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10.1: Language and Culture

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    In 1915, Edmond Laforest, a prominent Haitian writer, stood upon a bridge, tied a French Larousse dictionary around his neck and leapt to his death. This symbolic, if fatal, grand gesture, dramatizes the relation of language and cultural identity (p. 65)

    The story of Laforest's death is told by Claire Kramsch in her landmark study of Language and Culture (1998). Writers have an intense and intimate relationship to language; it is the essential tool of their trade. But we all have a very real connection between the language we speak and how we see the world. It is likely that the importance of language in constituting essential parts of our selves and our worldviews is something most people have not considered. That is particularly the case for monolinguals, those who know only one language. Like culture, language is all around us and we may take it for granted, just as we do the values, beliefs, and behaviors that make up our cultural identity. This may be more the case for native speakers of English, a language whose worldwide prominence may lead to the sense that English is the default, neutral way of seeing and describing reality. Many people who have not thought about the nature of language are likely to assume there is a kind of natural and logical connection between the word "tree" and the big leafy object in their local park. But languages, including English, don't work that way – they are not an objective, culturally neutral way to describe the world. "Tree" is an arbitrary symbol, not connected logically in any way to the object it describes. In this unit we will be examining the nature of language and the crucial role it plays in intercultural communication. That will entail a discussion of the intersections of language and culture; the distinctions among world languages; the nature of language learning; and the role of English in today's world. We will continue our examination of language in the next chapter as well, looking at language usage in context.

    Language: How we process the world around us

    The Haitian writer Edmond Laforest, who drowned with a French dictionary around his neck, was making a symbolic gesture of his indenture to the French language, that is to say his dependence on that language for his writing. French was the language of the colonizers and oppressors, who had brought African slaves to the island, from whom Laforest was descended. There was for Laforest a tragic disconnect between the language he used to describe the world and to embody his literary imagination on the one hand and the social and racial reality of Haiti on the other. Laforest's linguistic identity was further complicated by the fact that his first language was not standard French, but Haitian Creole, a language based largely on 18th-century French with influence from Portuguese, Spanish, and West African languages.

    clipboard_ea9d92bf350babe6b87522a757dcd2b91.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Edmond Laforest

    The existence of a hybrid language such as Haitian Creole is one indication of the significant link between language and culture. Languages are rarely used in their "pure", standard form. Speakers adapt linguistically to others around them. If we come often enough into contact in our everyday lives with groups of speakers of other languages, that is likely to have an influence on our own use of language. That may manifest itself in vocabulary. The English language has such a rich vocabulary because it has borrowed and incorporated words from many different languages over the centuries. In Germany today, the large number of Turkish immigrants has led to the common use of particular Turkish expressions such as lan for mate/man or valla for honestly in everyday speech in German. Creoles develop when there are significant numbers of speakers of different languages who interact on a regular basis. In the US state of Louisiana, the mix of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds created Louisiana Creole (Kréyo La Lwizyàn), a version of French mixed with elements of Spanish, African, and Native American languages.

    clipboard_e708783622fd573391deeac275c4af27c.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Three Creole Girls, Louisiana, 1935

    Such language hybrids have often developed through the process of colonialization, with the power inherent in the use of the colonizers' language leading to the indigenous population integrating elements of that language into their own speech. Evangelization has had a similar impact. In Nagaland, in Northeastern India, the spread of Christianity led to the development of a common Nagamese creole (also "Naga Pidgin") among the different 16 indigenous tribes. Creoles can be full-fledged languages, functioning as a mother tongue. Pidgins, on the other hand, are simplified versions of a language, used for special purposes, such as in trade. The existence of hybrid languages in many parts of the world provides evidence of how language use reflects cultural contexts, adapting as needed to accommodate the communication needs of everyday life.

    Linguists and cultural anthropologists emphasize the importance of our native language on our view of the world. The link between language and culture 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, in how time is expressed. 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. They would be, in a sense, captives of their native language, unable to gain different perspectives on reality. 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 without suffering culture shock when moving among languages.

    • Linguistic determinism: language controls thought in cul-ture.
    • Linguistic relativity: language influences thought in worldviews, and therefore differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers.

