Sociocultural linguistics

I’m one of those people who believe that language, whether written or sign language, shapes our world. Our mother tongue gives us the basis to our thinking and after that, additional learnt languages expand our worldview. In scientific terms this is called linguistic relativity or Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. The discipline which studies this phenomenon is called sociology of language, and the discipline which studies society’s effect on language is called sociolinguistics. I like to simplify things and speak about sociocultural linguistics.

Imagine being born in a culture with no gender for words (e.g. Finnish). To you, all things and phenomena around you are neither female or male, and that’s why you’ll also occasionally confuse, say, ‘him’ and ‘her’ when speaking English. Now imagine being born in a culture where language has two genders (e.g. Italian). If you ask an Italian whether the moon is male or female (not the word but the planet), they will answer: “female” (‘la luna’) and if you ask a German the same question, the answer will be: “male” (‘der Mond’). The explanation? The genders the language uses. (Oh, and by the way, German has one gender more.). Thus, the key to fully understanding people from a specific culture: understanding their language.

The meaning of language in influencing intercultural exchange and power structures is huge. As a Finn, when you leave your country borders, you also leave your linguistic surroundings behind. There’s no other country where Finnish is officially spoken and there’s no other culture that us Finns would be tied to through our native language. The sunny side of this? You always have a secret language and a big motivation to learn new ones if you wish discover cultures through speaking with natives.

Case: Lusophones in Europe

casa culturalWhile shooting a documentary on associations in Europe which promote the Lusophone (Portuguese speaking) cultures in the World (Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Saõ Tome and Principe, Macau and East Timor), I was struck by the fact that Portuguese is officially spoken on four continents (French is spoken on five, no comments on colonialism here, I’m purely speaking about the present linguistic reality) and is the 6th most spoken language in the world. All through Europe there are people from the previously mentioned countries who thrive to promote Lusophone cultures, and those are the people we interviewed. The interviewees went from a Cap Verdean culture center owner to a Portuguese Kindergarten and to Saõ Tomean writers, to name but a few. What they all emphasized was the power of language in building identity and uniting, as well as separating. For example, in a capoeira class, the students weren’t allowed to speak any other language than Portuguese, so that others wouldn’t feel left out.

The beauty of Lusophone bonds is in the exchange of cultural heritage, which runs through music, dance, food, attitude. This observation refers mainly to African and South American influences in Europe, not vice versa, as I find it difficult to analyze the influence of European cultures elsewhere (such a double-ended sword). This mixture of cultures is most obvious and visible in Lisbon where there are samba, forró (Brazilian dances) and kizomba (Angolan dance spreading in Europe like the pest) parties going on every night and where international batucadas (percussion groups) like NICE Groove play rhythms from all Lusophone countries with people from those countries. Although there are cultural differences, the language unites. But Portugal is not the only place in Europe were Portuguese is widely spoken. Did you know, for example, that a 5th (yes, 20%) of Luxembourgians are Portuguese speaking? Or that big Portuguese speaking minorities also exist in France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria and Sweden?

Strangerless comments: languages rule!

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that language is reality. Of course, non-verbal communication also exists and can make you understand the present, but language serves as a key to the past and future. Thus, when people say traveling widens your horizons, I say learn languages to expand your universe and magnify your potential as human being!

Written by Sissi Korhonen
Exploring, interpreting and understanding cultures through local languages and people. An advocate for intercultural communication as a basis for diversity acceptance and human equality.