Do grammatical differences in language affect politics?

Do grammatical differences in language affect politics?

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I tried very hard to find references on this in Google Scholar and Web of Science, but I fear I don't have enough experience with this area.

My partner is great at Spanish, and informed me that in the Spanish language you don't say "I lost the jacket," you say something like "The jacket was lost to me."

Could such grammatical differences lead to increases in collectivist culture or more tightly knit social fabrics in places like Mexico as opposed to individualist countries like the US?

Is this question too big? How would you find any relevant studies on this? Are there any other phenomena you are aware of where the structure of a language affects macro phenomena like culture?

Politicians, Watch Your Grammar

As congressional midterm elections approach in the United States, politicians are touting their credentials, likability, and, yes, sometimes even their policy ideas. But they may be forgetting something crucial: grammar. A new study indicates that subtle changes in sentence structure can make the difference between whether voters view a politician as promising or unelectable.

Politicians know their choice of words matters—"estate tax" is more likely to garner popular support than "death tax" even though they're the same thing, a tax on inheritance. But despite citizens being "bombarded by political messages," says psychologist Teenie Matlock of the University of California (UC), Merced, researchers know little about the effect of "fine grained" details like grammar on voting preferences.

So Matlock and psychologist Caitlin Fausey of Indiana University, Bloomington, asked 188 students to read some sentences about hypothetical politicians. The students, undergraduates at UC Merced, first read about fictional politician Mark Johnson's infidelity and corruption. Half saw statements like, "Last year, Mark was having an affair with his assistant and was taking hush money from a prominent constituent." The other half saw this: "Last year, Mark had an affair with his assistant and took hush money from a prominent constituent." The difference is one of grammatical aspect: "was having" and "was taking" are known as the imperfect aspect, meaning an event may be continuing. But "had" and "took" are known as the perfect aspect, meaning the event is bounded in time.

Although the differences may seem subtle, they had a strong impact on the readers. More than three-quarters of students who read the imperfect aspect phrases said they were confident that Johnson would not be reelected, whereas only about half who read the perfect aspect phrases felt this way.

Grammar also skewed participants' estimates of how big the bribes were. When Johnson "was taking hush money," 58% of students guessed the bribe was larger than $100,000, but when he "took hush money," only 37% did.

Matlock and Fausey saw similar results when the sentences were slightly more complicated. This time, Johnson either "was removing homes and extended roads" or "removed homes and was extending roads." Students found the senator who "removed homes" more electable than the senator who "was removing homes"—56% said he would be reelected compared with 40% of those who read that Johnson "was removing homes."

In both cases, the perfect aspect—"had an affair" or "removed homes"—conveys a sense that the bad deed is in the past, says Matlock. That may make voters more likely to forgive these actions. On the other hand, imperfect phrases such as "was having an affair" and "was removing homes" suggest that the bad deeds may still be happening and, hence, that the politician is less electable. The imperfective phrasing conveys "longer lasting or more enduring" action or simply more of it, says Matlock, so the events seem more relevant in an upcoming election.

Matlock and Fausey saw the disparity only with negative behaviors. When an additional 166 students read perfect and imperfect aspect phrasing about Johnson supporting cancer research, for example, there was no difference in how confident the students were in their judgments of electability. Past research shows that people pay more attention to negative events, Fausey says, so voters may treat them as more important when forming impressions of a politician.

"It does appear that one can tweak messages in a minor way," Matlock says, and "evoke responses that aren't rational." Fausey says if we realize how "exquisitely sensitive" we are to language, "we're in a better position to be informed consumers" of political information. The duo will report its findings online 22 October in Political Psychology.

Political scientist Richard Anderson Jr. of UC Los Angeles calls the experiments "a really neat demonstration" of grammar's effect on politics. Still, he says that tailoring grammar in speeches or ads probably wouldn't have a big impact on elections "since both sides know to do it" and thus would cancel each other out. However, grammar could affect voter turnout, Anderson says, especially if politicians use it to make voters more comfortable with them.

Does the Language We Speak Affect Our Perception of Reality?

The results of one Stanford study has implications for art, politics, law, even religion.

Ethnobotanist and hallucinogenic scion Terrence McKenna said in one of his lectures that, “Culture is your operating system.” Through hallucinogenic drugs, McKenna posited, one could shed that operating system for a time and gain union with nature, other humans, and even an ancient mode of thinking which could give us insight into modern life. He wanted to bring about an “Archaic Revival,” which would end estrangement from society and reconnect us with one another.

