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Is Intercultural Communication Possible?

One of the central questions in linguistics, philosophy, and Western thought, in general, has regarded the extent to which various aspects of human experience and understanding are universal.. Within linguistics, for example, Noam Chomsky has argued that all languages have the same basic underlying syntactic structure (Foley, 1997), and that this reflects a universal human nature (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). There are, no doubt, elements of our nature that are universal among humans; humanity, otherwise, would be unlikely to constitute a meaningful category. Drawing attention to our similarities, furthermore, has certain value for intercultural communication. First, it facilitates a “family of man” philosophy that emphasizes our social and moral interconnectedness. More specifically, it may help guard against what Said (1978) referred to as “Orientalism,” or the exoticization and objectification of culturally different others.

Stressing cultural similarities while ignoring differences, though, is problematic. To the extent that our experiences in the world and our ways of thinking and communicating about them really are different, then the assumption of universality can lead to a dangerous ethnocentrism. If Americans (for example) are taught that “deep down, we are really all just the same,” then we are likely to succumb to the fallacy that there is one true, universal experience, and that “that experience is mine.” The inevitable result is a normalization of the world views of those people with the most social, political, and economic power. Indeed, this hegemony of European intellectual traditions and U.S. American cultural norms pervades an increasingly homogeneous planet. This not only exacerbates existing relations of domination; it also suppresses the wisdom of cultures with smaller voices.

Overemphasis on universalism of any kind, then, is not only intellectually misguided, but may also have dangerous political and material consequences. In this piece, I explore the limits of linguistic universalism from the perspective of intercultural communication, using Turkish and English as a case study.Language, Thought, and Embodiment Many contemporary linguists emphasize the embodied nature of language and cognition. They argue that knowledge is embodied through a history of shared cultural and linguistic practices. To the extent that we are similarly situated biologically, furthermore, we will tend to have linguistic structures that reflect these similarities. The fact of our embodiment, though, also raises differences in the ways we are situated: Each of us lives with a distinct body, environment, and positioning in our social sphere. We will, therefore, have somewhat different experiences in the world.

Experience, moreover, is mediated by language: “Users of markedly different grammars are pointed by the grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world” (Whorf, 1956, cited in Foley, 1997, pp. 201-202). The particular language through which we are socialized, in other words, shapes our perception (and not just the other way around). Languages, in fact, have been equated with “theories of reality” (Lakoff, 1987).

Meaning, then, is shaped by the particular experiences dictated by our bodies, our experiences, the speech communities to which we belong, and our social positioning within those communities. It is also shaped by our grammatical configurations, which both reinforce and reproduce meaning, and are, in turn, shaped by our experiences in the world. Two such configurations that are central to sense-making are categories and metaphors. When we label phenomena such as “fish,” “human beings,” “time,” “lust,” or “linguistics,” for example, we are inevitably differentiating fish from other non-fish things, which are assigned different labels. This requires categorizing, or the drawing of conceptual boundaries around things that are the same or otherwise go together. As a result, we associate ideas by virtue of category divisions that are largely arbitrary, and this association has important consequences for our perception, values, and behavior.

Western science, Lakoff shows, gives us taxonomies of plants, animals, and other living things. These taxonomies are so firmly embedded in our thinking that we find it very difficult to imagine other ways of organizing the world. We are surprised, therefore, when biologists inform us that many fish have more in common with sparrows or elephants than with each other, and that our “fish” category is a rather arbitrary one.

Linguistic categories, though arbitrary, have important consequences for our cognition, emotions, behavior, and relationships. . Lakoff (1987) shows that kinship categories have both social and material consequences (such as inheritance). Our use of such metaphors in daily speech, of course, reinforces the associations in our language and culture. The concept of “time” offers a useful example of metaphor. In English, it is almost impossible to think about time without identifying it as a resource. Expressions such as “I don’t have time,” or “Is there enough time,” or, of course, “Time is money” attest to this fact. Speakers of languages without this metaphoric association (such as Hopi) will, by contrast, have a very different relationship to time.

