Cultural History: Where language and culture connect

Learning about language through cultural history

How do you say….?

Have you ever asked someone for some pop, only to have them look at you like you’re crazy? “You mean, you want a SODA,” they might say. You’re both speaking the same language, but your vocabulary might vary, depending on what part of the country you are from. Learning a new language often brings up these same kinds of concerns and questions. What is the ‘right’ word to use or the ‘right’ accent to have? There is no denying that our language is a reflection of our culture, but to say that one culture is ‘right’ implies that another is ‘wrong.’

The German of yesterday and today

Take Germany, for example. Today marks the moment in history when the Berlin Wall ‘came down.’ On November 9, 1989, East Berlin and West Berlin were reunited after decades of division. However, it took many more months for most of the wall to be removed, and I was lucky enough to visit Berlin in February 1990, when the wall was still mostly intact.

Perhaps you have seen the old images of a modern, prosperous West Berlin contrasted with a gloomy, struggling East Berlin. What the images do not reflect is how the language on each side of the city changed as a result of the division that the wall created. Germans on each side of the wall still spoke German, but the eastern group did not have the same outside language influences that the western group did. Researchers have studied the language differences between East and West Germans and shown how linguistic changes developed over the decades that the wall was in place, reflecting the differences in the culture on both sides.

The language we use does reflect our culture: “English” is not spoken the same way in Britain, the US, Australia, or Ireland. Even within our own country, “y’all” down South speak differently than “yins” from Pittsburgh. I remember studying abroad with my Texas roommate: even when we would speak fluently in French, her underlying Southern drawl pegged her as an American while my more neutral accent made others think I was British!

Speaking like a ‘native’

So, should you learn French from a Parisian or a Quebecois? You can decide based on whether you think you’ll use your French in Canada or abroad, or whether you like the Parisian or Quebecois teacher better! In the end, the variations in our language do not cause drastic misunderstandings. Rather, they are window into our individual cultural experiences and provide us with a chance to strike up a conversation with all those other ‘pop’ and ‘soda’ drinkers of the world.