A society will make attempts to change its language to reflect its own cultural values and ethics. Certainly this reflects a belief that the language we use is important to influencing our audience. While cognitive scientists have found some evidence that language shapes thought processes, it’s difficult to tell to what extent language changes our culture and ethics, or whether it’s culture affecting language.
Accessibility of Information
The most obvious way language can have a direct effect on a society is the extent to which certain language can restrict or permit knowledge for certain populations. If one compares American newspaper texts from a few decades ago to those of today, there is a noticeable drop in level of vocabulary and sentence complexity. In principle, this gives more people the ability to understand more content. Yet as Charles Sykes argues in “Dumbing Down Our Kids,” materials used to teach kids to read have been dumbed down as well, below the level of many newspapers. When children are denied access to high level reading material, their ability to participate in a culture decreases. Similarly, in a multicultural society, access to reading material in foreign languages for immigrants can foster inclusiveness -- or alternately, exclusion -- from the rest of the society.
Politically Correct Language
Different nations utilize politically correct language to encourage a culture of inclusiveness and the adoption of a particular ethical viewpoint. In English, “third world country” was changed to “developing country” to highlight the forward economic progress of these nations. Gender-neutral language has been promoted by feminists, the idea being that the use of a word like “firefighter” to replace “fireman” would encourage more women to enter careers traditionally reserved for men, which they have. In a 2001 study, mental health researchers David L. Penn and Amy Nowlin-Drummond found that simple vocabulary would seem to have an effect on even the most severe forms of illness. When participants were described as “consumers of mental health services” as opposed to “schizophrenic,” they identified fewer DSM symptoms of schizophrenia.
Language and Ethical Identity
Linguistic anthropology is a branch of anthropology that studies the relationship between language and culture. Linguistic anthropologist Don Kulick studied two languages spoken in Gapun, Papua New Guinea. He found that the local dialect, Taiap, has a connection to a cultural identity of “hed,” associated with personal autonomy, while Tok Pisin is associated with “save,” a modern Catholic identity favoring cooperation. In working to reduce the prevalence of female genital mutilation in African communities, Molly Melching’s organization, Tostan, says they’ve been more successful in getting their message across and thus reducing the practice when they use the word “cutting” instead of the more accusatory “mutilation.”
Language and Blame
A preference for active voice in English means that English speakers are more likely to say “Susan broke the window,” whereas in Spanish or Japanese one would be more likely to say that the window broke, or the window was broken. This can have implications on how much a particular society blames others for events. In a study mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, Caitlin Fausey at Stanford met with with English, Spanish, and Japanese speakers to show them videos of people popping balloons and spilling drinks intentionally or by accident. The English speaking participants were more likely to remember the culprits of the accidental events than the Spanish or Japanese speakers, which suggested that the active voice may encourage higher rates of blame. In another study, English speakers watched videos of Janet Jackson’s outfit being torn at the 2004 Superbowl halftime show. All participants read one of two reports, identical except for the last line which varied from “ripped the costume” to “the costume ripped.” Those who read the report with the words “ripped the costume” were more likely to blame Justin Timberlake for the incident and suggested 53% more in fines than the other participants.
The Language of Ethics
The field of ethics uses specific terms to designate subfields, values, and areas of inquiry, i.e., “good” (what we should want) versus “right (what we should do).” Professor David Schmidtz sees ethics as a concrete system with rules to learn, in ways similar to mathematics. Thus the terminology of the ethics field defines how students of ethics come to think and develop new theories.
- Cambridge University Press; Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinea Village; Don Kulick
- David Schmidtz.com; The Language of Ethics
- Wall Street Journal; Does Language Influence Culture?
- Charles J. Sykes: Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can't Read, Write, or Add
- PsyContent: Politically Correct Labels and Schizophrenia
Colette Phair has written and edited for nationally distributed publications and several nonprofit organizations. She is the author of "Nightmare in Silicon" and has published short fiction alongside the likes of Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and holds a Bachelor of Arts in politics from the University of California Santa Cruz.