Culture-Specific Concepts in Language

Black English dozens, Austrian Gemütlichkeit, Hebrew dugri talk, Russian duša, etc.

Seminar Paper, 2007

23 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Conceptual Framework
2.1. Culture and Language/Language and Culture
2.1.1. The Domain of Food
2.1.2. The Notion of Ethos
2.2. Language and Thought
2.3. Translatability

3. Examples of Culture-Specific Concepts
3.1. Ilunga: The World’s Most Untranslatable Word
3.2. The Russian Term Duša
3.3. The English Word Mind
3.4. The Hebrew Term Dugri (Speech)
3.5. The African American Vernacular English Concept the Dozens.
3.6. The German Word Gemütlichkeit
3.6.1. The typical Viennese Gemütlichkeit
3.7. The German Language and Its Melancholic Colour
3.7.1. The German Compound Noun Vergangenheitsbewältigung

4. Conclusion

5. References
5.1. Available
5.2. Not Available

1. Introduction

This seminar paper deals with culture-specific concepts in language and is divided into two parts. The first part aims at providing a comprehensive theoretical summary of the terms ‘culture’ and ‘language’, with a special focus on exploring its interrelation. In addition, this paper explores whether and, if yes, how certain culture-specific concepts can (or cannot) be translated into other languages. The second part largely provides examples of culture-specific concepts in various languages. The linguistic concepts explained and discussed are from various languages, for instance from Russian and Hebrew. However, since the author is familiar with German and English, a special emphasis will be given to these two languages.

2. The Conceptual Framework

2.1. Culture and Language/Language and Culture

“Culture is a human phenomenon, it is the way we are, both physically and mentally.” (McLaren 1998: 14) This quote illustrates the significance of culture for human-beings’ everyday lives and, hence, acknowledges the influence culture has on many areas including language. In reverse, there is hardly anything that tells more about a culture than its language, even though “cultures are not separate monads, but, rather, heterogeneous, historically changing, interconnected” (Wierzbicka 1997: 18) and obviously affect each other.

History, worldview, beliefs, values, religions, and social organization may all be reflected through different languages and linguistic varieties in a culture. At the same time, language may be a directly defining aspect of culture. (Scollon 1995: 137)

There are even many words that are so closely connected with and/or influenced by a particular culture that they do not have an equivalent in any other language or at least in languages spoken in cultures significantly different to the one they originate from. Thus, some linguistic concepts can only be decoded within a given culture because their meaning is practically inscribed in the culture’s traditions, practises and values. To sum up, “there is a very close link between the life of a society and the lexicon of the language spoken by it” (Wierzbicka 1997: 1). On the other hand, also languages are heterogeneous, historically changing and influence each other, but still have a “separate identity” (Wierzbicka 1997: 19).

It lies in the old insight that the meanings of words from different languages [do not] match (even if they are artificially matched, faute de mieux, by the dictionaries) that they reflect and pass on ways of living and ways of thinking characteristic of a given society (or speech community) and that they provide priceless clues to the understanding of culture. (Wierzbicka 1997: 4)

2.1.1. The Domain of Food

The domain of food illustrates how everyday life within a certain culture can influence its language. Both Polish and Austrian German have special words for plum jam, namely powidła in the first and – derived from Slavic languages – Powidl in the latter case.[1] Instead, “English has […] a special word for orange (or orange-like) jam[, namely] marmalade, and Japanese a word for a strong alcoholic drink made from rice[, namely sake”. (Wierzbicka 1997: 2). Therefore, it is also not surprising that the first thing that came to the minds of some Italian friends of mine when asked about typical Italian words were terms referring to various dishes, i.e. Arancino for a cooked ball of rice with tomato sauce, mozzarella, mince meat and peas. This list is, of course, by far not exhaustive, but still it already stresses the characteristic property of languages to mirror social customs and traditions by means of providing the words needed to refer to them.

2.1.2. The Notion of Ethos

Another area in which culture-specific concepts in language can play a vital role can be subsumed under the notion of ethos[2]. This term refers to “the affective quality of interaction characteristics of members of a society […] [and can be] generally warm, easy-going [and] friendly [or …] stiff, formal [and] deferential” (Brown 1987: 243). Ethos is also commonly associated with the amount of directness or indirectness, respectively.[3] “The choice of pronouns of address[, for instance,] provides a crude index of the […] subtle and variable degrees of respect and familiarity that can be communicated.” (Brown 1987: 253-254)

2.2. Language and Thought

Wierzbicka points out that “words with special, culture-specific meanings reflect and pass on not only ways of liven characteristic of a given society, but also ways of thinking.” (Wierzbicka 1997: 5) Words are more than simple the parts of a language, they are a window into a new world for everybody who is learning a foreign language[4].

The question to what extent various languages are shaped by the way people think and vice versa can be brought down to the nature vs. nurture debate, which is ubiquitous in many academic disciplines. Linguists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker base their assumptions of an underlying language faculty[5] or language instinct[6] on a universal innate capacity for language acquisition human beings possess. Therefore, they claim that thought and language are largely independent.[7] However, Wierzbicka points out that language is significantly “shaped by culture and history, and it is part of the shared heritage of [its] speakers” (cf. Wierzbicka 1997: 7). Based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis this means that “differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers” (Pinker 1994: 57 quoted in Wierzbicka 1997: 7).

