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4.1: Language and Culture

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    How do you communicate? How do you think? We use language as a system to create and exchange meaning with one another, and the types of words we use influence both our perceptions and others interpretation of our meanings. Language is one of the more conspicuous expressions of culture. As such, the role of language is central to our understanding of intercultural communication.

    The Study of Language

    Linguistics is the study of language and its structure. Linguistics deals with the study of particular languages and the search for general properties common to all languages. It also includes explorations into language variations (i.e. dialects), how languages change over time, how language is stored and processed in the brain, and how children learn language. The study of linguistics is an important part of intercultural communication. Areas of research for linguists include phonetics (the study of the production, acoustics, and hearing speech sounds), phonology (the patterning of sounds), morphology (the patterning of words), syntax (the structure of sentences), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (language in context). When you study linguistics, you gain insight into one of the most fundamental parts of being human—the ability to communicate. You can understand how language works, how it is used, plus how it is developed and changes over time. Since language is universal to all human interactions, the knowledge attained through linguistics is fundamental to understanding cultures.

    World Languages

    Languages differ in a number of ways. Not all languages, for example, have a written form. Those that do use a variety of writing systems. Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, while Hindi uses Devanagari. Chinese has a particularly ancient and rich written language, with many thousands of pictographic characters. Because of the complexity and variety of Chinese characters, there is a simplified equivalent called Pinyin, which enables Chinese characters to be referenced using the Latin alphabet. This is of particular usefulness in electronic communication. The arrival of touch-enabled smartphones has been of great benefit to languages with alternative writing systems such as Chinese or Arabic (Godwin-Jones, 2017d). Smartphones and word processors can now support writing systems that write right to left such as Hebrew.

    Sample text in Korean (Hangeul)

    모든 인간은 태어날 때부터 자유로우며 그 존엄과 권리에 있어 동등하다. 인간은 천부척으로 이성과 양싱을 부여받았으며 서로 형첸개의 청신으로 헹동하여야 한다.


    All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

    Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

    Languages evolve over time. Historical linguists trace these changes and describe how languages relate to one another. Language families group languages together, according to similarities in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Languages within a same family derive from a common ancestor, called a proto-language (Nowak & Krakauer, 1999). Membership in a given family is determined through comparative linguistics, i.e., studying and comparing the characteristics of the languages in question. Linguists use the metaphor of a family tree to depict the relationships among languages. One of the largest families is Indo-European, with more than 4000 languages or dialects represented. Indo-European languages include Spanish, English, Hindi/Urdu, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, and Punjabi, each with over 100 million speakers, followed by German, French and Persian. Nearly half the human population speaks an Indo-European language as a first language (Skirgård, 2017). How the languages are related can be shown in the similar terms for "mother" (see sidebar).

    Mother in Indo-European languages

    • Sanskrit matar
    • Greek mater

    Some regions have particularly rich linguistic traditions, such as is the case for Africa and India. In India, there are not only Indo-European languages spoken (Hindi, Punjabi), but also languages from other families such as Dravidian (Telugu, Tamil), Austroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai, and a few other minor language families. Papua/New Guinea has a particularly rich vareity of languages; with over 850 languages, it is the most linguistically diverse place on earth. In such cultures, most people are multilingual, often speaking 3 or more languages, along with a lingua franca - a common denominator -, such as Swahili in parts of Africa, English in India, or Tok Pisin, an English-based creole, in New Guinea.

    There are languages which do not belong to families, known as language isolates (Campbell, 2010). Well-known examples include Basque, a language spoken in the border area between France and Spain, and Korean. Language isolates tend to develop in geographical isolation, separated from other regions, for example, through mountain ranges or the sea. In some cases, geographical features such as dense forests may result in different dialects or even languages spoken in areas which are actually quite close to one another. A dialect refers to a variety of a language that is used by particular group of speakers, defined normally regionally, but could be related to social class or ethnicity as well. Dialects are closely related to one another and normally mutually intelligible.