    Hua (2014), p. 176

    - Linguistic relativity: language influences thought in worldviews, and therefore differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakersLinguist Steven Pinker's (2007) research has shown that in fact language is not the only existing means of thought. It is possible for us to picture reality through mental images or shapes. In recent years, there have been a number of studies on the perception of colors related to available color words. Languages differ in this area. Some, for example, do not have separate words for blue and green. In the Tarahumara indigenous language of Mexico, one single word, siyoname, is used for both colors (Kay & Kempton, 1984). Such studies, as well as similar examinations of concepts such as numbers, shapes, generally have shown that "language has some effect on perception, but it does not define perception." (Hua, 2014, p. 178). In fact, experiments have shown that in some cases, where specific terms for colors do not exist, that does not prevent color recognition: "although the Dani, a New Guinea tribe, use only two colour terms . . . it was found that they could recognize and distinguish between subtle shades of colours that their language had no names for (e.g. pale blue vs. turquoise)" (Holmes, 2001, p. 324). This is in line with current linguistic thought that there is a more complex, reciprocal relationship between language and culture.

    clipboard_ed818d3d5eaf68b6f82f31d51354af499.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Tarahumara women, Mexico

    One of the reasons linguists have moved away from a strongly causal relationship between language and culture is due to the influence of Noam Chomsky's concept of universal grammar. Chomsky argued that there is a universality to human thought and that language is innate and biologically determined. According to Chomsky, every human is born with a "language acquisition device" in the brain, which enables us to construct the grammar of a language (Chomsky, 1965). Chomsky argued that children acquire linguistic generalizations that experience alone, i.e. contact with the language, could not teach them. The concept of generative grammar, as developed by Chomsky and others, states that from a basic set of rules (mostly dealing with word order) and a finite set of elements, a language can construct an infinite number of new sentences. Chomsky's ideas have been hugely influential in linguistics. However, in recent decades there has been renewed interest in the social aspects of language. While Chomsky downplayed environmental factors, "neo-Whorfian" linguists, influenced by new studies in psychology and linguistics – especially on multilingualism – have taken a fresh look at language use in social and environmental contexts. Daniel Everett, for example, studied the culture and language of the Pirahã people in Brazil (2009, 2012) and argued that language is a tool that evolves out of the human need to solve problems.

    Another development that has changed linguists’ views on the nature of human language has come through work examining actual language use, as recorded and transcribed. This has enabled the collection and analysis of large bodies of texts, both written and spoken, called a language corpus (Godwin-Jones, 2017b). Usage-based views of language have developed out of that research that show that language is based less on rules than it is on patterns – word groupings or set combinations of vocabulary and grammar (Tomasello, 2000).

    How language reflects culture

    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. Even 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.

    clipboard_e1997f7f623f006eeb9bb205059c65063.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): 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. Some languages, for example, have no clear verb tense for the future. A TED talk by Keith Chen explains how that feature might be tied to social behavior by speakers of "futureless" languages. Another example explains what the absence of subjunctive verb forms in a language might mean in terms of human behavior and interactions (see resource list for more examples). Caution is called for in accepting without question the validity of such claims. Piller (2017) points out, for example, how some textbooks simplify the relationship between language and culture through drawing misleading connections between grammar and national characteristics such as communication styles. She cites an example from a textbook on intercultural business communication (Chaney & Martin, 2013); "In the German language, the verb often comes at the end of the sentence. In oral communication, Germans do not immediately get to the point" (cited in Piller, 2017, p. 45). This is incorrect in terms of grammar (the placement of the verb depends on the sentence structure) and makes the false assumption that the "point" of a sentence necessarily comes through word order (not through intonation or other means).

    In any case, if we learn to speak a second language, it provides unique insights into what it is that is valued in that culture. Students of Korean, for example, 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 expanding personal space.

    Sociolinguistics: Studying Language in Use

    From the beginning of the process, second language students learn that the target language likely has different verbal (and nonverbal) conventions for participating in aspects of everyday life such as greetings, leave-taking, apologizing, or making requests. Such speech acts were described and studied by John Searle and John Austin in the 1960’s and 1970's (Austin, 1973; Searle, 1969). These are uses of language to perform actions or to generate specific activities, and they can vary substantially from language to language. The field of sociolinguistics deals with speech acts, as well as with other aspects of how language is used in social contexts. An important aspect of this field of study is the examination of variations in languages, such as dialects and regional differences. This can involve clear cultural distinctions such as the existence of high prestige and low prestige versions of a language. High prestige language varieties are those that mainstream societies consider correct and standard. Typically, dialects are seen as low prestige. The relative status of a language is determined by context, namely the audience and the situation (Eckert & Rickford, 2002). Linguists also study language variation related to age, gender, or occupation. Contact between cultures is another important area studied by sociolinguists. Such contact can bring about change, including new variations of a language, or even new languages, such as creoles. Linguists today do not believe that any language or language variety is more pure or superior to any other (Fasold & Connor-Linton, 2006).

