Language differences

Von Humboldt (1767 – 1835). Photo. By Lithographie von Franz Krüger ( ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Language is important to us. After all, we cannot communicate very well without language. However, a lot of people believe that language is more important than that. The great German linguist and philosopher, Willhelm von Humboldt was the first to develop the idea that language is governed by a set of rules that can be explained; this idea has formed the foundation of Noam Chomsky’s modern theory of language. However, Von Humboldt also believed that language somehow carries the spirit of a nation. The general idea that language influences the way we think and see the world has come to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The idea that language somehow determines the way we make sense of things seems reasonable but is very difficult to test or prove.

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897 – 1941). Whorf used the term Linguistic Relativity to refer to the idea that language somehow influences culture.  Photo.
Edward Sapir (1884 -1939) was interested in the ways in which language and culture influence each other. Photo. By unnkown ( [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In opposition to these ideas, Noam Chomsky developed the theory that all languages are basically the same. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar hypothesis is based on the view that we are able to learn languages easily as children because human brains have universal rules of grammar built in at birth. For Chomsky, human language ability is separate from other cognitive processes in some mysterious way. If you believe this, you can just study one language (English, for example) and figure out all the language rules from that. In recent years, Cognitive Linguists have argued that there is no clear evidence for Universal Grammar and that language develops out of the way we use it. For Cognitive Linguists, language and other ordinary thought processes cannot be separated from each other. Language and the way we think mutually influence each other; this is a bit like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Immanuel Kant (1724 -1812) was one of first to propose that humans are born with certain abilities. Photo. By unspecified (/History/Carnegie/kant/portrait.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The argument between people who think the human mind is like a blank slate and those who think we are born with certain abilities has been going on a long time. In recent years, George Lakoff has argued that the mind can only be understood as a part of the body and that language ability cannot be understood as happening only in the mind. Can language be separated from culture and other thought processes? We are probably not going to find an answer very soon. Even so, it’s fun to look at language differences and think about how they might affect culture.

George Lakoff (born 1941) has suggested that our understanding of language involves the body as well as the mind. If that’s true, language ability cannot be separated from other cognitive processes. Photo. By Pop!Tech (Flickr: Pop!Tech 2008 – George Lakoff) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Differences in the way languages deal with color are quite well known and linguists have big arguments about this. How about other differences?


In English, if you say “We are the greatest” to someone, you could be talking about yourself and the listener or you could be talking about yourself and another person or persons but not including the listener. Many other languages have special ways of making this clear.


In English, if you say to someone “So you aren’t going to the party” you might answer by saying “no” meaning “No, (I’m not going to the party)”. In some other languages, you might answer with a word like “yes” meaning “Yes, (I’m not going to the party)”. What is going on?

Word order

In English the subject generally comes first, followed by the verb, followed by the object. In other words it’s an SVO language. Research suggests that about 36% of the world’s languages are SVO. About 41% of the world’s languages are SOV, like Japanese. Only about 9% of the world’s language are VSO, like Welsh. Is the order of words in a sentence going to influence the way you see the world?


Over 60% of the languages of the world make questions by putting a question particle somewhere in a question sentence. So the Japanese language, with its ka question particle is quite normal. By contrast, languages that move words around in order to make question sentences, like English for example, are very unusual. Less than 2% of the world’s languages move words around and most of these are from Europe.  Is it a problem to just assume that English is typical of all the languages of the world?


Japanese has special verb endings that mark sentences as polite. English doesn’t have any special polite words. Instead, English employs indirectness strategies to indicate politeness. “I was just wondering if it might be at all possible to ask you to lend me your pen for just a moment”. What might this tell us about culture? Is politeness more important in Japan than in the UK?


English has tense built into sentences so you can’t really say anything unless you refer to the time it happened relative to now. Languages like Chinese are relatively free from this dependence on time. Is that kind of thing going to have an effect on the way people think? Are some languages more poetic than others?


Pitch is important in music. It refers to whether a note is higher or lower than another. All languages employ pitch in certain ways — indicating emotion for example. Certain languages employ pitch in order to indicate differences in meaning. In languages, we refer to this use of pitch as tone. Languages that employ pitch in this way are referred to as tonal languages. For example, Mandarin Chinese has four tones. Tonal languages are rare in Europe and Asia (except for East Asia) but research suggests that as many as 70% of the world’s languages may be tonal. How might this aspect of language affect culture in a broader sense?

Clicks and other funny noises

Xhosa is a language spoken by over seven million people in South Africa. It is a tonal language but also employs various click sounds that seem extremely strange to most of us. Have a listen to this. How could this feature affect culture? Are speakers of these languages just cleverer than the rest of us?

Frame of reference

Usually, when we talk about the position of people or objects, we use some other frame of reference. For example, we might say, “The book is on the table” or “Mary is in front of Bill”. However, researchers claim that some languages, Australian aboriginal languages in particular, don’t do this. In other words, they don’t have words such as left, right, back, in front of etc. Instead, speakers of these languages employ an absolute frame of reference. So, instead of saying “Bill is to the right of the house” they might say “Bill is east of the house”. In order to do this, you always have to know which way is north. There is also evidence that Australian aboriginal children have this ability. So they are cleverer — at least in certain ways.

Anyway, check out the PowerPoint slides here.