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.