Part I: Culture Shock

During a recent trip, I gathered a collection of basic Greek phrases that were supposed to help me secure the elemental needs in life. I also felt confident that my ability to speak English and Spanish could come to the rescue if needed.

After being in Athens for less than an hour, I was given the opportunity to test my vocabulary. A sign at the airport stated that for a flat fee of €35, a taxi could take me to any destination in Athens. However, upon arrival at my hotel, the cab driver demanded “Saranda Pende Evros.” In my rudimentary Greek, I tried to find out why the overcharge, to which he simply replied in English, “45 euros.” “But the sign at the airport said 35 euros,” I protested in English. He continued to state, “I don’t speak English, 45 euros.”

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It became clear that language was going to be an issue and that a strong grip on cultural insight was a necessity.

Shortly after, I began to recognize words in street signs and billboards as well as the sound of certain words. These were the etymological ancestors of expressions I commonly use in my mother tongue and in English. But, what I never suspected was that another Greek story, one that Guy Deutscher presents in his extraordinary book, Through The Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages, would tie in so well with what I wanted to explore in this column.

As it turns out, in the mid-1800’s an Englishman named William Ewart Gladstone made an incredible discovery. He realized that in The Iliad and The Odyssey, despite Homer’s rich descriptions of landscapes and accounts of events, there was a remarkable deficit of detail regarding the color of those landscapes and events.

After much pondering, Gladstone concluded that the human eye had not evolved enough by Homer’s time to perceive all the shades of color that Europeans did in the middle of the 19th Century.

This caused much debate, but eventually led to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with Homer’s eyes and, more importantly, to the discovery that many “primitive” cultures, even as late as the dawn of the 20th Century, did not have names for colors beyond black, white and red. They somehow didn’t need three names to define the color of grass, which according to the season, can be green, yellow or brown. To them, the color of grass was just that, undefinable, thus not in need of an unique term.

However, when the inhabitants of Murray Island, at the eastern edge of the Torres Straits, were exposed to more “civilized” cultures, they adopted terms like bulu bulu (obviously borrowing from the English word “blue”) to describe blue objects. Their language and perception of the world and the structure of their knowledge were modified. In essence, their culture changed.

Then there is the Spanish language. The Spanish spoken by Latin American immigrants and their U.S.-born children, and their children’s children, is a perfect contemporary example of how a language is constantly in flux. The language is constantly adapting to, and from, other cultures and idioms as it grows. But Spanish is not the only language we express ourselves in, we’re also fluent in our own version of: “The visual language, which can be as unique as the spoken accent of a country, the style language, the music language and the countless other codes, clues and signals that contribute to the incredible complexity of human communication.”

So the question begs to be asked. Does language reflect the culture of a society in any profound sense? And even more contentiously, can different languages lead their speakers to different thoughts and perceptions? And if so, should advertising be multicultural? Or multilingual? Or perhaps something else… What do you think?

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