic implications to the point that it can affect our thought and can even limit an individual’s worldview. Not only can language affect our perception of colors and family, but it can influence our decisions such as spending behavior. Not only can being aware of such implications help us make more conscious decisions when it comes to our money spending habits, but it can also help us to be more cognizant of the way in which we talk about the future and how it affects our lives.

About the Author

Gazal Arora is an undergraduate Cellular Biology major at the University of Georgia. When she’s not studying at the Science Library, she can be found hiking, reading, or Snellibrating. For more information you can email her at ga25144@uga.edu or follow her on Twitter: @gazalarora_.

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