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Language is the primary means through which people all over the world engage with one another socially. In every culture, there is a language that binds everyone who associates with that culture. In terms of communication, language and cultural contexts interact in many complex ways. Language is the main tool that people of different cultures use to express their worldview and cultural identities.
All the words that people use are always in reference to shared experiences. They are an expression of facts, events, and ideas that can be communicated since they refer to a shared body of knowledge among all members of a certain community. They are a reflection of the attitudes, opinions, and beliefs of the people who utter them. In most cases, these attitudes, opinions, and beliefs also happen to be shared by the people with whom they share the same understanding of these words. In both of these cases, language serves to express the cultural reality of the speakers.
However, members of a certain community do not merely express experiences; they also continually create them using language. They give meaning to the experiences they go through using the lexical and semantic tools provided by the shared linguistic medium. They also give meaning to cultural situations through the choice of medium of communication. For example, one may choose to use face-to-face communication instead of a letter to communicate inner, intimate feelings that cannot be expressed in a letter. One can also create culturally unique meanings through conversational style, accent, tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures. All these verbal and non-verbal aspects are ways in which language embodies cultural reality.
In every culture, language is a system made up using signs that have a cultural value. Speakers differentiate themselves from members of other cultures primarily through the signs they use and the cultural meanings they attach to them. In this case, language becomes a symbol of a people’s cultural identity. When a certain group of people is prohibited from using a language, they perceive this to be a rejection of their culture and social group. Therefore, it is true to say that language is a symbol of cultural reality.
In Born’s (1976) view, people who belong to a certain speech community use language to create and adopt particular meanings, which they impose on all other members of that speech community. In this way, language becomes a tool of understanding nature and codifying these meanings in different linguistic signs for in social and cultural settings. Both language and culture present us with a tool of imposing constraints on nature through socialization or acculturations. Members of different speech communities use language in different ways in order to socialize and acculturate. This gives rise to different interpretations of issues like politeness, people’s behavior, professional training, and schooling.
With the advent of literacy today, people also use written language as a tool of expressing their worldview. People tend to be very careful when choosing a genre of written communication. All the factors they consider are shaped by cultural conventions that guide members of the cultural community, such that a political pamphlet will be written using conventions that are completely different from those that are used to write a formal business letter. This creates an invisible ritual that culture imposes on users of every language. This is a succinct way of using language in order to bring about cultural predictability and order in all social contexts.
All forms of social appropriateness are products of communities as language users. Therefore, culture cannot liberate people from anonymity, the randomness of nature and oblivion without the use of language to impose constraints that are necessary for a systematic understanding of the world. In this case, language has to constrain in order to be effective as a tool of cultural liberation. The notion of a speech community is used by linguists to refer to a group of people who share the same linguistic code. Linguistic anthropologists refer to discourse communities to refer to the commonality of language use among members of a social group in order to meet all their social needs.
Languages, according to Risager (2006) are not merely differentiated through the use of lexical, grammatical and phonological features inherent in them; but also the topics that people choose to talk about and the spatial-temporal dimensions within which they do so. Linguistic features, though necessary, are all not there is to talk about language. This is because language cannot exist in a vacuum. It acquires utility only when it is placed in a socio-cultural setting. Therefore, knowing a language entails not only the ability to use all linguistic structures but also knowing the social and cultural conventions that determine their use.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis puts forth the claim that the linguistic structures that a person habitually uses determine how he behaves and thinks. Whorf argued that different languages can drive people into taking different actions because their perception is filtered by language, forcing them to categorize experience in culturally unique ways.
According to Whorf, English speakers perceive time to be linear, while the Hopi perceive it in terms of duration and intensity when analyzing and reporting experiences (Kramsch, 2003). Kramsch reports that Whorf viewed the English way of time perception to be “objectified, neatly bound and easily classifiable, making it ideal for time-saving, record-keeping and clock-punching”. In sharp contrast, the Hopi, according to Hopi (Kramsch, 2003), language is viewed in terms of the relationship between two events rather than linearity. Therefore, the Hopi never suggest anything about time; instead, they only express aspects of duration and intensity by using the concept of “perpetually getting later”. This shows how two languages are used to express one concept in culturally distinct ways.
The argument presented by Whorf invoked a controversial debate on linguistic relativity, whereby language was seen to determine thought instead of the other way round. This conception seemed to give validity to the opinion that all human beings are prisoners of language. If it is true that human beings are prisoners of cultures, then they are prisoners of language as well. This is because culture can never be transmitted to future generations without the use of language. If people of different languages cannot communicate well with each other, despite successful translation efforts, it is because of the lack of a shared way of interpreting events as well as expressing reality and worldview.
In conclusion, language defines the ways in which people of a speech community interact with one another, share experiences as well as create them. Culture is transferred from one generation to the other through language. In terms of linguistic relativism, the cultural meanings attached to linguistic code determine how people perceive the world. Language, therefore, liberates while constraining at the same time. A balance between these two ends of a continuum defines the social-cultural fabric of members of a certain speech community.
Kramsch, C. 2003. Language and Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Risager,K. 2006. Language and Culture: Global Flows and Local Complexity.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Born, W. (Ed.) 1976. Language and Culture: Heritage and Horizons. New York: Routledge.