That puts a lot of emphasis on the power of language and culture. To some experts, language is considered a technology, perhaps the most powerful one of all. Eminent explainer of Zen Alan Watts said that in our culture, we often mistake words for the phenomenon they represent. “The menu is not the meal,” he said. Another insight, “We seldom realize…that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.”

For centuries, linguists have more or less been split into two camps on the subject. One argues that language shapes thought, while the other claims that it is impossible for language to do so. American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, modernized this debate. The idea that language shapes reality has henceforth been known as "Whorfianism." He famously said,” Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.” Language in his view shapes the way we think, and determines what we think about.

Whorf studied the language of the Hopi of the American Southwest, and determined that their and Anglo-American culture were vastly different. This was due he said to differences in language. For instance, their perception of time was completely different. With English speakers, time is broken up into units, such as minutes, hours, and days. It’s a resource or a commodity. For the Hopi time is a never-ending stream. In this view, a phrase such as “wasting time” is impossible to conceive. How can you waste that which never ends?

Whorfianism fell out of favor. One reason, as The Linguistic Society of America cites, is that we are able to remember and experience things for which we have no words. The taste of an unknown fruit is no less sweet. What’s more, changing the phonetic sounds of a word doesn’t change the facts about what it represents. Because of this, in 1994 psychologist Steven Pinker proclaimed Whorfianism dead. Pinker contends that we all think in images and bits of audio which our brain interprets as language. But it doesn’t end there.

Consider the interpretation of The Literary Society, who perceive thoughts, language, and culture as three strands braided together that make up human experience. They are hard to parse out. Whorfianism is starting to see a resurgence among some in the linguistic community. This is due in part to the work of Professor Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University. Whorfianism was considered untestable. Boroditsky wondered if it actually was.

She and fellow researchers at Stanford and MIT traveled the world collecting data, and comparing as divergent language systems as Greek, Russian, Chinese, Aboriginal Australian, and more. Boroditsky and her team found that those who are multilingual think differently from those who aren’t. The professor wrote that, “…when you're learning a new language, you're not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.”

And within any language system subtle changes in grammar, even mistakes that are accidentally carried on, have a significant impact on that culture’s worldview. “Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience,” Boroditsky wrote. “Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity.” Simply put, different cultures emphasize different aspects of experience. It is this change in emphasis that makes learning a new language difficult, especially one so different from our own.

Students learning a second language.

Boroditsky along with colleague Dr. Alice Gaby at Monash University, came up with an empirical method to test the influence of language on thought. The Pormpuraaw were selected as subjects. This is an aboriginal community in northern Australia. Their native tongue is Kuuk Thaayorre. Instead of direction words like left and right, their language uses only the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. Instead of saying, “Please move your plate to the left” for instance, in Kuuk Thaayorre you would say, "Please move your plate south southwest." Another example, "There's a spider on your northeastern arm." Without being constantly aware of your geographical position, you simply cannot communicate in this language, past a few simple words.

The result Boroditsky writes is that “Speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings.” But it goes beyond this. Their focus on spacial relations influences many other aspects of life including, “…time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions.”

The researchers set out to find how this emphasis on geographic location affects the Pormpuraaw’s outlook on time. To do so, they showed volunteers a set of images depicting time’s passage, such as a crocodile growing up, a banana being eaten, or a man aging. Researchers wanted participants to put the pictures into their correct order. Each volunteer was given two separate occasions to do so.

A Pormpuraaw man during a traditional dance.

The direction a language reads in is pivotal for this exercise. For Anglophones, the images would be placed from left to right, while a native Hebrew speaker would arrange them from right to left. All the Kuuk Thaayorre speakers arranged the pictures from east to west. If they were facing south, the pictures went from left to right. But if they were facing north, they went from right to left. Such arrangement held true whether the person faced east or west. It didn’t matter whether the researcher mentioned what direction the subject was facing or not.

But these findings go beyond better understanding of a specific community. Boroditsky said that they have much broader implications for “…politics, law, and religion.” Truly, if we can account for cultural differences properly, we should be better at bridging the gaps between peoples, and can deal with individuals and groups from different backgrounds more fairly.

Beyond her research, “Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people's minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses.”

Boroditsky said that people from different cultures diverge according to “patterns of metaphor” within language. These surface in art as well. For example when it comes to symbolism, “German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.” In 85% of all artistic renderings, the sex of the figure portrayed relates directly to the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native tongue. The next step according to Prof. Boroditsky, is to find out is whether it is culture that shapes thought which language only conveys, or if it is language itself that does the shaping.