Moreover, Wierzbicka opposes Pinker’s assumption and calls his approach to “understand human cognition and human psychology in general, on the basis of English alone […] short-sighted, if not downright ethnocentric”. (Wierzbicka 1997: 8) However, Wierzbicka acknowledges Whorf’s idea that not all the foundational categories of reality are imposed by one’s culture” (Whorf 1956: 36 quoted in Wierzbicka 1997: 7) and that “a common stock of conceptions” (Whorf 1956: 36 quoted in Wierzbicka 1997: 7) “underlying all different languages of the world” (Wierzbicka 1997: 7) may exist.

In fact, there is [even] no conflict between an interest in linguistic and conceptual universals on the one hand and an interest in the diversity of language-and-culture systems on the other. On the contrary, to achieve their purpose, these two interests must go hand in hand. (Wierzbicka 1997: 23)

Thus, by combining these fundamental concepts everything that can be expressed in a language can also be translated into another.[8]

Wierzbicka argues that the application of a natural semantic metalanguage makes comparisons of meanings of words in different cultures possible. In addition, she stresses that such contrasts show a high amount of culture-dependency certain meanings of words have.[9] She goes even further and points out that

there is no conflict between an interest in linguistic and conceptual universals on the one hand and an interest in the diversity of language-and-culture systems on the other. On the contrary, to achieve their purpose, these two interests must go hand in hand. (Wierzbicka 1997: 23)

2.3. Translatability

One of the most obvious criteria for defining whether a concept is culture-specific is to look at its translatability, which then refers to a complete translation of a term incorporating both its denotative as well as its connotative meaning. However, some scholars argue that precise translation is hardly ever possible.

“Translation is always inexact since words almost always mean something at least slightly different in different languages. Some ideas are untranslatable into some languages. Others have shades of difference.” (McLaren 1998: 128)

It is argued that even though there is a “stock of [commonly shared] elementary human concepts […,] there can be little doubt that most of the lexicon of any language is, to a greater or lesser degree, language-specific”. (Wierzbicka 1992: 18-19) Moreover, translating various concepts from one language into another often involves the use of long, complex, jolty and bulky expressions, which are not incorporated in the casual use of the source language.[10]

Each such version represents a standardised and non-idiomatic metalanguage rather than a natural language in all its richness and idiosyncrasy. This difference between a natural language and a natural semantic metalanguage derived from natural language defines the limits of precise translatability. (Wierzbicka 1992: 21)

Consequently, under such an assumption the most important criteria of a good translation and also the most a translation can aim at is “to catch the spirit[11] of the original” (McLaren 1998: 128).

However, it can also be argued that the above mentioned “stock of elementary human concepts” is larger than assumed and that this repertoire can be precisely translated from one language into any other language because human beings need words to refer to these universal concepts regardless of the actual language spoken. Such collective concepts are likely to be found in words referring, for instance, to body parts or emotions. Putting this objection aside, there is also no doubt that there exists a certain amount of words in every language that is so closely connected with the respective culture that it cannot be transferred verbatim to another language. At least under the assumption that the culture into which the target language is embedded differs from the one of the source language this argumentation is extremely plausible.

Only well-established linguistic universals can provide a valid basis for comparing conceptual systems entrenched in different languages for elucidating the meanings which are encoded in some languages … but not in others. (Wierzbicka 1997: 22)

Useful tools to do so are semantic primitives (or primes) which are universal elements that cannot be defined themselves because they are clear, simple[12] and, therefore, self-explanatory[13] and with which “complex meanings [of words in different languages] can be coherently represented” (Wierzbicka 1997: 25). These lexical universals are, therefore, “language-specific manifestation[s] of a universal set of fundamental human concepts” (Wierzbicka 1997: 26). Examples of such semantics primitives include “someone and something, you and I, or before and after” (Wierzbicka 1996: 226).


[1] cf. Wierzbicka 1997: 1-2

[2] cf. Brown 1987: 243

[3] cf. Katriel 1986: 1

[4] cf. Limbach 2006: 7 (my translation)

[5] cf. Chomsky, Noam. 1968. Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

[6] cf. Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow.

[7] cf. Wierzbicka 1997: 7

[8] cf. Wierzbicka 1992: 20

[9] cf. Wierzbicka 1992: 21

[10] cf. Wierzbicka 1997: 8

[11] A definition of what, however, the spirit of a word precisely is or should be, is not proposed.

[12] cf. Descartes 1931 (1701): 324 quoted in Wierzbicka 1997: 25

[13] cf. Wierzbicka 1997: 25

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Culture-Specific Concepts in Language
Black English dozens, Austrian Gemütlichkeit, Hebrew dugri talk, Russian duša, etc.
University of Vienna
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ISBN (eBook)
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Culture-Specific, Concepts, Language
Quote paper
Mag. Andreas Raab (Author), 2007, Culture-Specific Concepts in Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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