Which Came First: Language or Culture? Language.

Language and culture are closely linked to each other, and throughout history, they have grown in tandem; in the first instance, however, the rudiments of language were necessary for the establishment of culture. If culture can be likened to a living cell, then language is its DNA, encoding cultural information and making possible its transmission.

The first principle is that culture is an adaptive pattern that is learned. If a behavior is purely instinctive, it is not a part of culture. In human societies, it is probably safe to say that no instinct exists that is not at least partially modified by culture, and that includes the urge to procreate, but the point is useful in establishing that humans have cultures, while lesser animals do not. The second principle is that cultures are transmitted through communication between individuals, and not simply by the observation of one individual by another. The more advanced animals are capable of building upon instinct by learning: birds show their hatchlings how to move their wings to fly, and young carnivores learn how to hunt by watching a parent or other elder, but at no point is there the transmission of an abstract concept. Language alone is capable of such transmission, and therefore, language is vitally necessary to any culture.

Language is a very sophisticated construct that is capable of embedding a great deal of cultural information into a compact form, and of transmitting that information on a subconscious level. Vocabulary does not merely give us the tools to describe things, it also governs how we perceive them, creating categories that assist us in judgments and even defining the data that we perceive and the data that will pass unnoticed. Grammar and syntax influence our senses of causality. Phonemes, the building blocks of words, forge conceptual connections among things and ideas that otherwise might seem very different from each other.

Vocabulary teaches people how to conceptualize the world around them, and even closely related cultures have marked differences here. As anyone who speaks more than one language has noticed, not everything can be translated in a satisfactory manner, usually because the words involved have shades of meaning that are not conveyed in the corresponding words in another language. Consider the use of the word “friend” in English, German and Russian.

In English, we use the term fairly loosely, falling back on adjectives like “close” if emphasis is needed. One can meet someone one night at a party, and encounter that person the next day on the street, and introduce him or her to another as “my friend.” We do have another word for a much lesser connection, namely “acquaintance,” but it is little used because it seems pedantic to most. In German, this distinction is far more rigorously followed, with “Freund” being reserved for a small circle of close friends, and “Bekannte” (or acquaintance) being the norm. The Russians have refined this distinction into three categories, with “znakomyy” (“one who is known”) for acquaintance, “priyatel'” (casual friend, or more nearly, “someone I’m cool with”) for an intermediate level of friendship, and “drug” (male) or “podruga” (female) to denote the inner circle of lifelong friends.

Clearly, on an abstract level, all of these concepts can be conveyed in all three languages if one is prepared to use enough modifiers to explain one’s meaning. At the same time, each language presents a different set of norms, and the average American views friendship differently from the average German or Russian. Americans are much quicker to make new friends, and to break off old friendships, than are Europeans, and it is no accident. Our respective vocabularies influence our behavior by shading our perception of reality. Such differences are precisely what we mean when we speak of cultural differences.

Grammar and syntax govern the way that words are strung together into sentences; this in turn influences our sense of causation. Grammar gives us subjects that perform actions and objects that receive them. Direct and indirect objects distinguish between gifts that are given and those that receive them. In this way, the flow of reality is structured in a way that makes sense to us: “He gave me the bike,” or “my father told me the story.” The underlying logic seems so elemental as to be universal, but this is not true. Some languages have radically different grammar, and this affects the way reality is perceived.

Consider the phrase “Somebody stole my bike.” Each word conveys a great deal of information, and this information grows in the combination, even though it is a simple sentence on the “subject, verb, direct object” model. As fundamental as this reasoning seems, however, not all languages organize the facts in the same way. As a fellow student who had traveled to Togo once explained to me, there are West African languages, for example, that follow a very different idea of causation. Where we say, “somebody stole my bike,” with the understanding that the vague subject “somebody” stands in for a very real and concrete person who is currently unknown, in Togo they would say something more like, “my bike disappeared.” The underlying fact, the absence of the bike, is known, but the agency that caused the fact is left out entirely, along with the more precise verb “stole,” which suggests that the motive is known. Different cultures do not merely express themselves differently, they also view the world through different prisms, and language is the force that defines this process.

Phonemes are the building blocks of words, and therefore the hardest part to nail down, but potentially the most influential. Most of the time, they pass the conscious mind invisibly, but to the subconscious, they convey a wealth of information in something like shorthand. Phonemes are so basic that they are shared, not just by entire linguistic families, but sometimes by clusters of families. The phoneme “ma” is the building block of words pertaining to motherhood (including, not coincidentally, “milk” and its cognates) over much of the globe, with “pa” (or “fa” in the Germanic languages) enjoying a similar if less widespread role in words involving fatherhood. Usually, the underlying phoneme is less obvious except in connection with suffixes and prefixes, which transform a word by the addition of a loose phoneme. A good example of this is the Germanic phoneme “er,” which has a number of uses. By itself, it signifies masculinity, as in the pronoun “er” (“he”) and the article “der,” (the masculine form of “the”). As a suffix, it does more than indicate that the noun is masculine, however; it takes a verb and transforms it into the term for a person who performs that action. This use also exists in English, appearing in words like baker, miller, and innkeeper. The same phoneme can appear as a prefix, however, conveying a sense of accomplishment or the completion of an action: the prefix “er-” changes “to find” into “to invent,” “to travel” into “to experience,” or “to drink” into “to drown.” The use of prefixes like this informs the conceptual relationship of ideas with a similar meaning, and creates relationships where the link is not evident.

Language is the source of culture, and in the end, it is also its essence. Language permits the organization, transmission, and evolution of culture, gradually changing as behavior changes.


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