    Language Is Arbitrary and Symbolic

    Words, by themselves, do not have any inherent meaning. Humans give meaning to them, and their meanings change across time. For example, there is no inherent, logical connection between "cat" or (or the German Katze or Chinese猫) and the feline animal. We negotiate the meaning of the word “kat,” and define it, through visual images or dialog, in order to communicate with our audience.

    Words have two types of meanings: denotative and connotative. Attention to both is necessary to reduce the possibility of misinterpretation. The denotative meaning is the common meaning, often found in the dictionary. The connotative meaning is often not found in the dictionary but in the community of users itself. It can involve an emotional association with a word, positive or negative, and can be individual or collective, but is not universal. An example of this could be the term “rugged individualism” which comes from “rugged” or capable of withstanding rough handling and “individualism” or being independent and self-reliant. In the United States, describing someone in this way would have a positive connotation, but for people from a collectivistic orientation, it might be the opposite.

    Language Evolves

    Many people view language as fixed, but in fact, language constantly changes. As time passes and technology changes, people add new words to their language, repurpose old ones, and discard archaic ones. New additions to American English in the last few decades include blog, sexting, and selfie. Repurposed additions to American English include cyberbullying, tweet, and app (from application). Whereas affright, cannonade, and fain are becoming extinct in modern American English. Other times, speakers of a language borrow words and phrases from other languages and incorporate them into their own. Wisconsin, Oregon, and Wyoming were all borrowed from Native American languages. Typhoon is from Mandarin Chinese, and influenza is from Italian.

    Language Shapes Our Thought

    What would your life be like if you had been raised in a country other than the one where you grew up? Or suppose you had been born male instead of female, or vice versa. You would have learned another set of customs, values, traditions, other language patterns, and ways of communicating. You would be a different person who communicated in different ways. The link between language and culture and the idea that language shapes how we think about our world was famously described in the work of Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis postulates that your native language has a profound influence on how you see the world, that you perceive reality in the context of the language you have available to describe it. According to Sapir (1929), "The 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. The world in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached" (p. 162). From this perspective, all language use – from the words we use to describe objects to the way sentences are structured – is tied closely to the culture in which it is spoken. In 1940, Whorf wrote:

    The background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for people's mental activity, for their analysis of impressions, for their synthesis of their mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar and differs, from slightly to greatly, among different grammars...We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages (p. 231).

    Whorf studied native American languages such as Hopi and was struck by differences to English which pointed to different ways of viewing the world, for example, how the Hopi language has no present, past, or future tense verbs. Instead, it divides the world into what Whorf called the manifested and unmanifest domains. The manifested domain deals with the physical universe, including the present, the immediate past and future; the verb system uses the same basic structure for all of them. The unmanifest domain involves the remote past and the future, as well as the world of desires, thought, and life forces. The set of verb forms dealing with this domain are consistent for all of these areas, and are different from the manifested ones. Also, there are no words for hours, minutes, or days of the week.

    Taken to its extreme, this kind of linguistic determinism would prevent native speakers of different languages from having the same thoughts or sharing a worldview. This idea suggests that we cannot conceive of that for which we lack a vocabulary or that language quite literally defines the boundaries of our thinking. More widely accepted today is the concept of linguistic relativity, meaning that language shapes our views of the world but is not an absolute determiner of how or what we think. After all, translation is in fact possible, and bilingualism exists, both of which phenomena should be problematic in a strict interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It is also the case that many cultures are multilingual, with children growing up exposed to multiple languages.