Languages, in sum, are ways of talking about things that require certain unstated assumptions about things like cause-effect relationships. Every language group has different ways of talking and thinking about the world and their experiences in it, and to the extent that categories and metaphors vary from one language group to another, they will generate radically different thought structures and theories of reality. There is a considerable loose fit between what we experience and the cultural and linguistic categories we use to communicate about it. This fact has enormous implications for translation, since when we attempt to translate from one language to another, we must not simply match one word for another, but align entire conceptual systems. The translation process requires a great amount of guesswork, and guesses are inevitably made from the perspective of the translator’s own world view.


These observations have led some scholars to question the extent to which translation, and by extension, intercultural communication, are really even possible. David Corson (1995) says that intercultural communication may not be as realistic as we think, at least between his own “Western” culture and the non-Western Maori culture in which he has worked for many years. Socialization into an individualistic world view as opposed to a more collectivistic one, he says, has extreme implications for a person’s understanding of one’s self and the world.

On the other hand, the intertranslatability postulate, according to Grace (1987), holds that anything that can be expressed in one language can be expressed in any other (p. 7). What follows from this view is that either languages are essentially distinct from the cultures in which they emerge, or that concepts, beliefs, and value systems are universal. In contrast to the intertranslatability postulate, “reality-construction” view argues that what we say cannot be separated from how we say it, grammar cannot be separated from vocabulary, thinking cannot be separated from speaking, and language cannot be separated from culture. What can be said or talked about in one culture, consequently, may be quite different from what can be talked about in another. In fact, according to this view, to the extent that our perception is shaped by our language-culture systems, we do not live in the same conceptual world. Only by coincidence or special historical circumstances, then, might we even be able to say the same thing in two different languages.

What do we mean, though, when we refer to “saying the same thing”? A “sayable thing,” according to Grace (1987, pp. 34-38) involves a conceptual event or situation, a context, and a modality. Conceptual sameness, consequently, implies the same conceptual event, the same context, and the same modality (p. 56). Where isomorphic (word-for-word)translatability is not possible, speakers can only communicate to the extent that they already understand each other’s cultural frames of reference.

The literature reviewed here indicates that, since thought is based on embodied experience, and we are (to an extent) differently embodied/situated in the world; and since reality is constructed within speech communities; different linguistic communities will have largely different conceptual worlds, theories of reality, sayable things, and ways of talking about things. We may examine these differences, furthermore, by looking at categories, metaphors, and different kinds of translatability across languages. I did this by interviewing five bilingual Turkish-English speakers in Arizona about the kinds of ideas that were difficult to translate from one language to the other.

Concepts from English & Turkish

Two areas clearly emerged as concepts that were easier to communicate about in English than in Turkish. The first, not surprisingly, was technology. This is indicated by the high level of borrowing of English words such as “radio” and “e-mail” into Turkish. The second theme apt to induce codeswitching was the idea of privacy. This, according to my interviewees, is very difficult, if not impossible, to translate . The closest Turkish equivalent is the word “özel,” which backtranslates directly as “special.” Personal space, similarly, is something that Turks seldom, if ever, think about. Two people told me that, not only does being touched or jostled in a public place not bother them, but that when among Americans, they miss the casual touching common to Turkish interaction. I asked one woman how she might translate “You’re invading my space” into Turkish. Her response, which translated back into English as “You’re limiting my freedom,” confirmed that, while autonomy exists as a Turkish concept, it has little to do with physical space as in English. A result is that Turks who are acculturated into the more American concept of space will communicate it by borrowing English phrases like “There’s no air.”

Just as there are concepts that are difficult to communicate in Turkish, my consultants also identified ideas that are problematic in English. Certain conventional sayings reflect important differences in value orientations. In thanking or complimenting each other for cooking a meal, Turks will habitually say, “Ellerinize sağlık.” This translates as “Let God give health to your hands.” (This expression is not restricted to the hands, but might instead include the feet, the mouth, or other body parts, depending on the task.) “Kolay gelsin,” similarly, is a Turkish expression that translates as “Let it be easy for you.” This is a phrase used to offer moral support to someone working. Both of these expressions represent a form of encouragement that is quite process oriented. English equivalents such as “congratulations” or “good work” tend to focus much more on the results of such processes, reflecting a very results-oriented culture.

