What is the relationship between language, society, and culture?

I started writing a quick response to this question on Quora, but somehow it turned into a full essay. Let me know if I got it right in the comments.

What is the relationship between language, society, and culture?

Language can bind people together like nothing else, even if it is imposed from one culture to another—just think of the worldwide popularity of Hollywood movies in English, or of the connection that nations in the pan-Arab world still feel with one another despite serious ethnic, political, and religious differences. I doubt we Americans would have allied ourselves so quickly with Britain in World War II if we didn’t speak the same language. Even a written language can bind people who speak differently, which helps explain the success of China as a nation, where the written language is commonly read among people with very different spoken languages, and can be generally understood even by the Japanese. I guess I’m saying that a common language, especially a common first language, adheres cultures together in a way that is even stronger than race, nationality, or shared history.

On the dark side of this equation, the purveyors of cultural genocide have known the power of language for centuries as well, which explains the attempts by the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, English, Spanish, French, etc, each in their own time of world mastery, to block out the languages of the nations they conquered as a method of social control. This doesn’t even have to be a colonial conquest problem—Franco and Mussolini both attempted to unify their fascist nations by eliminating regional dialects and languages and pushing for a unified Spanish and Italian, respectively. Even in the United States, most Native Americans were forced to go to schools until fairly recently where their native languages were banned.

This method of control has nearly or completely wiped out dozens if not hundreds of languages in the past century or two, including Basque, Manx, Cornish, Venetian, Mohican, Eyak, Tillamook, and many more—often because well-meaning leaders believed that having splintered bands of folks not speaking the main lingua franca would hurt the nation at large.

In some cases, the attempts to eliminate a language has actually gathered societies together because it lets them know full-well their culture is under attack. And thus there are efforts underway to save Gaelic in Ireland, to save Basque in Spain, to save Navajo in the Southern United States, and to save Hebrew all over the world—which was actually a dead language and was revived! So language not only binds cultures, but it can be a rallying cry. The desire to preserve a language promotes the preservation of a society, and vice versa.

Of course, there’s a philosophical bent to your question as well, and I think this is the wellspring from whence all the lingual genocide comes from—it is true that people who think in one language will literally be incapable of thinking quite the same as another people of a different language. If we don’t have the words for a concept, or don’t account for its construction in our verbs and phrases, we won’t give that concept primary importance in our reasonings about things. And if we do have a concept baked into the language, we might easily think that it’s a natural state of affairs that doesn’t need to be proved or argued.

One example I think of a lot is how different languages talk about the past. Many cultures don’t have as many verb tenses for past experiences as English or Romance languages do, and for these cultures, there seems to be less of a tendency to dwell on the past. On the other hand, English doesn’t have a verbal concept of the common distinction in many African cultures between the recently departed (who have friends and relatives alive who still remember them) and the ancient dead who are only remembered in stories and books. And so our understanding of the past is not as rich as theirs, because we don’t have a common fulcrum around which to distinguish the recent past and its live witness accounts from what came before.

Of course, sometimes having fewer words for a thing can lead to a richer experience than having too many words. Consider our recent battles in Western culture over transgendered folks or those who do not want to identify as one sex or another. For many folks in our culture, this insistence on abandoning gender is a crazy fantasy, since it’s “known” that people are essentially male and female. But this is in some ways a limitation of our language—Mandarin, for example, does not gender most words, and does not have a “he” or “she,” so everyone is just “s/he.” On the other side of the equation, many romance languages designate every noun as feminine and masculine, which can potentially freeze a certain action or occupation as “women’s work” in the minds of speakers simply because, say, the word for “broom” or “cook” might have a feminine ending. English has a few words, like “stewardess,” that have feminized endings, but for the most part it’s easier in English to think of occupations as gender neutral because we’re not forced to specify. Clearly the words used in one language can certainly enforce stereotypes that wouldn’t be present in another.

In fact many languages enforce class structures as well. In English we all know that a job interview or a court case will require more formal language than a convivial meeting with friends, and that not being fluent in “formal” English can limit your economic options or even get you thrown in jail. Many languages even have specific tenses and words you only use with your grandmothers, or only use with your social betters or inferiors. Many of the things we now consider racial slurs or offensive terms kind of fall into this latter category: they at one time were not meant so much to offend as to subtly degrade, and put a person “in their place,” enforcing a lifetime of social stratification.

In English, we’ve been fighting against this kind of language for a while now, and it kind of works. Much of modern PC culture may seem a little weird or forced at first (do we really need to call the stewardess a “flight attendant” or call someone “differently abled” rather than “crippled?”) but this “lessening” of language is actually helpful in removing the power of language to limit people’s chances to exceed those roles. Changing the language can the culture.

