Topic 5:
Language & Culture


What is language?

Simply stated, language is a symbolic code conveying meaning (Cooper et al., 2007).

Verbal language is made up of words, that are symbols. Meanings attached to these symbols vary greatly from one to another within a culture and as you can imagine may vary more so across cultures.

For example, the word “cat” symbolizes cat in the real world, and as an individual I have ideas, feelings, expectations, and beliefs about what a cat looks like, acts like, and appears in my world (trianlge of meaning from Ogden & Richards, 2007).

The word “cat” in a different language and culture may have entirely different meanings attached to this word.  Meaning are in people, not in words (Cooper, et al., 2007). Thus, words and meanings may differ. Verbal language has structure, components, and functions. activity


Language and Evolution

The importance of language - language is a way of life, defining who we are and how we interact. Recent studies suggest a genetic code for language that enables humans to communicate clearly and have culture. 

Evolution and culture has lead to a four-part process for the communication of internal states: 


I want a double, double…

I feel a bit down today….

Human propensity - to produce language is remarkable, infants babble, toddler's start around age two, systematic errors (over uses of rules) occur at specific ages (wented).
-6 months old respond to "mommy" or "daddy"
-7 months old detect phoneme pattern ga ti ga, ti bo bo, and familiar words

Critical period for the development of language is prior to 12, but stimulation throughout early years maintains it. Accents and second languages become exceedingly difficult to acquire.

-The grammar "settings" get fixed and difficult to change for phoneme recognition and production. Also ASL

Appears to be innate, not learned through reinforcement!


Elements / Components of Language

Basic Properties of Language

Symbols - written or acoustical codes that make reference to and stand for real objects and actions, often displaced.

Sign - a mark or movement that is used to represent something or some action. ASL uses hand signs.

Phonemes - are the basic units of verbal language. Potentially can produce about 100 such sounds. English contains ~45, most languages vary between 20 & 80.

Semantics - is the study of the meaning behind language as communication. Meaning is generally unrelated to sounds.

Morphemes - are the basic units of meaning that compose linguistic communication.

Humans appear to be infinitely generative in the production of novel expressions. Meaning is often implicit - sarcasm, irony, metaphor, even "make me an ice cream cone."

Syntax - involves the rules governing the use of language units in conveying meaning (the grammar).

Chomsky (1957) made a distinction between deep structure (meaning) and surface structure (what is said).
-The rules of language construction (syntax) enables multiple surface structures (sentences) and multiple deep (meanings).

-Metaphor of gardening, helping the flower grow and blossom

Skinner (1957) contends that language is learned like anything else, through operant conditioning.  "tacts" and the association of a verbal stimulus become its foundation.  Reinforcement keeps it going. eg pigeons reading?

Challenges, class or category not specific object.



Functions of language
y it has two main functions: to preserve and maintain culture and to transmit culture to new generations

 Communicativelyit serves three other main functions: 
        Labeling - to name  a person, object, event  (identification)

        Interaction - sharing and communication of ideas and experiences
                              (also community formation)

        Transmission - the passing of information on to others 
                              (medium of transmission)


Language involves:

Conversation - the meeting of individual voices or selves, the merging of thoughts and the basis of community. It is fundamentally dialectical in its dialogical or discursive form. 

Emotive expressions - are partially made through language although language may conceal meaning. Also can be used to release emotional or nervous energy, a form of catharsis. 

Thinking - language is seen as an instrument of  thought where it forms and constrains thinking. Is used to solve problems by expressing them and talking about the issues at hand. 

Control of reality - through expressions and use of words the world around us is conceptualized and legitimized (or illegitimized)  through metaphor or other means. 

Keeping history  - both in  its structure and meaning as well as through its records. 

Enculturation - instructing or inculcating members of a culture into their shared intentional worlds of meaning.  Occurs both for those born into a cultural world as well as those who migrate or receive migrants. 

Expression of identity - enables one to share meanings and identities as well as the more basic structure of selfhood that we covered in the last section of the course. 


