The Impact of Language on Behavior and Culture

Language is used to communicate, share and interact interpersonally. Due to the migration of people throughout the continents, different languages were created which in turn also created misunderstandings across civilizations. Theologically, there is a reason for the different languages that are found in each society. In most Judeo-Christian religious texts, is a universal story about the tower of Babel. In the Babylonian civilization, all the people of this society spoke one ubiquitous language, which allowed everyone to communicate without hesitation. The tower of Babel was an enormous monument built with the intent to “reach to the heavens” so that normal people could be like God and that they would not need Him. God did not like the pride and arrogance in the hearts of the people.

Therefore, God made the people of Babylonia start speaking different languages so they could not communicate and work together to build the tower. This caused the people to scatter across the land, therefore creating civilizations with different languages, forever creating misunderstandings. Culture further amplifies the misunderstanding of language because of the ways that language impacts our consciousness and the way we understand certain words. Language can permanently alter someone’s mindset due to a person’s personal interpretation of a word. Benjamin Whorf argues in “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,” that language structures consciousness and in turn, develops complex and different meanings in vocabulary, therefore, creating different perceptions between people. In the work “U.F.O in Kushiro” by Haruki Murakami, a man named Komura finds a note written by his wife saying that she is leaving him. She claims that living with him is like living with a chunk of air and that he has nothing to give her and he has nothing inside. He then goes on a journey to deliver a box on behalf of his coworker to take his mind off the situation.

During this journey and after having sex with a woman he met named Shimao, he begins to further analyze the meaning of his wife’s letter and also analyze himself. The story, “U.F.O in Kushiro” leaves many questions about the meaning of Komura’s wife’s letter, but the statement “chunk of air” leads the readers and Komura to believe that Komura is empty. Both Whorf’s and Murakami’s works intersect because of the way both Whorf and Murakami’s characters interpret words and the miscommunication and confusion that comes from language. In Whorf’s work, he discusses the meaning of words and how certain words automatically implies safety when applied to other words. He uses words like “-stone” and “empty” to describe things that will not cause harm. But he argues that those same things that imply “harmlessness” can also mean danger. Whorf claims that when using gasoline drums, for example, people will be careful around the barrels knowing that gasoline is dangerous around a fire; however, when you add the word empty to it, people around these barrels will automatically become careless about smoking or discarding cigarette stubs. He says “the “empty” drums are perhaps the more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor.

Physically the situation is hazardous, but the linguistic analysis according to regular analogy must employ the word “empty,” which inevitably suggests a lack of hazard.” This quote helps readers understand why humans become careless when the word empty is attached to things. The belief that there isn’t anything visible in a container will make people also believe that nothing will be there to harm them if they decide to tamper with it anyway. When Komura’s wife says that Komura is empty, she says that he has nothing to give her which allows readers to imply that she believes that she can easily remove him without serious consequences because he is safe and harmless. With that assumption, she completely erases the idea that Komura might react horribly to this note if she interpreted the word empty the same way as people who are careless with empty containers. Although the readers of Murakami’s story will never know why Komura’s wife left him nor will we know the meaning of the word “empty” in her mind, the readers could assume that his wife meant that Komura was an “unsafe” man which can be supported by the short conflict Komura had with Shimao where he almost became violent with her. This interpretation of the word empty is a major detail in “U.F.O in Kushiro.” After Komura tries to have sex with Shimao and is unable to get an erection, both characters try to decipher the note that Komura’s wife wrote to him. Komura says “‘That there’s nothing inside me, I guess I’m not sure, though. I may have nothing inside me, but what would something be?'” This also goes back to Whorf’s point of the empty gasoline barrel. Although Komura may be empty, carelessness could turn Komura into a dangerous person.

When Shimao said that Komura will never be able to find out the contents of the box that he took to Hokkaido, his body reacts in a violent manner, he did not become violent but his thoughts almost pushed him to act violently. Murakami writes “In the room’s silence, his heartbeat with a loud, dry sound. His bones cracked as he leaned forward. For a split second, Komura felt as if he were on the verge of committing an act of incredible violence.” This feeling of violence could be related to the same potential danger of an empty gasoline barrel in the way that both contain highly destructive substances that are not visible to the eye. Shimao was unaware of this invisible anger when she first commented about how Komura will never know what was inside the box, but when she saw his facial expression, she immediately took back her statement.

Both Komura and the empty gasoline barrel seem like they are unable to harm anything, however, when treated carelessly with a reactive substance near, they become dangerous. This may be why Komura’s wife left him because she might have finally realized that his emptiness is not void of everything but his emptiness could become something harmful. Or she could have not seen his invisible dangerous behavior and only saw him as empty. Komura was able to take his emptiness in the form of aggression. Since Shimao was available at the time, he considered taking out his anger on her. Another resemblance of Komura and the empty barrel of petroleum is that they both need only one spark to explode. Komura’s wife leaving him, or Shimao’s joke about the unknown contents of the box could have been the spark that he needed to act in a dangerous, destructive manner.

Language of any kind is the pinnacle of intelligence, however, the differences in vocabulary and their meanings can create miscommunications based on the assumptions we make which also stem from different definitions in vocabulary. Whorf claims that these differences in language can develop different cultures and behaviors in people. The way that Whorf and the characters in Murakami’s book all interpret the word “empty” differently which further proves that languages differ depending on various factors.

The evolution of the word empty changes drastically from start to finish as Komura begins to analyze the note his wife left him. Shimao saw “emptiness” in a way that’s beneficial when she referenced how her mother wanted a salmon with only skin and no insides. Komura’s wife only saw Komura as empty in a way where he could not give her anything. And after reading the thoughts that Komura has after Shimao made him angry, you can see that emptiness to Komura could mean violence. Whorf’s theories about the way that language and vocabulary influence behavior are proved through Murakami’s story. The definition of a word can be interpreted in various different ways depending on each individual person and their experiences.

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