    Today, there is considerable interest in studying how language is used in and adapted to online environments, such as microblogging (Twitter), text messaging, and social networks. Phone-based messaging, for example, has been shown to be more like spoken than written language (see linguist John McWhorter's TED talk). Sociolinguists emphasize the changing nature of language, as it comes into contact with social reality and with new ways of communicating. As new language conventions and vocabulary become established, there are inevitably voices which decry language innovations as corruptions. Some speakers of a language might object to neologisms (newly coined words), different uses of existing words, or deviations from standard grammar. This is known as linguistic prescription or prescriptionism. Linguists, on the other hand, engage in a descriptive approach to language, observing and recording how language is actually used. Languages develop organically and in defiance of official rules. While there may be governmental or private group efforts to maintain a "pure" version of a language, it is not proven possible to restrict the natural evolution of language through rules or regulations.

    The textbooks used in foreign language instruction rarely convey to students the dynamic character of language. Textbooks present standard language and do not often introduce variations in language patterns that reflect different social, regional, or situational contexts. This is done for practical, pedagogical reasons, with the goal of having students learn basic vocabulary and essential structural elements. Dialogues in textbooks typically present the speech of educated, well-behaved native speakers, who wait till their conversation partners are finished before speaking. These are idealized native speakers, intent on being agreeable, conversing in order to exchange information and to find consensus. Linguists know how far removed such exchanges are from real life. Actual dialogs are full of interruptions, false starts, and repetitions. Conversations rarely focus on transmitting information. Interactions may be contentious, with open conflict and raw emotions on display. In any case, the language used will likely not resemble the nicely cooperative and grammatically correct sentences in a textbook. The use of discourse analysis in linguistics – transcribing and analyzing recordings of real conversations – has shown how varied and spontaneous human speech really is (see Gee, 2014). A TED talk by Elizabeth Stokoe provides examples of how conversation analysis reveals not only how people actually talk, but also the significance of such frequent speech phenomena as hesitations, repetitions, or brief silences.

    In many contexts today, another characteristic of real language use often emerges – code-switching, or the mixing of languages together within a conversation. This can be simply substituting an occasional word of another language or, in other cases, it can involve a back and forth between languages for the entire conversation. As globalization has increased international contact, more frequent travel has taken more people into unfamiliar cultures, and the explosion in the use of social networks has expanded exposure to multiple languages, code-switching is a phenomenon that increasing numbers of people are likely to experience. Claire Kramsch describes this phenomenon as ‘language crossings’ (1998). She provides examples which highlight complex manifestations of identity enactment; the sample conversations she analyzes show how choice of language within conversations can be clear markers of group membership or social distancing. Code switching can be used in a playful way or to express social solidarity. In some settings, language crossing may be used to contest or resist authority (see sidebar). Such language crossings are not limited to bilingual groups, but are particularly evident on the Internet, where discussion forums and social media frequently mix and match languages. The extensive and frequent mixing of languages online has led to the use of the term "translanguaging" to describe the fluid transition of languages in online use (García & Wei, 2014).

    Language as resistance

    English by Pakistani youngsters, native speakers of English, as a strategy to resist the authority of their Anglo teacher (BR) in a British school.

    • BR: attention gents
    • Asif: yeh alright
    • Alan: alright
    • Asif: yeh

    In the typical language learning environment, it is not possible to expose learners to all the varieties of language use they might encounter. However, it certainly is possible to increase learners’ awareness of socio-cultural issues. One of those is the existence of language registers, the idea that we adjust the language we use – in terms of formality, tone, and even vocabulary – in response to the context in which we find ourselves. Learners need to be aware of how language use could be adjusted in formal face-to-face settings, as in a work environment, to highly informal, online settings, such as Facebook postings. This involves looking beyond grammatical correctness to language in use. Pragmatics, another field of interest in sociolinguistics, deals with the nature of language as it occurs in actual social use. The meaning of what is said in conversation may be quite different from the literal meaning of the words used. A statement made in an ironic, sarcastic, or humorous tone may, in fact, have a meaning diametrically opposed to its surface meaning. Answering "oh, sure" in American English to a statement or question can be a positive affirmation or be intended to ridicule what the interlocutor has said. Such nuances are important for being able to function in the target culture. This kind of sociocultural competence is not easy to acquire, as pragmatics does not involve learning a fixed set of rules. Rather, inference and intuition play a major role, as can emotions as well. Being aware of the dynamics of language use in conversation can help one be a better informed and literate speaker of any language. Pragmatic competence is particularly important in online exchanges, in which the non-verbal cues signaling intent and attitude are not available.

    In recent years there has been a growing recognition that culture and language cannot be separated, and that culture permeates all aspects of language. (Godwin-Jones, 2016). 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 social distance when desired, for clearly distinguishing friends from acquaintances, and for preserving social harmony in institutional settings.