Foreign Language and Translation (Moving between)

Problems of translation and equivalence

Vocabulary or lexical equivalence - sometimes very difficult to translate from one language to the next where the lexical equivalence is not present. Translators try something close but have disasters.

Idiomatic and slang equivalence - phrases that stand for something don't work well when taken piece by piece into another language. Need to find similar phrases, but they may carry other baggage. (i.e.,get your feet wet, get your hand dirty, raining cats and dogs, The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, beating around the bush). activity

Lee (2000) argues we need to study idiom use in intercultural communication because they hold a key to interpersonal closeness. When people use idioms they do so informally with close friends and family. The use of a culture’s idioms may speed interpersonal closeness for those moving between cultures.

Unfamiliarity with idioms can create barriers to relationships across cultures. Lee suggest 4 steps to helping people understand language idioms based on the works Gregory Batesons and Mikhail Bakhtin.

Grammatical-syntactical equivalence - not all languages share the same grammar or syntax, tenses and plurals, gender of objects, time into the future or into the past?

Experiential-cultural equivalence - specific and shared experiences give meanings. Small groups may have one local meaning that is not shared by the broader culture, which one is it?


Role Play


 Language and Cultural Variations  - forms the basis of culture

    Basic Elements

Verbal processes  -have two major components:
  symbols (written codes and auditory sounds) and grammar (rules) that guide the use of those symbols.  

Differences in words - Phonology - the sounds of a language vary considerably.  At birth all infants have the ability to produce and comprehend all sounds, yet within months those are pruned down to the relevant ones that one hears.  English has about 21 consonants and 5 vowels to produce 38 phonemes, while Filipino has 16 and 10 to make 26.  


Grammatical structures vary too where singular & plural, formal & informal, past, present, future, imperfect, future-imperfect, ...etc all may vary considerably. This is also the case for syntax or  word order, where it could be Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) as in English or VOS in Filipino. 

Semantics are the meanings for words that vary considerably: i.e., gay, boot, hooker, rubber, ...

Pronunciation differences - accents and blending of languages also leads to vary different pronunciations, sometime words are brought over from other languages but changed in emphasis. 

Patterns of thought - Long has been the debate over the link between language and thought. 

Linguistic relativity - suggests that thought is tied to the symbols and the ideas or objects to which they refer. Each linguistic groups is presumed to think differently and be bound by their language. 

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - was drawn from observations among native Americans who did not have words for vapors and were believed to understand that the empty gasoline cans they were igniting still had volatile vapors in them.  

It states that experience is defined and constrained by the language as in the case of Navajo who "one moves into clothing" for English "One gets dressed."  

Contextualization  - general patterns of speech tend to provide contexts for meaning. Asians seen to be more holistic and American as more analytical.    
    Eg. seagull, sky, dog...
Asians group sky & seagull; Americans dog & seagull.  
    For  pen, notebook, magazine
Asians: pen & notebook; Americans: notebook & magazine

Culture and meaning - the meanings of words are grounded in the local culture which is ever changing, cool, ax, rope, bad, sick, ... 
E.g., Sami language (Kiruna Sweeden-500 words for snow & 100 for reindeer) but none for computer. nova-awards

Culture and use of language - the styles of expression vary in terms or stance, ethics & poetics. 

Degree of directness - American language tends to be direct and instrumental, this is often seen as blunt and rude by others. 

 Japanese tend to offer  regret or apologies for not offering a service. Anglo-Canadians are known for saying "sorry" in public places while franco-Canadian say "excusez". 

Respect for others may involve indirectness.

African and Asian cultures tend to be more indirect and may favor the suppression of negative emotions.

 Social harmony is the primary function of communication and not to simply tell it like it is!  

Indo-Canadians will offer tea and sweets, if you say no that means yes, you are simply being polite, if you really say no and walk out without having tea you are being rude. 

Chinese cooks will apologize for giving something unpalatable, while the American will ask if you like the special dish they made just for you. 

Social relationships - are conveyed through specific words and language use.

 Formal verb conjugation in French, Spanish, German,  Japanese, ... for recognising social status while more informal style is used in the familial settings. 