Language can be separated into two components: content and style. The content relates to what we express – that is, the meaning or subject matter of statements. It will surprise no one to learn that those with symptoms of depression use an excessive amount of words conveying negative emotions, specifically negative adjectives and adverbs – such as “lonely”, “sad” or “miserable”.

More interesting is the use of pronouns. Those with symptoms of depression use significantly more first person singular pronouns – such as “me”, “myself” and “I” – and significantly fewer second and third person pronouns – such as “they”, “them” or “she”. This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words.

Negative words and first person pronouns can give a clue. hikrcn/Shutterstock

We know that rumination (dwelling on personal problems) and social isolation are common features of depression. However, we don’t know whether these findings reflect differences in attention or thinking style. Does depression cause people to focus on themselves, or do people who focus on themselves get symptoms of depression?


"In common use, almost every word has many shades of meaning, and therefore needs to be interpreted by the context," says textbook writer Alfred Marshall.

"The mistake is to think of words as entities. They depend for their force, and also for their meaning, on emotional associations and historical overtones, and derive much of their effect from the impact of the whole passage in which they occur. Taken out of their context, they are falsified. I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to some incongruous matter which quite distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether," says Alfred North Whitehead, British mathematician, and philosopher.

How Language Changes Due To Social Factors In Society

Sociolinguistics is the study of the relationship between language and society. It examines the impact of language in society and society on language. Linguists investigate how language is acquired and processed in the brain, and they also investigate how language is structured and used in society. There are many specific topics linguists focus on pertaining to sociolinguistics, because it requires further attention and they wish to conduct research on it. Linguists, such as William Labov, conduct research to determine how certain factors in society may affect language, and how speakers of a language or languages impose those factors in society.

William Labov is an American linguist who was concerned about the study of sociolinguistic variation. He contributed to variation research when he decided to investigate the English language of New York City. He held interviews with native speakers of English in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and he used the data from his research to examine sociolinguistic variables.

One of those sociolinguistic variables included the alternation between velar [ η ] and alveolar [n] in the suffix "-ing." The velar [ η ] was the standard pronunciation and alveolar [n] was the non-standard pronunciation. Labov used styles of speech to illustrate the use of both pronunciations between social classes. His analysis of this variation targets other factors that influence language variation.

Class, ethnicity, and gender are three social factors that play a role in language variation. Class is the structure of relationships between groups where people are classified based on their education, occupation, and income. Ethnicity refers to a group of people that share cultural characteristics and gender deals with the traits associated with men and women. This division among groups in each factor contributes to the differences of their use of the English language. The data collected by the researchers, which were displayed in graphs, tables, and charts, shows how each researcher has a different approach constructing their project, but continues to focus on the same subjects about the variation in language.

Labov’s study addresses and depicts how class, ethnicity, and gender influences language variation. One example of how class affects language variation is evident in the New York City study by Labov. He displays the social classes in four classes: the lower working class, the upper working class, the lower middle class, and the upper middle class. He also displays the styles of speech in three styles, which are casual, careful conversation, and reading. According to the data, the upper middle class speakers almost always use the standard ing variant and the lower working class speakers almost always use the non-standard in variant. Each class prefers the use of one pronunciation over the other regardless, of the style of speech. However, the lower working class shifted from using in in casual speech to using ing in the reading style.

Ethnic groups affect language variation, because they usually have to learn the language that is prominent in an area. Although they view language as a part of their identity, they have to compromise their languages and substitute it with another, or combine both languages. Ethnic groups learn the dominant language in an area when the majority of the people speak that language. Their variety of the dominant language is called the "substrate," because it shows the differences between it and their language. Immigrants that arrive in a new location quickly learn the dominant language. Their language is called the "adstrate," and it affects the way they speak the dominant language. The adstrate and substrate could create a variety of the dominant language, and would differ from the normal version of the language.

Gender affects language variation by influencing the language choice between men and women. A man and a woman’s speech differ from one another in matters of degree. Men’s language can be direct, non-standard, and aggressive. Women’s language can be less harsh, emotional, and standard. Many languages have alternative forms that are used only by men or by women. In some cases, the men and women speak different dialects, or they don't speak the same language to each other. But I don't agree with this, because it hinders the communication process between men and women. It also makes it difficult for each gender to fully understand the opposite sex.

Variation in language is an important topic in sociolinguistics, because it refers to social factors in society and how each factor plays a role in language varieties. Languages vary between ethnic groups, social situations, and specific locations. From Labov’s study, people can determine that variation is a characteristic of language that can be influenced by class, ethnicity, and gender. People notice these variations by interacting with people from different ethnic backgrounds and people with different social standings. According to his research, Labov realized that there are many ways of speaking, and each way of speaking is influenced by social factors in a society.