In short, languages bind cultures together, but they also can limit our abilities to think about things. The good part is, it only takes about a generation to change language considerably, and we’re slowly realizing that because of the limits of language, having a world with many languages is a better solution to new and profound thoughts than having a world with just a few. If I were having kids, I’d try to get them to learn as many languages as possible, so they could have two or three different cultural systems of thought at their disposal, rather than just the one.

D. M. Collins

D. M. Collins is a journalist and writer based in Los Angeles.

5 thoughts on “What is the relationship between language, society, and culture?

  1. Good article! I’m from Catalonia, and I speak Catalan, Spanish, English, French and I’m learning Galego, Euskera (my favourite language 💖), and a little of Bable/Asturianu, Italian and Portuguese. Yeah, maybe I’m crazy XD and I’m only 15 years old. But learning languages it’s one of the things I love doing 😀 and I also teach Catalan in a web. Yeah, 15 years old, I know I’m weird 😛 (and sorry for my English, I’m learning English at school).
    I’m so happy because you’ve talked about Basque/Euskera, the language of Euskal Herria 💚 . Yeah, it’s a language that only few persons speak, sadly (I think that no more than 2 milion of persons, and Catalan more than 7 milion people).
    I can say that Basques and Catalans are very similar. We both have parts of our territories in France, not only Spain. Euskal Herria has Iparralde and Catalonia has Perpinyà and l’Alta Cerdanya. We are so different from the other parts of Spain, in our personality and way of think.
    In Euskal Herria there are the “bertsos”, and they few years ago wanted their independence, and still wanting it.
    In Catalonia we have the “Castells i els castellers” (toros aren’t legal here), they’re the Human Castles, that are Patrimony of the Humanity, and represent the force of the people, the effort, the work, and the person that touches the sky is a little girl. It means “even a little gir can be the biggest and tallest person in the world and touch the sky if we work all toghether”. We also ha’ve “el Caga Tió”, “El Caganer” and other strange Chrsitmas traditions XD. In Euskal Herria they have “Olentzero”.

    We are like best friends, or even lovers, and we are the only ones that understand the other one in this place were Spanish is the language that we’ve to talk all of us, even if we think, love, imagine or live in our language.
    I know that Catalan is spoken by a lot of people, but Euskara… 🙁 I don’t want it to disappear.
    There are a lot of songs by Euskaldunak bands who had maken songs in Catalan, and Catalan bands who had maken songs in Euskera. Examples:
    Xeic! (Catalan band) -> “Ilargia” (Song in Euskera, that means “the Moon”). They’ve got a version in Catalan too, named “la Lluna”. This song is originally by Ken Zazpi, that has got a version in Euskera and another in Catalan, like many of his songs (“Noizbait” -> “Compta-hi” and “Zapalduen olerkia” -> “El poema dels oprimits”). “El poema dels oprimits” means “The opressed’s poem”, that talks about Catalonia and Euskal Herria.

    Other songs:
    -Aspencat (Valencian band; in Valencia people speak Valencià, which it’s a dialect from Catalan) feat. Ense Beltza (Basque band)- “Som moviment” (“We are movement” in Catalan).
    -“Agure Zaharra” (in Basque) “L’Estaca” (in Catalan), from Betagarri, a Basque band. And “Som un poble viu” (“we are an alive nation”, in Catalan).
    -“Ara bé lo bo” – Esne Beltza (Basque band) feat. La Pegatina (Catalan band) . They also sing in Galego in this song 😀

    There are a lot 🙂

    We love our culture, our language, our way of think, our personality, our love to our land… and we are sad because all of these things that we are, that are also a part of Spain, people don’t know about their existence.
    When people think about Spain they think “Paella, siesta, fiesta, good weather,toros, flamenco…”. And lots of Spanish do the same. That’s why much of Spanish people (I’m talking about the fascist people) hate Basque, Catalan and even Galician and Valencian people. They don’t accept the plurality of our country 🙁 they say things like “Basque and Catalan are sooo ugly, it’s better Spanish. Catalan is too “elegant” and it’s similar to French, and Basque is “the language of wild people, of a society that hasn’t developed, it sound so ugly, wild”.
    If there was respect, all of these things of independence and others won’t exist.

    Our philosophy teacher told us that a language is a way of think, it shows the personality of the nation that talks in that language. We were watching “The Arrival”. It can be more or less difficult, sweet, serious, etc. Each language determine how is the nation that talk in that language, it’s way to think.

