The Intertwining of Culture and Language

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Image courtesy of psychologytoday.com

Image courtesy of psychologytoday.com

Image courtesy of psychologytoday.com

Tylyn Johnson, Chief Editor

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Culture, the values and norms that define a society, and language, the systematic method of human communication, are important to the perceptual process, wherein it is determined if some “truth” is of relevance, as well as the ability to communicate it across differing views. For example, the Chomskyan Theory of Universal Grammar states that languages enable recursion, the ability to create endless sentences.

“I saw a dog. The dog was at the beach. A snake bit the dog.” This is an example of the speech patterns of the Pirahã, an Amazonian hunter-gatherer tribe whose language defies Chomsky’s Theory. In most languages which follow Chomsky’s theory, the speaker would instead say, “I saw the dog down by the river get bitten by a snake.”

Using simple sentences, the Pirahã make only direct assertions, perhaps due to their acceptance of only that which is experienced in the moment. Here, the starkly different linguistic and cultural traits exhibited by the Pirahã disrupt what was an accepted truth. The lack of acknowledgement of cases that might falsify Chomsky’s theory caused controversy when the tribe was discovered.(3)

The existing structural language barrier makes meaningful connections with the tribespeople somewhat difficult, as does their rejection for anything beyond what is expressly viewed as necessary, despite attempts to establish it for them. For instance, the Pirahã disregard agriculture can be roughly equated to a lack of belief in the future, because one cannot live for what has not yet been experienced.(1)

Culture and language starts off as a barrier, wherein what is perceived is changed based on what one expects and is able to internalize linguistically. Yet, culture and language can become filters within the perceptual process once one begins critically analyzing one’s own snap judgements, broadening the base of knowledge from which to gain information and reason accordingly.

In order to explain how different “knowers” agree on what is perceived, the world we exist in can be analogically compared to Wikipedia. It is well-known that Wikipedia is not entirely reliable, but it is also a quick guide to understanding something, if only at a basic level. To paraphrase cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, it is, evolutionarily-speaking, impossible to fully experience reality without sacrificing the ability to function and adapt effectively.(2)

Simplistic, static maps are generated because attempting to depict every detail would result in the map becoming inaccurate in an ever-changing world. Due to this, people, all of whom are different knowers, experience the same world, tinted by their own dispositions and situations. By synthesizing those views, the commonalities behind descriptions for objects can be accepted as truth. People seek confirmation of their reasoning, which comes from others in this case. It logically follows for them to seek the same thing in what they perceive through their senses, creating an accepted perception that most relate to.(3)

From this, it can be extrapolated that those of varied cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds do not live in different worlds. It is better to say that they live in the same world with differing viewpoints of it, biased by factors such as emotion, reasoning, and language. Sense perception, functionally speaking, generalizes what is perceived, information, so that only the necessary is retained and shared.

Returning to the example of the Pirahã tribe, whose linguistic and cultural background is quite different from that of most of civilization, who were studied and observed by a number of researchers. The tribespeople and the researchers shared the same experience, if only for a brief period of time. Their biases differentiated their experiences, which was, in part, influenced by their linguistic and cultural backgrounds, creating the belief in different worlds of existence between people.


  1. Colapinto, John. “The Interpreter.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 09 Apr. 2007. Web. 28 Sept. 2016. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/04/16/the-interpreter-2>.
  2. Hoffman, Donald. “Transcript of “Do We See Reality as It Is?”” Donald Hoffman: Do We See Reality as It Is? TED.com, Mar. 2015. Web. 06 Oct. 2016. <https://www.ted.com/talks/donald_hoffman_do_we_see_reality_as_it_is/transcript?language=en>.
  3. By Naomi Karten – November 5, 2012. “TechWell | Confirmation Bias: The Most Human of Tendencies | Page 1.” TechWell. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2016. <https://www.techwell.com/techwell-insights/2012/11/confirmation-bias-most-human-tendencies>.

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