Attempts by linguists and anthropologists to understand humankind have always focused on two areas: culture and society and language and communication. It is somewhat unnatural, however, to separate the study of language from the study of culture, as doing so can limit attempts to characterize the development of peoples and how they create communities and live in societies. Language and are intrinsically related or, as Agar says in Language Shock:
Culture is a conceptual system whose surface appears in the words of people’s language.
In Language and Social Semiotic, author Halliday calls culture a social reality that consists of many interrelated dimensions. A traditional view might characterize culture as a group of people who most likely use the same language, live in the same geographic region, have the same moral and religious value systems, and participate in similar activities. Most researchers would judge this traditional view of culture as incomplete. Just as society is, culture is a complex concept. Anthropologists, linguists, and others have attempted to define culture, but language and communication characteristics are critical to the definition. Individuals do not develop cultures in isolation nor apart from language. Belonging to a culture requires belonging to a group and establishing bonds with members in the group through communication and language interactions. Existing cultures provide the means for individuals to form their personal identities and to make decisions about living, roles, membership, and participation; language is a major player in the development or demise of a culture. It is important to consider the differences between cultures and language use by peoples of the past and cultures and language use that has survived or has developed within current human societies.
Language and its Relationship to Living in Society
Language is more than just a singular component of culture. It is a symbol system that acts as a glue to bind cultures together. Reference to language in relation to most human societies and cultures nearly always involves spoken communication and written language; one notable exception is the culture of deaf individuals, which relies on language that is signed rather than language that is spoken.
The relationship between language, communication, and culture is complex. While language is a powerful and necessary tool to unite individuals in particular cultures, it may act as a barrier or be used to exclude or separate people in a society and within cultures. The author Ben-Rafael, in discussing Zionist immigrants to Israel, explained that, even though these individuals belonged to a common culture, they had migrated from Russia, Poland, and other eastern European countries with varying competencies in languages. Identification with a culture becomes dependent upon prior social context, and the choices of language and language adjustment are not always simple matters.
Members of a Sephardic family who moved from Bulgaria to Israel could speak between two and four languages besides Hebrew, and each member, especially the grandfather, was determined to speak one of the alternative languages to Hebrew at home. We can assume that immersion into Israeli/Hebrew society affected family interactions as well as their perceptions about their language use in society. Ben-Rafael explained that the grandmother criticized her husband for using Bulgarian because it was a non-Jewish language. And the grandchildren preferred English to Hebrew because it would support their future university studies and help them converse with visitors and during travel abroad.
The Prominent Place of Language
Individuals may speak different languages and belong to the same culture, or individuals may speak the same language and belong to different cultures. Sometimes people may be involved in multiple language groups that influence their choices of cultural identity. The ability to speak a language is not the only determinant for belonging to a culture or participating in a society, but it is intrinsic to establishing social identities and cultural roles.
Different Languages, Same Culture
One population that may be characterized as having more than one language but belonging to a culture of a major society is the deaf community in the U.S. Although a vast number of adults use American Sign Language (ASL) as their mother tongue and choose to belong to a distinct, identifiable deaf community, they are citizens of the United States and belong to the broader hearing society that uses English as its primary language. Deaf individuals share economic responsibilities, occupations, healthcare, and leisure with the hearing American society and are immersed and involved in American culture at every level.
Over 90% of deaf individuals are born to hearing parents, and more than 83% of deaf children attend public and private schools with hearing children. Frequently, it is not until the deaf child becomes an adolescent that increased opportunities to know other deaf persons arise, as well as opportunities to learn ASL. A majority of deaf individuals are members first and continuously of one culture but are bilingual through ASL and English. Only in the past 30 years have deaf Americans vigorously established their identity as a deaf community. To characterize them as belonging to a major culture, that is, the American hearing society, is not as clear cut as it may appear.
Same Language, Different Cultures
There are many real-life examples of societies in which individuals may speak the same language but belong to different cultures. Although Brazilians speak Portuguese, they do not share the same culture as individuals living in Portugal. More than 35 million eastern coast and central Africans speak Swahili, but they belong to distinct nations and to tribes with distinct cultures. Even though Swahili may be the language of many people, residents of African nations speak other languages derived during European explorations, and many African languages intersect and cross nations.