Japanese recognise the hierarchical status, superior, peer, inferior, i.e., omae for "you" to be used only by a man addressing his wife while for others this would be an insult.  

Expression of Emotion - expressiveness of emotions vary, Koreans & Japanese less so, while Americans & Mediterranean's more so. 

Public greetings may be placid. British may use euphemisms  or phrases to express general attitudes while not making things too personally expressive-keeping the stiff upper lip. USA vs. GB direct & indirect. 

The value of 'talk' : enjoyment - verbal conversation is enjoyable, it is the essence of our sociality. Some love to tell long stories with side tales and adventures.

Proverbs, parables, myths and fanciful stories are much of what we do when gathering in groups or in pairs.  Some prefer more instrumental use of language, but those conversations are what binds us together and give us our common history and culture. 


Discourse Language & Power


Discourse involves the ways in which language is used by particular communities of people. Includes the contexts and specific uses and purposes.

Pragmatics involves the study of meaning as it is constructed within cultural contexts and how it is used to do things in an everyday setting.

Language & Identity as discussed earlier in the section on identity, language forms an essential part of identity.  Both major languages, such as francophone or Anglophone identity in Montreal may lead to distinct identities. Conversely, as each identity grows it will vary also in terms of the specific phrases and expressions used (compare a teenager and their 50 year old parents). 

Additionally , these linguistic identities as in Quebec may become confused especially for those subjected to Bill 101 and the "seulement francais" policy of the Quebec government. As such, Anglophones are subjected to systemic discrimination and resulting from this use of power.  Control of culture through law and enforcement.

This issue become more important in light of globalisation and actions of the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and other multinational agreements on culture and cultural products.

 Language Diversity in the United States
Samovar and Porter examine the following:

Co-cultures and language use identify the cultural group where they often have hybrid languages or variations on the dominant language using different syntax and grammar for different semantics or meaning. 


African Americans - Ebonics is the language of African American English Vernacular. Samovar & Porter outline 12 characteristics:
1) Shortening the third person present tense (He walk);
2)  use of 'to be' for continuous action (He be gone);
3) deletion of verb to be in present tense (He tired);
4) Use of done for for completed (He done been sitting there);
5) Use of stressed 'been' for duration (He been married for...);
6) Uhm & ima for am and am going to..;
7) Double & triple negative (Won't nobody do nothin' bout that);
8) Simplification of end consonants (ho de do for hold the door);
9) Drop "g" from ng  (talkin' or walkin);
10) Initial voiced "th" as 'd' (dem bones);
11) Final "th" sometime "f" (wif for with);
12) Substitution of "x" for "sk" (axe for ask). 

Gender:  Women - use different words and intentions and rules  behind words (stereotypical or real)?

For women communication is a way to establish and maintain social relationships using seven features:
 1) Equality; 2) Supporting; 3) Emotional probing; 4) Conversational maintenance; 5) Responsiveness; 6) Personal and concrete; 7) Tentativeness. 

Men tend to communicate to: exert control, preserve independence and enhance status (Tannen cited in S&P)

Alternative Languages - form the source of cultural and group identity and express oneself in alternate forms.

Argot - the 'private' language of a co-culture that is used by that group only, that represents a specialised vocabulary for them only (i.e., gangs, gays, ethnic groups, ...)

Slang - terms often derived from argot that move into the larger culture: booze, scratch, crib. 

Functions of Alternative language

Empowerment - of the group that has its own special form of communication (i.e., Nushu-spoken by ancient Chinese women).  This can also be a form of self defense against the hegemony, or concealing criminal activity (code words). 

Solidarity and cohesiveness - also result from the community that uses a special language (i.e., gang bangers-Buster, Crippin', wannabe, flashing signs, homey...  Or gay culture: AC/DC, bill, Black Widow, chicken....


 Vicente Ricalo interview Is an interview I did in 2014 with Vencete Ricalo, Professor at Universidad D'Oriente de Santiago de Cuba. It is about language and transaltion and communication in Cuba.