Another Turkish expression reveals the importance of age distinctions within that culture: “Küçüklerimin gözlerinden, büyüklerimin ellerinden öperim” is a conventional phrase used to close letters and sometimes to convey respect in conversation. Reflecting actual traditional and contemporary practice, this phrase translates as “I kiss (öperim) the hands (ellerinden) of my elders (büyüklerimin); I kiss the eyes (gözlerinden) of those younger than me (küçüklerimin).” The prevalence of “büyüklerimi” and “küçüklerimi” in Turkish, and the infrequency of such terms in English, illustrates the relative importance of age distinctions in Turkish.

This difference is also conveyed in kinship terms, which are much more specific in Turkish than in English. They indicate whether a person is related through the wife/mother or through the husband/father and whether relatives are related by blood or by marriage. A sibling’s relative age is more important than his or her sex, as indicated by the fact that all words for siblings indicate age relationships, and only older siblings are identified by sex. Nephews and nieces, similarly, are presumed to be younger, and therefore identified by the gender-neutral “yegen.”

The Turkish language reflects a cultural worldview, rooted in Islam, in which time is less linear than in English, and destiny is very important. For many Turks, “Inshallah” (if God wills it) is a necessary component of any sentence about the future. Another common saying reinforces this belief:

“Alnında yazılıysa olur.” - If it is written on your forehead, it will happen.
(on your forehead) (if written) (happen)

Whereas the forehead symbolizes one’s destiny in Turkish, the head represents the self as a whole. The following expression illustrates this metaphor:

Başım dertte - I am in trouble.
(my head) (in trouble)

It should be noted, though, that “in trouble” is not a direct translation. There are no such container metaphors in Turkish. Prepositions, while they do exist in Turkish, indicate slightly different kinds of relationships than they do in English. They indicate properties of the things to which they refer rather than spatial relationships between objects. Many of the common English metaphors, then, are impossible in Turkish. Expressions such as “Are you out of your mind?” must be translated as ”Aklını mı kaybettin?,” or “Did you lose your mind?” Turkish, furthermore, has no metaphors to convey the mind as moving or volitional, such as “My mind was racing.” “Let’s move on” is translated as “Devam edelim,” which means “Let’s continue.”

Concluding Thoughts?

There are few, if any, concepts that might be subject to isomorphic (word-for-word) translation between English and Turkish. This is, in large part, due to differences in the languages’ respective grammatical structures. English, for example, relies heavily on the verb “to be,” which does not exist in Turkish. Word order, furthermore, is typically reversed, so that an object, in Turkish, will precede the verb, which precedes the subject of the sentence. Prepositions, finally, are used differently in the two languages, as noted above. This differential use of prepositions, I would argue, has potentially significant semantic implications, to the extent that our abstract thinking is driven by container metaphors and other spatial relationships. What is much more interesting are the confines of paraphrastic (where the translation of the speaker’s intent takes place) and perlocutionary (where contexts and situations are equivalent) translatability. The difficulty of translating concepts such as “privacy” (from English to Turkish) or “helal” (from Turkish to English) reflects important cultural differences in world views. What are the implications of this for intercultural communication?

First, translation must be approached with care. As Corson points out, glib assumptions of isomorphic translatability, while prevalent in such important contexts as the United Nations and various peacekeeping missions, are dangerously misleading. Second, the more difference there is between two languages (and the cultures they represent), the more translation becomes a matter of enculturation. For a native Turkish speaker to use the word “privacy,” (s)he must first come to understand the concept through socialization, just as (s)he will not adopt the word “e-mail” without also adopting the technology. Translation, then, requires varying degrees of approximation, explanation, contextualization, and socialization. If translation can be accomplished relatively isomorphically, then similarity of world views can be assumed. If, however, a lot of explanation or metacommunication is required to convey what is -- in one language -- a straightforward idea, then this indicates differences in world views. To the extent that our experiences are generally similar, rough translation is usually possible. It must not be overlooked, though, that learning a language always implies learning a culture. Is intercultural communication possible? Yes, but through socialization, not isomorphic translation.

Sara DeTurk


Corson, D. (1995). World view, cultural values and discourse norms: The cycle of cultural reproduction. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 19, 183-196.

Foley, W. A. (1997). Anthropological linguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Grace, G. W. (1987). The linguistic construction of reality. London: Croom Helm.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire, and dangerous things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff & Johnson (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. New York: Basic Books.

Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Random House.

Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.