16 July 2008

Language or Culture?

Which comes first? The language or the culture?

I've been pondering this question. As my German language skills have improved, I've been having longer discussions in German. Not debating philosophy, of course. They haven't progressed that far!

But I have noticed a couple of things about German which I believe impacts the culture. Or vice versa.

1. It is difficult to form German words and smile at the same time. Just the way you have to shape your lips when speaking makes a smile feel unnatural.

2. Because German sentences tend to be quite long and the action verb generally doesn't appear until the very end, everything you intend to say has to be carefully considered and planned. Compound this with the very structured word order and spontaneity becomes extremely difficult.

So, did the Germanic culture produce a language that encourages formality and discourages smiling? Or did the German language produce the stoic culture? Or do they just build upon one another?



Ann said...

This is definitely a question I've pondered several times. I've studied a variety of languages and while I've never formally studied the connection between language and culture.

The Italian sonnet, for example, has a rhyme scheme that would be impossible to duplicate in english without sounding silly. The Italian language was created to sound like natural poetry.

And when I think of my german friend, and how guttural their voices are in german, it definitely sounds harsh. As they learn english and start to change the sounds of their voice (in english) to something softer, they seem to lighten up in conversation as well.

rswb said...

I think that's very much a matter of opinion. All languages are complex, and you can hardly suggest that it is only in german that sentences are long and meandering and spend a while getting around to making their point. If you were learning another language you would find it equally difficult and be equally unable to create sentences spontaneously (and find yourself equally uninclined to smile at the same time). My husband is a german-speaking Swiss and his language is fluent (obviously) and charming and I don't think it sounds at all guttural or forced or overly formal (and plus he can use his face to express a full range of emotion while speaking on even the most boring of topics).

I think the problem is that when we move to a new country we tend to believe the stereotypes we have heard about the people, and we wait for people to disprove them. As you have noted before, the Swiss are not necessarily the most forthcomingly friendly people in the world (that's a stereotype I am definitely willing to believe in), but in my experience, once you know them they are as friendly and thoughtful and charming as anyone else. Obviously my experience of Swiss people is sort of skewed by the fact that most of the Switzies I know well are friends or relatives of my husband (ie. people predisposed to think well of me), but in thinking of the Switzies of my acquaintance, I am hard pressed to describe any of them as neurotically tidy or obsessive about punctuality or humourless pedants who never smile or whatever (although I can think of one woman I know who lives up to every stereotype in the book, and it's excellent spending time with her because she never fails to surprise me with her relentless "swissness").

And so to sum up - I think it's as unfair to say that all germanic people are stoic, humourless automatons as that all Australians are laid-back beer-drinking yobbos, all Americans are loud, fat and arrogant and all New Zealanders marry their cousins.

That was a much longer comment than I anticipated. Huh.

Global Librarian said...

Heck, I wasn't even talking about Swiss German. Still cannot understand anything past the basics to do my grocery shopping or what have you. I was talking about High German. And I am going to stand by my theory that there is a connection between language and culture. How can there not be? What exactly that connection consists of is the discussion.

I do not believe that I said all Swiss are excessively tidy or punctual or anything else. I was merely wondering about the link between language and culture. In fact, I had this same discussion with a group of Swiss people this morning (all of whom I do like and find to be friendly people, otherwise I likely would not spend time with them) and they agreed that there was a link. And that Germanic cultures are more stoic than other cultures tend to be. One person even said she likes speaking English because she finds it "freeing."

By the way, I would be interested to hear your husband speak. I have heard many native German speakers (Swiss, German, Austrian, etc.) and have yet to hear it sound "charming." Perhaps your husband is the exception that proves the rule? Or perhaps you might feel a lsight bias?

The only time I have heard German sound beautiful is when it was spoken by the Italian pilot of the Swiss Air flight to Naples. That was gorgeous-sounding German. Of course, not only could I not understand what he said, but the native German speakers couldn't either! One of the flight attendants had to translate his German into actual German.

Ann said...

I think German is a beautiful language, and I think that many people who speak it have guttural voices. My german experiences are mostly with northern germans, i don't have much experience with swiss or austrian german speakers. I have many friends who happen to be german and there's no family connection that makes us friends. But, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. And those stereotypes tend to fade as you befriend more people from a certain culture or group. Because the stereotypical friend is someone you have a good time with, laugh with and enjoy.

Language definitely plays a role in this, as does history, community and everything else out there.

Anonymous said...

While I think that German with it's precision might be structurally prone to discussing complex and serious matters (I couldn't imagine Kant or Marx writing in any language other than German), I don't think it prevents people from smiling.

I agree though that there is a feedback between language, perception and mentality; I would just not apply that as a sort of strict rule.