Cultures are not limited to countries. In certain workplace cultures, such as those at the animation film company PIXAR or in regional and national orchestras, individuals may speak the language of that corporate culture. Members of legislative bodies try to speak the same language and interpret the language of their constituents to determine the passage of laws. In these instances, individuals belong to common workplace cultures but they may be separated from each other within their workplace by the cultures of families, friendship, or religions.
Language and Culture at the Lexical Level
We can learn much about the connection between language and culture by studying the availability and use of words in language communities. Edward Sapir comments that vocabulary is a very sensitive index of the culture of a people. Even at the lexical or vocabulary level, we can often get a sense of how individuals perceive themselves as members of society and members of specific cultures. The differences in word usage between languages can have serious implications for those who attempt to converse in a language not their own if they assume the same words in both languages carry equivalent meanings.
In an analysis of the word freedom in five languages, Wierzbecka shows that, not only does this word mean something distinct in each of the four languages, in some of them, some usages are not permitted. For example, in English, we can use freedom in contexts such as freedom from (interruption), freedom to (leave), freedom of (choice). In Polish, we define the word wolnosc in moral and political terms, a word we associate with oppression and matters of life and death. It is inappropriate to use it in phrases as we might in English, such as freedom of access or freedom of movement, or in sentences such as A dog should be given its freedom. We can, however, use wolnosc as we do in English when we say freedom of conscience.
Words by themselves do not have meanings; words take on meaning from individual use and as a function of the language and of the culture in which the words occur.
Language and Power in Culture and Society
In studies of ethnicity and race, researchers have recorded numerous instances of families and cultures considered language minorities but who insist that they will maintain the characteristics that define their people while living in a country outside of their country of origin. Fearing assimilation and loss of ethnic identity, migrants as well as ethnic and racial groups that may have resided in a country for years or even centuries may attempt keep their original languages and their cultures alive by developing isolated styles of living within the larger society. At times, the choice to maintain cultural identity comes at the price of economic advancement, livelihood, and educational opportunity. Lambert and Taylor quote a Vietnamese adult living in Montreal: “I’m grateful to be here, but this is not my place of choice. I will not become less Vietnamese by living here.”
In the United States, members of ethnic or racial communities who try to maintain their cultures and their native languages are sometimes able to resist assimilation. Although the distinct identities of many ethnic communities are dwindling, some, such as the Navajo nation, are growing—from 8,000 in the 1860s during the period of decimation by the U.S. government to more than 210,000 in the 21st century.
As we consider the power of language, we must recognize individuals’ ability to adjust the use of language to more than one social context. Individuals who have few opportunities to interact outside of a small subgroup within a society can be victimized or placed in a role of subservience or isolation by those in the larger community who have a broader command of language. Conversely, because languages change as cultures develop, individuals with high degrees of competence in their mother tongues have the capability to support those who do not share that competence, expanding—as Lull terms it—the dynamic ecology of culture.
- Agar, M. (1994). Language shock: The culture of conversation. New York: William Morrow.
- Ben-Rafael, E. (1994). Language, identity, and social division. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Gallaudet Research Institute. (2002-2003). Regional and national Statistics. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
- Halliday, M.A.K. (1978). Language and social semiotic. Baltimore, MD: University Park Press.
- Joseph, B. D., DeStephano, J., Jacobs, N. G., & Lehiste, I. (Eds.). (2003). When languages collide: Perspectives on language conflict, language competition, and language coexistence. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
- Lambert, W. E., & Taylor, D. M. (1987). Language minorities in the United States: Conflicts around assimilation and proposed modes of accommodation. In W. A. van Home (Ed.), Ethnicity and language (pp. 58-89). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Lull, J. (2000). Media, communication, and culture: A global approach, 2nd Ed. New York: Columbia University Press. The Navajo Nation.
- Padden, C., & Humphries, T. (2005). Inside deaf culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Sapir, E. (1949). Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
- Wierzbecka, A. (1997). Understanding cultures through their key words: English, Russian, Polish, German, and Japanese. New York: Oxford University Press.