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Language is "a system of symbols that allows members of a society to communicate with one another". It is more than just a mean of communication. It can also be viewed as an important element in shaping our culture and the perception of reality. This paper will focus on the relationship between language, culture and reality; also how media and gender culture have influences on the relationship. With the help of different scholars view, we can analysis how language reflect our culture and reality.
Linguists have studied the relationship between language and culture by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It accounts the differences in language across culture. According to the hypothesis, "language is a guide to social reality" which state that language is attaching to the real world. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis indicates the strong relationships among culture, language and reality into a cohesive whole.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis shows that "people perceive the world through the cultural lens of language" which can be easily understood with the diagram below.
In other words, language acts like the lens on a camera in filtering reality, "Language is the medium by which one views the world, culture, reality and thought". This example is best to illustrate the crux of the hypothesis "reality for a culture is discoverable in its language."
There are two important aspects in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, they are vocabulary and grammar and syntax of a language. Let me give a personal experience to state the above concept. I was an exchange student after graduating from secondary school and stayed in a host family in the United States. People there love to party and are addicted to alcohol. They get different words referring to different forms of alcohol, including liquor, brew, booze, wine, beer, drink, firewater, shooter, etc. The point of telling my experience is that these terms are rarely used in Hong Kong because we rarely encounter alcohol other than beer and wine. We can see that it has a particularly rich vocabulary for alcohol, which shows that it is an important thing in American culture.
Culture is evident not only in the vocabulary but also the grammar and syntax. I studied German during that exchange year, and found that the grammar and context is so different between Chinese and German. There are no articles, a, an, the counted with the noun in Chinese. In German, each noun must be categorized as either feminine or masculine with the collocation of the articles der, die, and das. This shows us that the grammatical gender is an essential part in German culture.
However, there are arguments that against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, one is made by Fiona Cowie, "There are in the grammar observations that apply to all languages; these observations constitute what one calls general grammar". In examining this thought, some cultures and languages are related to each other and have similarities. It contradicts with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that all cultures see the world differently according to their language.
In addition, Tomas Tsoi argued that language carries little tendency in our thinking, and it cannot constitute with what Sapir-Whorf has suggested to be habitual thought. His evidences are if language indeed reflects world view, there are totally different world views among the same linguistic group, while people speaking different languages share similar world views. Besides, he also argues that how does a multilingual holds his world view if it is dependent on languages, because it will lead to contradiction.
How do people come to understand the reality? The cultural environment that people grow up in can have surprising effects on how they interpret the world around them. This happens by way of different agents of socialization. Media is one of the important socialization in reinforcing the cultural environment and the perception of reality, but so are family, school and peers. Media showers society with languages and images everyday. These images are delivered to the public through a variety of mediums, such as television, radio, newspaper.
Language is a basic medium in the establishment of reality. Media act as a conduit in transmitting the image of reality. In other words, language reflects the culture and reality of its users. Media are never neutral for providing information. The images which we think depictions of reality are actually shaped, because they are filtered through media to the general public. The mass media acts as a translator and bridges the gap. Racism, prejudice and discrimination are all perpetrated through media discourse. This is why people need to have a high potential of media competence to decode what is being said.
From the essay which is written by Ray Surette, he stated that the social construction of reality have influences on different individual. People construct their social reality based upon their interaction with an objective reality with their first hand experiences. Thus, the information they receive from a culture's reality, such as language and the media create a subjective reality that directs their social behavior.
In urbanized societies, the mass media play a crucial role in the social construction of reality because knowledge of many social phenomena is obtained solely through the media. The mass media has become the dominant player in America. Furthermore, when other sources of knowledge are not available, the media play a greater role in the construction and dissemination of social reality.
In fact, media convey different ideologies. Under the influences of powerful groups, it is hard for media to strike balance between facts and different ideologies. Therefore, audiences should bear the responsibility to distinguish message that are being delivered.
The concept of media literacy is found to overcome the distortion of the truth from the messages that are created by the media. It is "a process of accessing, analyzing, evaluating and creating messages in a wide variety of media modes, genres and forms". According to Jane Tallim, "media literacy is the ability to sift through and analyze the messages that inform, entertain and sell to us every day". By activating the concept of media literacy, people gain greater awareness of the potential for misrepresentation, especially through commericals and public relations techniques, and to understand the role of mass media in constructing views of reality.
Moreover, media conveys a distinct message regarding gender and gender roles which leads us to the topic of language and gender. Males represent "face-isms", their faces are shown more often than their bodies, which is associated with character and intellect. Since women are being objectitfication as a sex appeal product, females represent "body-isms" or partial-isms" which is associated with weight and emotion.
The topic of language and gender concerns in which men and women use their language differently and how the structure of language reflects or promotes gender division within a society. All of us have different styles of communicating with other people. The styles that men and women use to communicate have been described as debate vs. relate, report-talk vs. rapport-talk, or competitive vs. cooperative. Men often seek straightforward solutions to problems whereas women tend to establish intimacy by discussing problems with the frequency usage of tag questions.
Dale Spender writes "males, the dominant group, have constructed sexism and developed a language trap in their own interest." This makes the male in the superior position and lead to sexism in language. Men have made their world out of their reality, and women are forced to live with these meanings. Another scholar, Shiela Rowbotham says "If she enters mankind she loses herself to him...she represents a woman but he is mankind". Women lose their roles in society because they are considered to go along with the rest of mankind, instead of womankind.
The Interpretation Act was an act that was passed in England in 1850 that simplified the language that was used in statutes, legally enabling "he" to be written instead of "he or she". This Act was passed in order to promote the primacy of the male. At that time, there were no women in Parliament to vote against this Act, so it was being passed. It constructed that females had to adhere to a male reality for the world.
Spender suggests, "In order for the women of today to make their own reality, they must understand how the creation of this world is accomplished". The way to accomplish the above thought is to explore the relationship between language, culture and reality. Therefore, gender equality is a reality many people would like to bring out and our language should reflect this. According to Spender, "By changing our language we help change reality in a way that makes our language more accurate". If we change our language, we are to some extent manipulating the social reality. That is an ideology matter and somehow a paradox of socially constructed realities. Our language and society reflect one another, it is important for us to recognize and respect change in the meaning and the acceptability of words.
As a conclusion, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has changed the way many people look at language. Elaine Chaika states "Language and society are so intertwined that it is impossible to understand one without the other. There is no human society that does not depend on, is not shaped by, and does not itself shape language" This statement best defines the relationship between languages, culture and reality. Language does not only shape the way reality is perceived but reality also shapes language.
For my standpoint there is no sound system to reflect our culture and reality through language. Language does influence culture and perception of reality but language does not govern culture or reality.