    Well, I’ve written sooo much (I’m so sorry for my bad English, seriously XD). If you want to know something about these cultures, say me something 🙂
    Bye! Agur! (Euskera) Adéu! (Catalan) Adiós (Spanish) Adieu! (French)… etc.

    1. Wow! Thanks for all the cool phrases… I am looking at the Catalan human towers right now, and these guys are amazing! I really like the phrase “the person that touches the sky is a little girl.” I would love to hear some of the music you speak of–do you have any links you could post from YouTube of people playing these songs?

      1. Yeah, of course I can! And thank you so much 😀 Here I go:

        I will start with the “funny and happy songs” (yeah, because I don’t know what kind of music do you like, so I’m going to make a list with different kinds of songs XD):

        “Ara ve lo bo” – La Pegatina (Catalan band) and Esne Beltza (Basque band). In this song, they also sing in Galego 🙂
        https://youtu.be/AWuO6Uot_0M

        “Gure esku dago” (Gure Esku Dago) in Euskera. I think it’s got subtitles 🙂 It’s for the independence of Euskal Herria.
        https://youtu.be/dAkHgqTYxl8

        “Aquí és Nadal i estic content” (La Pegatina) in Catalan
        https://youtu.be/3LSA4xXWcUM

        “Jenifer” (Els Catarres) in Catalan
        https://youtu.be/FhJR6OO1X8Y

        “Fins que arribi l’alba” (Els Catarres) in Catalan
        https://youtu.be/Z5LVw2abUlw

        “Invencibles” (Els Catarres) in Catalan. I think it’s “rumba catalana”.
        https://youtu.be/OO3kH9mlEMk

        “En peu de guerra” (Els Catarres) in Catalan. I also think it’s got some of “rumba catalana”.
        https://youtu.be/0khvHCjn0AE

        “Big Bang” all the album, it’s amazing (Els Catarres) in Catalan
        https://youtu.be/SM26ZgwpURw

        “Vull estar amb tu” (Els Catarres) in Catalan
        https://youtu.be/y0bx_PVZA8Y

        “Rock and roll” (Els Catarres) in Catalan
        https://youtu.be/gCGGtdcM-FA

        “Tokyo” (Els Catarres) in Catalan
        https://youtu.be/NqGl0OuLb4Q

        “Només amb tu” (Animal) in Catalan
        https://youtu.be/6ZnwCG_Qn0s

        “Les nits no moren mai” (Doctor Prats) in Catalan. It’s an Avicii’s “The nights” version for La Marató de TV3 🙂 and it’s got sounds from Catalan music like trumpets and more.
        https://youtu.be/suru7vbOFnY

        “Músic de carrer” (Txarango) in Catalan. It’s “rumba catalana”.
        https://youtu.be/gDaU6T6txVQ

        “Quan tot s’enlaira” (Txarango) in Catalan. There’s a piano version, and it makes me cry :’)
        https://youtu.be/ozaZ5826SjY

        “Una lluna a l’aigua” (Txarango) in Catalan. It’s “rumba catalana”.
        https://youtu.be/bDIBfFWNWWE

        “El meu poble” (Txarango) in Catalan. I’m not sure if this is “rumba catalana” but I know that other songs that I’ve written here maybe are rumba catalana. I’m not good at recognising types of music XD but “rumba catalana” is so different from “rumba andaluza” or “flamenco” and “sevillanas”.
        https://youtu.be/1bvt4E22mR0

        “Vola” (Txarango) in Catalan.
        https://youtu.be/c6b__5rxlrQ

        “Sempre balla” (Txarango) in Catalan.
        https://youtu.be/c6b__5rxlrQ

        “Hem nascut castellers” (Porto Bello) in Catalan.
        https://youtu.be/UnjtNSYSHC8

        “Sueños de color” (Esne Beltza) in Spanish and Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/hxvT29hP7js

        “Aldapan gora” (Huntza) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/LRaeakNECr8

        “Iñundik iñoare” (Huntza) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/SJ6wdDOgtQ4

        “Kalabazak” (Huntza) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/DYFA9TQUN_0

        “Gaztetxeak bizirik” (Huntza) in Euskera. It’s for the “gaztetxeak”, places where people learn and have fun in Euskera. This song i’s for deffend them.
        https://youtu.be/CSbdaJWcYPU

        “Gotti!” (Esne Beltza) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/JSL-sd2_aGw

