Culture and Language

Written by Alana Jolley

November 6, 2013

Culture and Language

Maya Angelou’s poetry brought Culture and Language together in a very unique way.  Culture and Language is an interesting topic for more reasons than you might imagine.  Communicating through language is a unique characteristic of human culture.  No other organism communicates in such a complex way.  Other animals make sounds, calls, or signals that alert to danger, or to where food might be located.  Human beings, however, are symbolic creatures; and language is the most symbolic way that culture is transmitted and passed down from generation to generation.

The reason, our closest relatives the Chimpanzees, cannot speak is illustrated below. Click on the slides to enlarge.

Human versus Chimpanzee Voice Anatomy

Language is best defined as a system of communication, which uses sounds as well as gestures; and  the sounds and gestures made must follow a set of rules governed by culture.

Without language we would not be able to share life’s many experiences with others.  We could not voice our concerns or our beliefs about certain aspects of our lives.  In other words, we would not be uniquely human.

Complex human culture could not exist without language, and  many influences dictate how, when, where, and to whom we speak. All the things that are meaningful and defined by our culture are communicated and transmitted through language.  Notice how we all tend to speak differently to infants, to children, to siblings, to aged parents and to friends and associates.

All of the approximately 6,500 spoken languages in existence today are organized in much the same way, though some are gendered in specific ways such as Spanish with the articles of el (for male) and la (for female), or as Native American speakers like the Lakota who speak differently to warriors than to women.  Rules put the sounds in a language together in a sensible way.  Sign languages use only gestures not sounds and Chimpanzees and Gorillas have been taught to use sign language.  All languages have what is sometimes noted as “core vocabularies.”  Core vocabularies are words used as pronouns, numbers, names for body parts, and objects found in the natural world.

Language and Cultural Loss

The exact number of human languages that have become extinct due to culture loss is not known.  Many languages have only a few native speakers and when those speakers die, the language dies with them if efforts have not been made to preserve it.  Though technology can spread culture, it can also diminish culture.  Think of the internet and the few dominant languages that are expressed in cyberspace.

Language and Internet Use

Languages sing the songs, tell the stories, recite the poetry, designate the sacred places, and consecrates beliefs about how the world works for each culture.  Language is often said to be “the thread that holds cultures together.”

Language revival and restoration programs are making headway around the world due to focused attention to endangered languages in the 21st century.  Documenting, creating dictionaries, and teaching young people declining languages, however, is a monumental effort, both in energy expended and excessive costs of such programs.

Many indigenous and traditional cultures are striving to preserve their homelands, their autonomy, and their identities as globalization marches on, but unless the languages embedded within such cultures are also preserved, their efforts may be in vain.  Many of the native speakers of endangered languages have passed away, thus making it difficult for linguists to document those languages with proper translations, grammar, and speech sounds.

Some words in some cultures are not even translatable.  As an example, when I was preparing my Aunt Virginia’s biography from recorded tapes she recited a poem in Spanish and I asked her the meaning.  She was over 90 years old at the time, but she was very alert and had all of her cognitive faculties.  She said that the poem was one that her father used to tell her at night when he put her to bed, but she said that in English it doesn’t make sense!

The following links give you an idea of other words in other languages that cannot be translated, or that we use all the time, but don’t realize the origin.  These are fun links to explore. There should be more common English words to express some of the amazing circumstances.

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