    • Linguistic determinism: language controls thought in culture.
    • Linguistic relativity: language influences thought in culture, and therefore differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers.
      Hua (2014), p. 176

    No matter what linguistic theory one may hold to be valid, there is little argument that the vocabulary of a language does in fact reflect important aspects of everyday life. Linguist Anna Wierzbicka (2013) provides interesting examples of expressions from the Australian aboriginal language of Warlpiri:

    • japi — "entrance to sugar ant’s nest"
    • laja — "hole or burrow of lizard"
    • kuyu — "meat; meated animal" [including edible birds, but not other birds]
    • karnpi — "fat under the skin of emu"
    • papapapa-ma — "to make the sound of a male emu calling to its chicks"
    • yulu — "limp, relaxed—of slain kangaroo whose hindleg have been broken (in preparation for cooking)"

    From a Warlpiri speaker’s point of view, these single words point to important features of the environment, as potential sources of shelter and food, but there are no corresponding words in European languages or in most other languages. Wierzbicka comments:

    As these examples illustrate, the words of a language reflect the speakers’ special interests. For the speakers of a particular language, their words "fit the world" as they see it—but how they see it depends, to some extent, on what they want to see and what they pay attention to. This is true also of European languages, and English is no exception, either. The conviction that the words of our native language fit the world as it really is, is deeply rooted in the thinking of many people, particularly those who have never been forced to move, existentially, from one language into another and to leave the certainties of their home language (p. 6).

    Learning a second language leads one early on to appreciate the fact that there may not be a one-to-one correspondence between words in one language and those in another. While the dictionary definitions (denotation) may be the same, the actual usage in any given context (connotation) may be quite different. The word amigo in Spanish is the equivalent of the word friend in English, but the relationships described by that word can be quite different. During my travels in Guatemala, I experienced "hola amigo," as a common greeting, even among strangers. Just as in English, a Facebook "friend" is quite different from a childhood "friend". The German word Bier, refers as does the English "beer", to an alcoholic drink made from barley, hops, and water. In a German context, the word is used to describe an everyday drink commonly consumed with meals or in other social situations. In the American English context, usage of the word, "beer," immediately brings to the fore its status as alcohol, thus a beverage that is strictly regulated and its consumption restricted.

    An image of a beer and meal in Germany
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Beer in Germany: a drink like any other

    Differences in available words to describe everyday phenomena is immediately evident when one compares languages or examines vocabulary used in particular situations. That might include a specific small culture, such as dog lovers or sailing enthusiasts, for example, who use a much more extensive vocabulary to describe, respectively, dog breeds or parts of a ship, than would be familiar to most people, no matter whether they are native speakers of the language or not. Sometimes, a special language is developed by a group, sometimes labeled a jargon, which often references a specialized technical language. A related term is an argot, a kind of secret language designed to exclude outsiders, such as the language used by criminal gangs.

    Less immediately evident than vocabulary differences in comparing languages are differences in grammatical structures. If, for example, a language has different personal pronouns for direct address, such as the informal tu in French and the formal vous, both meaning ‘you’, that distinction is a reflection of one aspect of the culture. It indicates that there is a built-in awareness and significance to social differentiation and that a more formal level of language use is available. Native speakers of English may have difficulty in learning how to use the different forms of address in French, or as they exist in other languages such as German or Spanish. Speakers of American English, in particular, are inclined towards informal modes of address, moving to a first-name basis as soon as possible. Using informal address inappropriately can cause considerable social friction. It takes a good deal of language socialization to acquire this kind of pragmatic ability, that is to say, sufficient exposure to the forms being used correctly. While native speakers of English may deplore the formality of vous or its equivalent in other languages, in cultures where these distinctions exist, they provide a valuable device for maintaining relational distance when desired, for clearly distinguishing friends from acquaintances, and for preserving social harmony in institutional settings. Expanding on this notion, Students of Korean learn early on in their studies that there is not just a distinction between familiar and formal "you", as exists in many languages, but that the code of respect and politeness of Korean culture dictates different vocabulary, intonation, and speech patterns depending on one's relationship to the addressee. This can extend to nonverbal conventions as well, such as bowing or increasing personal space.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Language and Culture in Context: A Primer on Intercultural Communication, by Robert Godwin-Jones. Provided by LibreTexts. License: CC-BY-NC

    Intercultural Communication for the Community College, by Karen Krumrey-Fulks. Provided by LibreTexts. License: CC-BY-NC-SA

    Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, by Brown, McIlwraith & Gonzalez. Provided by LibreTexts. License CC-BY-NC.

    4.1: Language and Culture is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Tom Grothe.