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1.5: Culture, Human Language, and Three Ways to Approach Language Study

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    1.5 Culture, Human Language, and Three Ways to Approach Language Study

    At the beginning of the chapter, Tylor’s 19th-century definition of culture was shared.

    Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” (from Primitive Culture, 1871)

    Book on (Tylor,1871)

    However, over time, anthropologists have taken to refining Tylor’s definition of culture, viewed as problematic for different reasons.

    • First, it approaches culture as a list of characteristics, which might end up being too specific and exclusive, because potentially not applicable to all cultures. The more specifics, the more exclusive, when what anthropologists are interested in is finding a working definition of culture to be used as a universal framework to analyze and interpret all cultures. In other words, that definition needs to (inductively) include the universals of cultures (what structures do all individual cultures have in common?) in order to define culture (in the singular).
    • Second, Tylor’s definition reflects an understanding of culture and civilization as characteristics that a group of people acquire as they become more civilized. This understanding is in keeping with the beliefs of the time. The “acquired” in the definition (“capabilities and habits acquired”) hints at both the fact that culture is not, well, nature— i.e., it is not innate—but also that it is something that one has, like a type of capital (there are the haves and the have-nots). The process of acquiring culture is part of progress towards civilization, according to that view. This view of culture is linear, with less and more advanced stages of culture and civilization.

    Tylor, echoing the French idea of civilization progressing from a barbaric state to “science, secularism, and rational thought” (Beldo 2010), believed that all human culture passed through stages of development with the pinnacle being that of 19th century England. He believed, as many others of this time period did, that all other cultures were inherently inferior. Franz Boas, a German American anthropologist, challenged Tylor’s approach. He drew on the German concept of kultur, local and personal behaviors and traditions, to develop his ideas about culture. Boas thought that cultures did not follow a linear progression as espoused by cultural evolutionists like Tylor, but developed in different directions based on historical events. Boas took years to develop a working definition of culture, but it is one that influences anthropologists to this day: culture is an integrated system of symbols, ideas and values that should be studied as a working system, an organic whole (Kuper 1999:56).

    A general definition of culture that can be applied to all cultures is patterns of behavior that are common within a particular population of people. One way to think about culture is to break down the concept into two distinct categories: the Big C and the little c. The Big C is an overarching general concept that can be applied to all culture groups; it is the anthropological perspective. The little c is the particulars of a specific culture group.

    It is easiest to think of the Big C as elements that comprise culture (not a specific group).

    Big C Culture is:

    • An integrated system of mental elements (beliefs, values, worldview, attitudes, norms), the behaviors motivated by those mental elements, and the material items created by those behaviors;
    • A system shared by the members of the society;
    • 100 percent learned, not innate;
    • Based on symbolic systems, the most important of which is language;
    • Humankind’s most important adaptive mechanism; and
    • Dynamic, constantly changing.

    Little c, as mentioned above, is the particulars of any given culture group, for instance, the marriage or subsistence pattern of a group of people. Traditions, a concept many people associate with culture, would fall into the little c.

    In this course, while we need to understand the current working definition of Culture, we will look into the little c of culture, to see how it intersects and shapes/is shaped by language.

    1.5 Adapted from Cultural Anthropology (Wikibooks contributors, 2018) Adapted from Perspectives, Language (Linda Light, 2017)

    1.5: Culture, Human Language, and Three Ways to Approach Language Study is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Manon Allard-Kropp via source content that was edited to conform to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.