Language and Culture

Australian PhD student Sara Ciesielski (Graduate School of Humanities & Social Sciences, University of Melbourne) recently had the honour of presenting a “two minute thesis” for PhD Comics, on her project “Language Development and Socialization in Sherpa”:

Novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, in her short story “The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question” (in Lord Peter Views the Body, 1928), writes about the gender-laden French language: “Now, in France, every male child is brought up to use masculine adjectives about himself. He says: Que je suis beau! But a little girl has it rammed home to her that she is female; she must say: Que je suis belle! … When I am at a station and I hear an excited young woman say to her companion, ‘Me prends-tu pour un imbécile’ – the masculine article arouses curiosity.

Referring to the same issue is Luce Irigaray’s famous book with an untranslatable title: Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un. The French language also incorporates status differences in the distinction between the pronouns tu and vous. However, other languages, such as Thai, have a far more complex pronoun structure.


Non-verbal Thai communication also requires care

Pioneer linguist Edward Sapir pointed out examples of languages where males and females used quite distinct sublanguages. Japanese is one such language, thus leading to more extreme cases of the issue pointed out by Dorothy Sayers.

Even in British English, studies show that “mauve,” “beige,” “pink,” “maroon,” “lovely,” “nice,” and “cute” are used more often by females than males. However, in 2010, Internet legend XKCD conducted a survey of colour term usage, half-expecting to see this clichéd pattern:

In fact, results were more like this:

More complex patterns of language usage mark professions, ethnic communities, and other subcultures. Writer Annie Dillard once said: “The mind – the culture – has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel.” The decorations vary from group to group. And occasionally, the shovel is used as a weapon.

– Tony

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