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How are Culture and Language Interrelated?

A clock face with gears
In a previous post, I talked about the structure of language. Now, I’d like to talk about the interrelationships between culture and language. Culture influences language. And, language influences culture. Let’s start by looking at how culture influences language.

How Culture Influences Language

Culture affects vocabulary, which is the set of words in a language. Concepts that are important in a culture are found in its vocabulary. This is called the cultural emphasis of language. Here’s an example. Here in the USA, occupation is important. So, American English has all sorts of words for different occupations, such as “teacher,” “accountant,” and “plumber.” But in other cultures, occupation is not important, or they do not have the same occupations. For example, in parts of rural Africa there may not be plumbing, so the word “plumber” does not exist. And people whose lifestyle involves hunting and gathering have no need for the word, “accountant.”
Image of a white cow with brown spots in a green field.
Here’s another example. In the USA, we have the word “cow.” Unless you are a dairy farmer or something, you probably call all cows, “cows.” But in Sudan, there is a group of people called the Nuer. Their lifestyle centers around cows. And, this is reflected in their language. The Nuer have tons of ways to describe cows, noting things like their colors and horn configuration.
Let’s look at a third example. Here in the USA, especially among the middle class, sports are important. So, we have a lot of words about sports. And, the sports-related words also are used in non-sports situations. Here are some examples, taken directly from Guy Ferraro’s and Susan Andreatta’s textbook, “Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective” (11th edition, page 132).
  • She threw me a curve.
  • You’re way off base.
  • You’re batting a thousand.
  • What are the ground rules?
  • I want to touch all the bases.
  • He went to bat for me.
  • He has two strikes against him.
  • That’s way out in left field.
There are many more examples, but hopefully, you get the idea.
Image of various colored tools on a brown wooden surface.
In addition, within a culture, there are specialized words for things that are important to certain groups of people. Here are some examples. People who speak English have a word for snow. But, skiers who speak English have many words for different types of snow, such as “powder.” And, the average English speaker has some words for tools, such as “hammer,” “screwdriver,” and “nail.” But a mechanic or carpenter has hundreds of English words for tools that the average speaker doesn’t have.

How Language Influences Culture

Now, let’s look at how language influences culture.
Some anthropologists believe that language affects your thinking, which is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis says that grammatical categories of a language make the people who speak it think about things in a certain way. Edward Sapir said, “The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.” (quote taken from Guy Ferraro’s and Susan Andreatta’s textbook, “Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective,” 11th edition, page 132).
I know this sounds confusing, so here’s an example. In the English language, we have different tenses for words to describe time, so that we can talk about the past, present, and future. Such as, “I went to the store.” This is past tense. Or, “I will go to the store later.” This is future tense. This comes so naturally to English speakers that we have a hard time realizing that not all cultures do this.
Image of several golden clocks.
For example, the Hopi, Native Americans from the Southwest USA, do not divide time this way. The Hopi language divides time into two categories—things that exist or have existed, and things that don’t exist or don’t yet exist. So, the Hopi think about time in a different way than those who speak English. The Hopi don’t distinguish between past and present—they think of time as continuously unfolding.
And here’s another example. If your language has one word–“aunt”– for your mother’s sister, your father’s sister, your mother’s brother’s wife, and your father’s brother’s wife, then you will see all these people as the same genealogically and you will behave in the same way towards them. The language categories that you use affect your perceptions and behavior.
And here’s one more example. In some languages, such as German and Spanish, nouns (words for a person, place, or thing) are considered either masculine or feminine. And when you talk about these nouns you need to use the right pronouns, adjectives, and verb endings so that these match the gender of the noun. Well, anthropologists began to wonder if classifying an object as either masculine or feminine in language made people actually think of the object as having masculine or feminine qualities.
Image of female hands holding a shiny golden old fashioned key
Well, a study was done, and this study showed that to be true. For example, when Germans described a key, which is masculine in the German language, they used words like, “heavy” and “hard.” When Spanish speaking people described a key, which is feminine in Spanish, they used words like “lovely” and “tiny.” In this study, language shaped how people viewed objects in the world.

Learn More

I hope you enjoyed learning about how culture and language are interrelated. Want to learn more about the connections between culture and language? Check out this article, “How language can affect the way we think.”
Thanks for reading!