        “Mundu berri baten mapa” (Skakeitan, Esne Beltza and Ze esa!tek) in Euskera. It’s relatted to the prisioners. Yeah, like in Catalonia, they’ve had prisioners since years ago. We’ve had political prisoners since a few months ago, but we also had “Pau Casals”, a musician (“El cant dels ocells”) and “Lluís Companys”, the president who died for us 🙁
        https://youtu.be/kG0kC83qfR8

        “Zirkorrika” (it’s from an event, the “Korrika”, a race that is for deffending their language) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/iJJz0aggQ9Q

        “Euskararen Txantxangorria” (it’s from the TV series “Go!azen”) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/c88TBQKiImg

        “Gogoak” (Esne Beltza) in Euskera and Italian. Tis video is a Lip Dub that has maken a town.
        https://youtu.be/d4icSql9f28

        “Euskaraz bizi nahi dut” (Esne Beltza) in Euskera. It means “I want to live in Euskera”. I think you know why it’s maken for, this song 😉
        https://youtu.be/i1yBZh4Gbw0

        There is also a Catalan version:
        “Vull viure en català” (La Pegatina and Esne Beltza) in Catalan.
        https://youtu.be/cV2Xm86h1eQ

        “La flama” (Obrint pas) in Catalan. It’s for the independence.
        https://youtu.be/7nPvfqn2hhI
        And, other Lip Dub, that shows lots of things of our culture:
        https://youtu.be/muTMLuGWrp8

        “Tornarem” (Xeic!) in Catalan. It’s for deffending our language and our independence.
        https://youtu.be/wvhC9p5-LNs

        “Nafarroa Bizirik” in Euskera. Nafarroa it’s a part of Euskal Herria that has lost a lot of Basque culture 🙁
        https://youtu.be/veVIWdUquoQ

        “Agafant l’horitzó” (Txarango, Aspencat, Cesc Freixas, Gemma Humet, les Kol·lontai i Ascensa Furore) in Catalan. It’s for the independence.
        https://youtu.be/e2pEx7PAb30

        “És aquesta nit” (Sense sal) in Catalan.
        https://youtu.be/L7_6LAg3368

        “Gabak Zerueri Begire” (Gatibu) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/o5PI_hP4ryM

        “Bixotza suten” (Gatibu) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/KRIrC7u7tpw

        “Bang-bang txik-txiki bang-bang” (Gatibu) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/6QADJ6t3vJM

        “¿Quién manda? Hemen eta hor” (Ense Beltza feat. Mala Rodríguez) in Spanish and Euskera. This song talks about the freedom, the political power and all this stuff of our days 🙁
        https://youtu.be/xXTVrHca9Lk

        Now, rock and roll 😉

        “Leña al fuego” (Vendetta) in Spanish.
        https://youtu.be/8p9D7uo_n48

        “No sabéis amar” (Vendetta) in Spanish. I’ve got to explain one thing. Vendetta is a band from Pamplona/Iruña (Navarra/Nafarroa). They sing in Euskera and Spanish. And also in English. But they feel like they were Basque. They write about freedom and justice. About a change in the world and also a change in the people. In this song, they talk about today’s people, that don’t love the world where they live but dont’ do anything to change it: the people that become angry only because of their mobile phone and because of this they kick cats, for example… . All those things.
        https://youtu.be/CiKLCHy1lTw

        “Bother the police” (Vendetta) in Euskera, Spanish and a few of English.
        https://youtu.be/lTnDK9plbHo

        “Pao Pao Pao” (Vendetta feat. Toni Mejías) in Spanish. A song about feminism.
        https://youtu.be/4h7TLZSsmD0

        “Batasuna” (Vendetta) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/OiEzq5pavEc

        “Suma” (Vendetta) in Spanish.
        https://youtu.be/1IvxW0SsVis

        “Absurdo Carnaval” (Vendetta) in Spanish.
        https://youtu.be/1hPCIdMgVxQ

        “Welcome to the war” (Vendetta) in Spanish, Euskera and a few of English.
        https://youtu.be/EHs1xmPlTmM

        “Pólvora” (Vendetta) in Spanish.
        https://youtu.be/ZDBNkkva19Y

        “Geldiezinak” (Vendetta feat. Kerry McGowan) in Euskera and English. For the independence and the language.
        https://youtu.be/xwcbGYW0uVk

        “Cerca del mar” (Vendetta) in Spanish. You’ve got the lyrics in English in the video 🙂
        https://youtu.be/yXNuua56rW4

        “Ilunpetan” (Vendetta) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/hXSyEvR98x4

        “Udarako gau luzeak” (Vendetta) in Euskera. It talks about love, but also about freedom, our opressed cultures, about the prisioners, about Vaticano’s power… etc.
        https://youtu.be/q6Uww1-R3u4

        All of these songs (Bother the police, Batasuna, Leña al fuego, No sabéis amar, Suma, Absurdo Carnaval, Ilunpetan, Geldiezinak, Time for freedom, Cerca del mar,…) talk about freedom and our nations.

