Does Language and Culture Affect Search Techniques?

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Betty Birner at the Linguistic Society of America discusses how some linguists feel that the language you speak, and your cultural background, affects the way you think. While there is no discussion of search engines, if this hypothesis is true, your background likely affects the way you search – and possibly your success at it. A study of linguistics and search techniques could be the key to successful semantic search engines.

For example, there’s a mention of a language called Guugu Yimithirr, which is spoken in North Queensland, Australia. It does not have words for left, right, front or back, and instead uses the equivalent of north, south, east and west to describe the same thing.

Then there are words that are pluralized in English but not in other languages. Or there are nuances of state, such as multiple words for types of snow in some Native Canadian cultures. In India, depending on where you are, there’s a difference in wording for rice depending on whether it’s cooked or not – but not in all parts of the country. As well, there are different words for the relationships between family members dependent on their relative age to their own siblings.

Now that’s not to say there isn’t a term for certain words in English. Rather, in English, we might use a compound form instead. Birner concludes that learning another language will probably not change the way you think. I disagree, both from firsthand experience as a multilingual and from observing other English-speaking multilinguals of various ages and cultures.

Still, even if I’m wrong and my observations are a fluke, it’s possible that when we’re talking semantic search, an English-speaking searcher may expect/ accept different search results depending on their non-English backgrounds. As such, a welcome personalization feature in a semantical search engine might be a choice of culture. This might especially be true for voice-based search engines, since we tend to be less formal in voice conversations than in print. Thoughts?

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