SPUG: Musing on Language and Culture

Michael R. Wolf MichaelRWolf at att.net
Tue Dec 21 19:56:08 PST 2010

On Dec 17, 2010, at 3:35 PM, BenRifkah Bergsten-Buret wrote:

> On Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 7:04 PM, Michael R. Wolf <MichaelRWolf at att.net> wrote:
> Very interesting to me, these inseparable notions of Language and Culture.
> You're talking about linguistic relativity :https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Linguistic_relativity. IANAL(inguist) but I believe it gained traction when studied by Edward Sapir and and Benjamin Whorf. The ill named Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which, simplified, draws a direct correlation between culture, language and cognitive tendencies. It proposes a causal relationship in that the language itself can have a direct impact on the way speakers think and therefore on the culture they create.


A few years ago, I used to hand out cards at the beginning of each day's class.  (I got lazy).

It didn't matter what class I was teaching.  The first day's class always had this...

Language shapes the way we think,
and determines what we can think about.

  -- B. L. Whorf
    -- as quoted in the Preface to the First Edition of
       "The C++ Programming Language", Bjarne Stroustrup


Instead of starting class with "What is the language?", I'd start a discussion like "What do you want to think about?".  I'd (subtly, purposely) divert the discussion so that we'd talk about *other* languages... HTML, XML, SQL, BASIC, FORTRAN, Latin... so that I could say that *those* languages are good when you want to think about ______, but the language we're here to work on today is good at _________.

By the time we were finished that discussion, I had end-run a common question ("Why use language X instead of Y?") in such a way that I didn't need to answer it... they could answer it themselves. For years, it's been one of my best "lectures".... or "meta-lectures", mainly because it takes a step *back* before digging in, but also because it draws on the collective experience of the class to set the limits of what they already know (and isn't *directly* useful to this class) and what they do *not* know (the real reason for this class).

Here are some links....



> This idea blew me away the first I heard of it (can't remember where) and I've found from my experience that programming languages are great evidence to support the hypothesis. When learning a new language every developer I know approaches tasks from the perspective of their previous languages until they grok the zeitgeist of the new language.
> WNYC's RadioLab did an episode a while back that explored the inseparability of language and culture in some unique situations: http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/.
> -- 
> Ben

Michael R. Wolf
    All mammals learn by playing!
        MichaelRWolf at att.net

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