The Influence of Language and Culture

Read this article and more in Weve

There is a wide range of cultural, political, linguistic and socioeconomic reasons why this six word quotation may, or may not, be familiar:

To be or not to be.

Can you name the author of the play that contains these six words?  Can you identify the character who says these six words? Can you recite the monologue that begins with these six words?  What do these six words mean to you?

It makes me reflect on what exactly does it mean: to be? Is it the state of existence, and intrinsic state of being human? Does the state of being-ness mean different things to different cultures, expressed in different ways in different languages? How does the state of “being” affect our worldviews, depending on which language we express ourselves in?

In English, the verb “to be” is used in a wide variety situations. For example, I am cold, She is an astronaut, We are leaving. However, there are often a range of different verbs that are used to express the same statements in other languages. In French, there are a number of verbs used in place of the English equivalent of “to be”, including “être” (to be) or “avoir” (to have) or “faire” (to make), depending on the situation, the intent and the context of the statement.

Nuances of language and cultural context can often be some of the most difficult aspects to master when translating and working with different languages. Trying to explain colloquialisms and slang to someone who is learning another language can be funny, frustrating and confusing. Even between people whose first language is seemingly the same, regional variations can cause confusion and misunderstanding.

The simple request of “bring a plate” to a New Zealand get-together has confounded many English-speaking newcomers to New Zealand – it means to bring a plate of food, not to bring an empty plate.

How does language influence culture? 

How does culture influence language?

There can be a number of different ways to engage with your communities to discuss the intricacies and impact of language and culture, opening up the conversation opportunities across language and culture boundaries.

  • Does learning another language change the way you speak your first language?
  • What does it mean to be raised in a bilingual household?
  • Is humour culturally and linguistically specific? The humour in Outrageous Fortune feels quintessentially “Kiwi”, but this TV series has been to TV networks around the world, and local versions have been made in the UK and the USA.
  • Is there a Vietnamese equivalent of Shakespeare, and what impact did their work have on Vietnamese language and culture?
  • Why is there legislation that states that babies born in Iceland must be given forenames which do not conflict with the linguistic structure of the Icelandic language [1]?
  • What impact does choosing to publish in a language other than English have on academics and scholars in different fields of research?
  • How do Shakespearean plays “translate” into other languages? What is the same and/or different about the interpretations in each language? Do you have to understand the spoken, or signed, language to understand the dramatic sentiment being performed? How are costumes and stage design impacted by the different cultural settings?

Libraries can create events, develop programmes, curate resource lists and establish spaces where communities can explore the influence of language on culture and the influence of culture on language.

Open up your spaces to explore other worldviews.

[1] Personal Names Act (No. 45) (in English). Iceland: Ministry of the Interior. 17 May 1996


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