Start Free Trial

How does culture influence language? What would be an example of this?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Although learning and using language is inherent to every culture culture, anthropologists have debated over its magnitude, since every person’s linguistic knowledge, capabilities, and usage vary depending on the social context of how they are taught and raised. Society and language are mutually important to each other.

According to anthropological linguist Daniel Everett, language can be considered a cultural tool to relate a community’s values and ideals and is shaped and molded by these residents over time. For example, in South Korea, there are certain words that have no English translation, such as nunchi, which is best translated as “eye-measure." This word relates to the Korean belief in propriety and hospitality, where a host is judged by their ability to read the needs and wants of their guests by offering the food or drink they know their visitors would like. In Korean culture, it is considered impolite to have to ask for something to eat or drink, so a guest would be embarrassed to have to do so; while other cultures might consider this similarly undesirable, it is not considered as distasteful or taboo.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are many ways in which culture influences language. The first example would be what words are considered taboo, and avoided or euphemized. For example, in Victorian England, sexuality was taboo in polite speech, and therefore terms potentially linked to sexuality or nakedness were not used in polite conversation. Undergarments, for example, are called "unmentionables" in many Victorian novels.

Another area in which language and culture are linked is in insult terms and swearing. The terms people use as insults reveal many deep-seated cultural beliefs. For example, the term "bastard" is an insult in cultures that prize monogamy and condemn having children out of wedlock; in cultures with more flexible family structures, such terms would not be effective insults. Similarly, religious insults are used in deeply religious societies (e.g. in Greece one curses someone's Christ or Virgin Mary) but not in more secular ones.

In cultures with strong gender differentiation, there are words used only by people of a certain gender. 

An interesting part of the history of the English language reflects the Norman conquest. While English retained Anglo-Saxon animal names such as "cow" and "pig", names that would have been used by the conquered people who tended the animals, the names of the foods derived from these animals are based on French roots (beef from boeuf, pork from porc) reflecting the language of the conquerors who ate the prepared foods. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team