Language is undoubtedly one of the most crucial elements of a society and, when mastered and used well, can also be a powerful agent to move that society towards change or progress. But could language actually shape the culture and how people think or behave? How much influence does our mother tongue have on what we see as normative behaviors and even on how we think and prioritize?
Many people who have learned other languages fluently report behaving and thinking differently in the other tongue; however, they often attribute the change to culture. While it could very well be a “chicken and the egg” argument, some researchers claim, on the other hand, that it may be the language itself that creates the behavior and, therefore, the culture.
For instance, one classic and controversial proponent of this idea was Benjamin Whorf, a linguist who studied the languages of the native peoples in the Americas and argued that because these languages lacked certain elements, such as the flow of time, their cultures had a completely different perception of reality and set of behaviors. Whorf took his research to an extreme, claiming that one’s mother tongue prevents a person from even grasping things that the language has no word for. This is obviously not the case, as seen by people who gain fluency in other languages. But it may speak volumes about the lens we see the world through and how we unconsciously prioritize concepts.
So, using Hebrew and English as an example, there are certain concepts given a word for which there is no word in English and vice-versa. The term “dafka,” translates closest to “in spite of” or similar to saying “of all things,” such as if you were to say, “Of all places, dafka, she chose to come here.” English speakers understand the idea a bit but we place much less priority on it than a Hebrew speaker. Another example would be the Hebrew word, “tachles,” which means “to the point and without formalities.” Tachles and dafka are two very important elements of Israeli culture that seep into Israelis’ behavior on a daily basis.
On the other hand, there are some English words that have no Hebrew equivalent. There is no Hebrew word for “coincidence,” for example-a concept that English speakers take for granted!
Anna Wierzbicka describes such words as “key concepts” or “key words” that reflect core elements of a culture. Guy Deutscher also illustrates this concept while focusing especially on color and the words for different colors, with a special look at the history of the color blue, in his Through the Language Glass.
While much more could be discussed on the subject, it does leave a few questions: How many concepts that we see as great priorities are a result of language? How much of our behavior is actually shaped by our language and its emphases? What happens when one becomes fluent in multiple languages? Does this broaden not only language skills but also one’s concept of the world and reality?