How Language Carries Culture
By Christy Yang
Why do Chinese people eat fish on Lunar New Year’s Eve? Why do family names go in front of given names in China? Why does a Chinese address move from the largest unit - country, province, city - to the smallest - neighborhood, street, building?
Language and culture are intertwined. Culture is rooted in language and language reflects culture. As China slowly reveals itself to the world, more and more people are interested in learning about this country with a rich history as well as a complex language. When you learn Chinese language, it not only involves its romanization system, vocabulary and grammar structure, but also includes learning about the society values and behaviors. Culture is carried and passed on through language.
For example, in Mandarin, the word for “surplus” (余, yú) is a homophone of “fish” (鱼, yú). Therefore, at any Chinese dinner table on Lunar New Year’s Eve, there will be a fish dish. You eat some on that day and eat the remaining part the next day. This is to wish for the surplus and future prosperous year after year.
Consider a Chinese name. The identification is centred more in the family name than the given name. Like a name, an address follows the order from the biggest unit to the smallest one. This significantly represents the social value and priority. Which group you belong to is more important than who you are. The whole group's interest is valued higher than any individuals. Chinese language and syntax prioritizes collectivism over individualism.
If you want to understand Chinese culture, access Chinese language. They go hand in hand!
Christy Yang is a high school Chinese teacher.