Maybe you forgot to mention that there is not just standard german; there are also many local dialects and maybe people are just more relaxed talking in their dialect instead of "proper german" (it's like if you tried to talk Oxford English all the time...).

Then there is Swiss German which to me as a Swiss German (despite its name) is more of an own language rather than just a version of German. Or make that a group of languages since again there is not one Swiss German but many.

Actually as you lived in Zurich, you probably mostly heard the Zurich dialect, central or eastern swiss dialects; I consider the Bernese I speak as much more soft and pleasing to hear (but that's of course my own perception).

For Bernese, try browsing "Mani Matter", "B�rnd�tsch" or "Berndeutsch" on youtube...

I also like the Basel dialect (try "Baseldytsch" or "Baseld�tsch" in youtube).

Pointless Drivel said...

Interesting. And it may, to a large extent, explain the popularity, in Germany, of David Hasselhoff.

Now if we can only get the French to explain their fascination with Jerry Lewis.

rswb said...

How do you think about the same question of yours ("what is the connection between language and culture?") with relation to native english-speakers? What is the fundamental connection between the behaviour of us, of Australians and Americans and English people and Scots and Irish people and Canadians and New Zealanders and all the other people who speak native english (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_where_English_is_an_official_language)? Is there one? Surely it should be easier to come up with an answer since we know ourselves and can understand our fellow english-speakers much more clearly and deeply than we can anyone else (plus we all have the British empire in common). Personally, I would be pretty hesitant to say that we are all fundamentally similar purely because of our shared language.

Global Librarian said...

Response to Ann and Swiss Guy:

Familiarity with people from different cultures is definitely the key to matching characteristics and seeing differences with others from their culture, or similar ones.

Here's an example: when I hear an American talk, I can generally determine what region of the country they come from pretty quickly unless they moved frequently as a child or young adult. And I can quickly determine someone who is Canadian with little difficulty. In addition, after spending 4 years living in the US South I can distinguish the typical Georgia accent from the Alabama accent from the Tennessee accent and so on, simply because I have a familiarity with them.

However, I cannot distinguish a Scottish accent from a Midlands accent or a Welsh accent or so on. I do not hear those accents enough to distinguish them from each other. Similarly, I am not familiar enough with the differences in culture, which is why I tend to use the generic term "British." Note: I also cannot tell an Australian accent from a New Zealand one.

And I am just now starting to hear very slight differences between the various dialects of Swiss German. But only really big differences, such as Zurich to Graubunden and so on. And I do know that I can understand more of what is said in Zurich than I can in Bern, but I couldn't tell you exactly what the difference between the two might be.

Global Librarian said...

Response to RSWB:

Taking into account the range of differences within any culture, I do still believe that there are some commonalities between cultures in which English is the native language. Whether from the UK or US or Australia or South Africa, I believe there is a tendency for native English speakers to be more open to strangers, to consider new acquaintances friends more quickly, to smile more and to be less formal than many other cultures. Possible because we were all once part of the British Empire and therefore have a longer history of moving great distances and coming into contact with many strangers?

This may also be why the English-speaking expat network is so vast and why is adapted so quickly to new technologies, such as the internet and blogging. Even expats from non-English speaking countries have been amazed when they heard about the enormous network (i.e. Expats in Zurich listserv and English Forum in Switzerland) and joined themselves just to get in on the extra clues and tips.

And I have also discussed with native speakers from other languages how they see English speakers. And unless they have had direct contact with people from the various English-speaking cultures, they can have a difficult time determining the differences between an Australian or a Brit or an American and so on. Whether those differences are based upon accent or clothing choices or behavior or even the way they stand and move. For instances, I have heard people say that Americans and Australians use more personal space than other cultures, perhaps because both places have lower population density and more "elbow space" than Europe or Asia?

Global Librarian said...

By the way, just to make certain people don't think I don't see the bad side as well, English speakers tend to complain more, be more argumentative and annoyed when others do not speak their language.

Ann said...

I think, when looking at how different English speakers use the language, the idea that language affects culture is even stronger. Mainly because it's my native language.

Though we all speak English, we are all so culturally different which comes through when we speak. All the variations of English don't necessarily follow the same grammatical rules.

To be honest, though, I'm kind of confused now.

Anonymous said...

Well how about the lack of the informal "you" in English. Although it was the thou that was dropped, perhaps this lack of linguistic distinction played a role of the earlier adoption of cultural informality in the States.

Contra: all the nations of the world where English is spoken (with the exception of the UK - the history of Ireland (both parts) and Scotland are too messy to get into here)- are immigrant countries, former dominions. Mobility is inherent in the culutre. Germany didn't "do imperialism", at least not successfully. Germany (unlike Austria) was also composed of differnt countries until ridiculously recently, making mobility that much less likely.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the Austrians and for the Badner. They can and do enjoy life's pleasures and laugh quite a bit.