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Language Shaped by Culture (and Culture by Language) – One Way to Get a Handle on it

Buerki, Andreas ORCID: 2014. Language Shaped by Culture (and Culture by Language) – One Way to Get a Handle on it. Presented at: CLCR Research Seminar, Cardiff University, 19 March 2014.

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That language and culture are subject to mutual influence is not a controversial observation, but widely differing appraisals have been put forward regarding the extent of influence, the worthwhileness of investigating it and not least the methods of investigation. One strand of research has looked at the relationship in terms of linguistic relativity – the relation between language, thought and culture (e.g. Gumperz and Levinson 1996). Other strands have looked at how cultural concepts are encoded in language (e.g. Wierzbicka 2010), or how language is used in society, including how (mainly sound-) change spreads leading to culturally motivated linguistic change (e.g. Labov 2001). In all of these areas, however, it has been consistently difficult to show persuasively and robustly that areas of language outside of lexis are significantly shaped by culture and/or that the influence of culture is not merely a matter of language use, but also relates to the language system itself. It is proposed that while this is in large measure to do with culture being a very difficult-to-pin-down notion and the nature of argumentation needing to take account of this, the use of quantitative linguistic and other data can serve to reach firmer conclusions on how language is shaped by culture. In this talk, a small methodological contribution to that end will be introduced: the use of multi-point diachronic mappings between language data and historical data is presented as a way to find and document instances where language as a system is shaped by culture and to do so in a manner that produces robust results that are falsifiable. The method is illustrated using a sample of formulaic sequences (e.g. common turns of phrase), mainly of 20th century German. Examples discussed show that the method is well-suited to uncover cases in which a) a cultural shaping of language provides the best explanation for empirical data presented, b) the shaping of language by culture is not confined to lexicalized concepts and c) systemic aspects of language rather than language use alone are affected. It is also argued that with better quality linguistic and historical data, multi-point diachronic mappings might well be able to challenge common assumptions in historical linguistics and shift emphasis from universal cognitive aspects in usage-based theories of grammar to more particular historio-cultural aspects. References: Gumperz, J. and S. Levinson (eds) Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. (1996). Rethinking Linguistic Relativity (Vol. 17). Cambridge University Press. Labov, W. (2001). Principles of Linguistic Change: Social Factors (Vol. 2). Oxford: Blackwell. Wierzbicka, A. (2010). Experience, Evidence, and Sense : The hidden cultural legacy of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Status: Published
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Subjects: P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Last Modified: 28 Oct 2022 10:21

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