How Your Speech Reveals Your Political Leanings

Can the way you construct sentences reveal your political philosophy? According to researchers, the way in which people use grammar in speech and in writing may be linked to their political persuasion.


Psychologists observed that people of a conservative persuasion tend to take comfort in stability, and proposed that linguistically, nouns fulfill this need for certainty to a greater extent than adjectives or verbs do.

Generally, nouns will reference a physical object (for example, a 'door' or a 'man') whose indisputable existence provides such certainty, whereas descriptions relying on adjectives or verbs are more easily contented and fluid.

At the University of Kent, Dr. Aleksandra Cichocka and her colleagues conducted a series of cross-cultural studies looking at grammar usage across three different languages - English, Arabic and Polish. They analysed language patterns including in one study, those found in the speeches of U.S. presidents, and found that a preference for nouns was supported by higher numbers of nouns in conservative presidents' oratories than in those of non-conservative politicians (Cichocka, 2016). 1

For example, when describing a person, someone of a conservative persuasion might be more likely to refer to them as an incarnation of a particular characteristic, rather than referencing that characteristic as being just one attribute of that person, for example:

"John is a conservative" vs "John is conservative"

"Mark is a baker" vs "Mark bakes"

"Jane is a socialist" vs "Jane believes in socialism"

Such characterizations lead to a sense of continuity - Mark is 'a baker' and so will always bake, whereas 'John is conservative' leads uncertainty as to whether he will retain his political beliefs in the future.

Cultural and linguistic diversity

Culture unifies a community although there is diversity within that unity. For example, the speech used by the older generation could be different from the one used by the younger people. Further, different groups may speak one language, but there would be subsets used by different groups of people. There could be slight differences in the language used by a professor compared to the one used by a young office worker. People could use a different form of the same language in online forums, which would vastly differ from the language used by media and classically trained individuals.

Language is used in different ways and broadly, the linguistic varieties could be categorized into geographical (used only in particular parts of the community), social (varieties used by societal groups based on occupation, gender and age) and functional (used based on function and situation). These factors lead to the formation of dialects that add diversity to the language.

At Day Translations, Inc., our translators are not only linguistic experts. Because they are native speakers, each of them understands their own culture like the backs of their hands. They inherently understand the nuances of their language as well as the languages they work with. They apply their deep cultural knowledge to the translation projects they handle. Get in touch with our translators day or night, wherever you are. We are open 24/7, all days of the year, to provide you with professional translation service with the highest level of quality and accuracy. For an instant translation quote, send us an email at Contact us or call us at 1-800-969-6853.


Language, be it spoken, signed, or written, has specific components: a lexicon and grammar. Lexicon refers to the words of a given language. Thus, lexicon is a language’s vocabulary. Grammar refers to the set of rules that are used to convey meaning through the use of the lexicon (Fernández & Cairns, 2011). For instance, English grammar dictates that most verbs receive an “-ed” at the end to indicate past tense.

Words are formed by combining the various phonemes that make up the language. A phoneme (e.g., the sounds “ah” vs. “eh”) is a basic sound unit of a given language, and different languages have different sets of phonemes. Phonemes are combined to form morphemes , which are the smallest units of language that convey some type of meaning (e.g., “I” is both a phoneme and a morpheme). We use semantics and syntax to construct language. Semantics and syntax are part of a language’s grammar. Semantics refers to the process by which we derive meaning from morphemes and words. Syntax refers to the way words are organized into sentences (Chomsky, 1965 Fernández & Cairns, 2011).

We apply the rules of grammar to organize the lexicon in novel and creative ways, which allow us to communicate information about both concrete and abstract concepts. We can talk about our immediate and observable surroundings as well as the surface of unseen planets. We can share our innermost thoughts, our plans for the future, and debate the value of a college education. We can provide detailed instructions for cooking a meal, fixing a car, or building a fire. The flexibility that language provides to relay vastly different types of information is a property that makes language so distinct as a mode of communication among humans.

Language interference

Language interference (also known as L1 interference, linguistic interference, cross-linguistic interference or transfer) is the effect of language learners' first language on their production of the language they are learning. The effect can be on any aspect of language: grammar, vocabulary, accent, spelling and so on. It is most often discussed as a source of errors (negative transfer), although where the relevant feature of both languages is the same, it results in correct language production (positive transfer). The greater the differences between the two languages, the more negative the effects of interference are likely to be. Interference is most commonly discussed in the context of EAL teaching, but it will inevitably occur in any situation where someone has an imperfect command of a second language.