        “Airea” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/_5oWzcgnB_w

        “Ortzadarra” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/1JMgGuhcYfE

        “Hegan” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/_A_QDss00tU

        “Espero dena” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/-4kiEtQNmFY

        “Dana” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/vcsIfL-F_ms

        “Gure ereserkia” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/hnlpkvR07N8

        “Gure gaua” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/tbcsoff-zU8

        “Bihotz ezkutua” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/JtllTfazf1A

        “Begiak itxi” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/eSiPK-6i8BE

        “Ozen Oihukatu” (Enkore feat. Zuriñe Hidalgo) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/N-TptzfIcZg

        “Muxurik muxu” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/3lXYk9En490

        “Zerua” (Enkore) in Euskera.
        https://youtu.be/pHfFaBqKmII

        “L’estaca” (Betagarri) in Catalan.
        Well, Betagarri is a Basque band but, like Ken Zazpi, Esne Beltza, Skakeitan, Enkore… they love so much Catalonia. So, Betagarri made a version of Lluís Llach’s “L’estaca”. They made it in Euskera and Catalan 🙂 lluís Llach, a Catalan, made this song in time of Franco, because of the opression.
        In euskera:
        https://youtu.be/QKehNgozw1g
        In Catalan:
        https://youtu.be/TeHXwuw0SMs

        “L’estaca” (Gure Esku Dago) in Catalan and Euskera. Basque musicians and “bertsolaris” made this song for us. You can see that Enkore’s singer, Xabi Hoo, also appears in the video!! And a lot of people more :’)
        https://youtu.be/me-z_m94iVs

        “Agur” (Garilak 26) in Euskera. The girl that appears in the video, Itziar Ituño, also appears in l’Estaca video! 😀 The song means “bye”, so… XD you know.
        https://youtu.be/imclCdAklF8

        “Som moviment” (Aspencat feat. Esne Beltza) in Catalan and Euskera. It talks about that we can change the world, about a woman that got injured by a policeman even she didn’t do anything, about doing things in our town to give the world a second chance, the injust laws, corruption… the lyrics are… wow, incredible, really. I cried a lot with this song :'( the song means “we’re movement”.
        https://youtu.be/-OT5fJiMSqg

        “Fronteres” (Xeic! feat. Pello Armendariz, from Skakeitan) in Catalan (well, in the dialect of Valencia) and a little part in Euskera (Pello sings it).
        https://youtu.be/Qt_At3qtkF0

        “Tanca els ulls” (Xeic!) in Catalan; it means “close your eyes”.
        https://youtu.be/5J_fM-WF2RU

        “Toca revolta” (Xeic! feat. Zuriñe Hidalgo and Cesc Freixas) in Catalan and a part in Euskera (Zuriñe Hidalgo).
        https://youtu.be/OHF0t4o_mFk

        “Ilargia” (Xeic!) in Euskera. This song is from Ken Zazpi, who made a Catalan version, not only in Euskera.
        Xeic! sings Ilargia in Euskera:
        https://youtu.be/W2sMNYUdksk
        Xeic! signs in Catalan (“la Lluna”):
        https://youtu.be/K1ZFi8KPBRc

        “Los Borbones son unos ladrones” (lots of rappers and singers, like the singer of Txarango, Les Kol·lontai, Valtonyc who is at the prison with Pablo Hasél because of singing a rap…) in Spanish and Catalan. It means “The Borbons are robbers/thiefs”. And it’s for our liberty of expression and because we want a republic, not a monarchy that FRANCO put. We don’t want someone who goes killing elephants in Botswana and Infanta Cristina to steal us…

        Tomorrow I’ll finish it, okay? 🙂

        I’ve been all night doing this XD but hey, don’t worry, I’m so happy to help you find music like this. Hugs and kisses from Catalonia, and also from Euskal Herria!!
        Bona nit, gabon, good night, buenas noches, bonne nuit, boas noites!

  2. Ah! You should listen to Blaumut, Kerobia, Lax’n’Busto, Sopa de Cabra, Gossos’ song “Corren” and Lain’s “Beldurra” “Azken antzezpena” “Marinelaren zain” “itxaropen hautsien kaxa” “aukera berri bat” “euskal herrian euskaraz” and “zure doinua”.

    🙂

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