    Typically in foreign language instruction, sociolinguistic knowledge is presented as standard and universal in a given culture, much as language is presented in the model of educated speakers using standardized, grammatically correct language forms. This can result in a somewhat unrealistic representation of the target culture. Foreign cultures are often viewed as monolithic and invariable, with distinctions based on age, occupation, or locality either glossed over or presented as intriguing, exotic outliers (‘what a strange dialect’). The reality of identity creation in today's world is quite different, with globalizing economic trends and the spread of social media leading to multifaceted personal and cultural identities which may come to the fore at different times in different situations. The national culture in which a person is raised is an important factor in determining one’s values, beliefs, and habits, but there are multiple additional influences, coming, for example, from membership in a minority group, gender identification, participation in online communities, the work/living environment, or a chosen free time activity.

    Bilingualism and Multilingualism

    The complex identities created through the forces of globalization, mass migration, and the growth of social media, have also resulted in linguistic complexity (Piller, 2017). Individuals are much more likely than in the past to be exposed, in person or online, to speakers of other languages. The plurality of languages may well happen within one’s own family. As travel and migration have brought more people from different cultures together, there has been a growth in families in which parents have different mother tongues. Children in such households are likely to be brought up speaking both languages, becoming bilingual. Bilingualism may as well result from individuals or families migrating and continuing to speak the language of their home culture, while learning that of the host country. Studies have shown that not only do bilinguals have the advantage of likely fluency in two languages, but that the process of growing up bilingual also has a positive effect on brain development (Albert & Obler, 1978).

    Bilinguals may differ in their level of proficiency in the languages they speak. Normally a bilingual will have one dominant language (Grosjean, 2001). It may be, for example, that children speaking the language of their parents at home may not develop a good reading or writing ability in that language. Some schools and universities in which there are large numbers of such "heritage" speakers, often have specially designed courses which help such students develop full capabilities in those languages. People who know more than one language have been shown to be more adept at language learning (Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2009).

    In most parts of the world today, most individuals have at least some capability in a second language: "The majority of the world's population uses more than one language on a regular basis and monolingualism is by and large a historical and Anglophone anomaly" (Piller, 2017, pp. 71-72). This is a matter of necessity in countries such as Luxembourg, Nigeria, or Indonesia in which there are multiple languages coexisting in geographically close quarters. Inhabitants of smaller countries, with their own national languages, such as Denmark, Estonia, or Nauru (an island country in Micronesia) will, due to economic and practical concerns, typically learn the language of larger neighboring countries. However, in this context as in others, political and nationalist issues may influence language learning choices.

    Many countries have more than one officially recognized national language, including Canada (English and French), Switzerland (French, German, Italian, Romansch), South Africa (11 languages), and India (22 languages). It’s not the case that in multilingual societies all speakers are necessarily multilingual. Particular languages may be spoken predominately in one region, as is the case for French in Canada or Italian in Switzerland. In other cases, language use may be distributed according to ethnic heritage, as can be seen in Singapore or Malaysia. In some countries, there may be different versions of a common language, as is the case in Switzerland with Swiss German and standard German. This phenomenon is known as diglossia, in which there is a common spoken vernacular language and a more formal version. This is the case for Arabic, with the "high" version being Modern Standard Arabic, used in writing and in formal speech, and the many regional, colloquial versions (Egyptian, Maghrebi, Peninsular, etc.). In some countries or regions, there may not be this kind of functional distinction in language choice, but rather a mix of languages spoken determined by the context in which the language is used. This phenomenon, known as ambilingualism is seen particularly in smaller countries (such as Luxembourg), border areas (such as Alsace, France) or in urban areas aggregating different communities (Johannesburg, South Africa).

    clipboard_e8550b0e7e1626c53cf664cb059aea394.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Tamil, English and Hindi name board at the Tirusulam suburban railway station in Chennai.

    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. Modern Korean offers a rare example of a successfully invented written language, Hangeul (see sidebar). 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.

    Translation

    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.

    It is estimated that there are between 5000 and 7000 human languages. It is difficult to provide an exact count, as differentiating languages from dialects is often difficult. It is also the case that languages die, as the number of speakers dwindle. That is particularly the case with indigenous languages in the Americas and Asia. Endangered languages can become extinct, and today this is happening at an alarming rate, for multiple reasons; often cited are globalization and the rise of English as a world language. Several TED Talks highlight the work of field linguists (a branch of anthropology) to capture recordings of endangered languages in an effort at preservation (see resource list). Modern technology makes it much easier to document and archive language use. However, those same technological advances bring the outside world into formally isolated areas, inevitably favoring the spread of dominant languages such as Spanish, Chinese, and English.

    clipboard_ef067913c81cd44446395d250b7fde788.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Linguist Gregory Anderson interviews a Koro speaker in India


    This page titled 10.1: Language and Culture is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert Godwin-Jones.

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