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4.1: The Importance of Human Language to Human Culture

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  • Students in my cultural anthropology classes are required to memorize a six-point thumbnail definition of culture, which includes all of the features most anthropologists agree are key to its essence. Then, I refer back to the definition as we arrive at each relevant unit in the course. Here it is—with the key features in bold type.

    Culture is:

    1. 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;
    2. A system shared by the members of the society;
    3. 100 percent learned, not innate;
    4. Based on symbolic systems, the most important of which is language;
    5. Humankind’s most important adaptive mechanism, and
    6. Dynamic, constantly changing.

    This definition serves to underscore the crucial importance of language to all human cultures. In fact, human language can be considered a culture’s most important feature since complex human culture could not exist without language and language could not exist without culture. They are inseparable because language encodes culture and provides the means through which culture is shared and passed from one generation to the next. Humans think in language and do all cultural activities using language. It surrounds our every waking and sleeping moments, although we do not usually think about its importance. For that matter, humans do not think about their immersion in culture either, much as fish, if they were endowed with intelligence, would not think much about the water that surrounds them. Without language and culture, humans would be just another great ape. Anthropologists must have skills in linguistics so they can learn the languages and cultures of the people they study.

    All human languages are symbolic systems that make use of symbols to convey meaning. A symbol is anything that serves to refer to something else, but has a meaning that cannot be guessed because there is no obvious connection between the symbol and its referent. This feature of human language is called arbitrariness. For example, many cultures assign meanings to certain colors, but the meaning for a particular color may be completely different from one culture to another. Western cultures like the United States use the color black to represent death, but in China it is the color white that symbolizes death. White in the United States symbolizes purity and is used for brides’ dresses, but no Chinese woman would ever wear white to her wedding. Instead, she usually wears red, the color of good luck. Words in languages are symbolic in the same way. The word key in English is pronounced exactly the same as the word qui in French, meaning “who,” and ki in Japanese, meaning “tree.” One must learn the language in order to know what any word means.