Words and Meaning
Language and Culture
Language is so fundamental to our being
that it is hardly possible to image life
without it. It is so tightly woven into our
human experience that anywhere on earth
where two or more people gather together
they likely will be communicating in some
A different language is a different view of
Chapter 6: Language & Culture
Language is the primary means of interactions
between people. Speakers use language to convey
their thoughts, feelings, intentions, and desires to
others. Language links interlocutors in a dynamic,
reflexive process. We learn about people through
what they say and how they say it; we learn about
ourselves through the ways that other people react to
what we say; and we learn about our relationships
with others through the give-and-take of
Language is distinctly human; it is a faculty
that separates us from other species of
– “…the gift of language is the single human trait
that makes us unique, setting us apart from the
rest of life. Language is like nest building or
hive making, the universal and biologically
specific activity of human beings. We engange
in it communally, compulsively, and
automatically. We cannot be human without it;
if we were to be separated from it our minds
would die, as surely as bees lost from the hive.”
Do Animals have
language? Do they
kind of communication
do they have, if any?
How is it different from
human language and
Language is important to human activity
because it is the means by which we reach
out to make contact with others.
– Because of your ability to use language, you
can “reliably cause precise new combinations
of ideas to arise in each other‟s minds”
– "In nature's talent show we are simply a species
of primate with our own act, a knack for
communicating information about who did
what to whom by modulating the sounds we
make when we exhale.
Communicative Functions of
– Language functions to facilitate affective
expression, thought, social interaction, the
control of reality, the maintenance of history,
and the expression of identity.
– Language also permits you to pool knowledge
and to communicate with others who are
beyond the reach of your voice in space and
time so that you need not rediscover what other
have already discovered.
Language has 3 main functions:
– From a cultural perspective, it is the primary
means of preserving culture and is the medium
of transmitting culture to new generations.
– It helps establish and preserve community by
"linking individuals into communities of shared
– At the societal level, it is important to all
aspects of human interaction because it "often
relates to political goals."
Conversation provides you with the means of conducting
“It is largely through conversation that we are socialized,
through which institutional organizations such as the
economy and the polity are managed, and through which
we manage our ordinary social lives.
Conversation is the basis for many of the fundamental
functions of language.
Expression of Affect
Language allows you to express outwardly
your internal affective states (feelings).
Might be a simple statement or loud
cursing; could be voicing personal
happiness or sorrow.
Humans are both visual and verbal thinkers.
Verbal thinking is very important because
language functions as an instrument of
thought when you speak out loud as an aid
to problem solving or thinking.
Control of Reality
Prayers or blessings invoking supernatural
beliefs use language to try and control the
various forces that are believed to control or
influence one‟s life.
Catholic Mass uses this a lot.
Keeping of History
“Language is the archives of history.”
Language is used to record past events and
achievements – historical records,
geographical surveys, business accounts,
scientific reports, legislative acts, and
Socialization and Enculturation
Socialization and enculturation involve “the
experiences in which children participate so that
they will eventually become productive and
Language is the primary means of instructing kids
of culturally acceptable practices and behaviors
for social interaction, in the appropriate
relationships to the physical environment, and to
the sensed but unseen supernatural.
Expression of Identity
Language is the mechanism through which
much of your culturally based individual
and group identities are constructed.
Identities do not exist until they are enacted
Cheering at a football game, reciting a
national hymn, or shouting names or
slogans at public meetings can both
reinforce your group identification and
reveal a great deal about you.
The way people talk can reveal a great deal
about their social position and/or level of
education (Japanese High School Students).
Language and Culture
"Cultural premises and rules about speaking
are intricately tied up with cultural
conceptions of persons, agency, and social
relations" (p. 168).
"There is no doubt, however, that there is a
correlation between the form and content of
a language and the beliefs, values, and
needs present in the culture of its speakers"
Language and culture have the power to
maintain national or cultural identity.
Many countries have taken steps to prevent
– Costa Rica, Turkey, Iran, France
Languages DO acquire words from other
Many languages have acquired Native
American words for objects: avocado,
chocolate, coyote, sequoia, caribou,
chipmunk, Chinook, and tomato.
It is impossible to separate language from
Language “is a set of characters or elements
and rules for their use in relation to one
These characters or elements are language
symbols that are culturally diverse – they
differ from one culture to another.
Not only are the words and sounds for those
symbols different, but so are the rules for
Phonology – the number and tonal qualities
of speech sounds – is also culturally
Phonology of various Languages
English – 38 sounds (21 consonants, 5
Filipino – 26 sounds (16 consonants, 10
Mandarin - ????
Grammar of Various Languages
English – singular and plural nouns and
Korean – “distinction between singular and
plural is made by the context of the
English – Verb tenses express past, present,
Vietnamese – Same verb does all 3; specific
time is inferred from the context.
Syntax of Various Languages
English – S + V (The teacher died.)
Filipino – V + S (Died the teacher.)
Japanese – V at end (Watashi wa Tokyo ni
ikimashita – I Tokyo went to.)
English – Possessive uses „
Spanish – casa de Rosa Maria (needs “de”)
English and German
English – verbs come after subject
– I should go to the party.
German – Modal verbs come first and force
other verbs to the end of the sentence.
– Ich soll zur Partei gehen. (I should to the Party
Word and Pronunciation
“Language does more than just reflect
culture: it is the way in which the individual
is introduced to the order of the physical
and social environment.”
Language seems to have a major impact on
the way in which the individual perceives
and conceptualizes the world.
American vs. British English
“Yes, it is a pity that Ian‟s in queer street.”
“Too much hire purchase was the problem, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, and too many purchases of bespoke clothes and other things.”
“And now his personal and business current accounts are badly
“Precisely. He‟s been forced to retain a solicitor, and his position as a
commercial traveler is in jeopardy.”
• Ian has gotten into debt over his inability to pay, and he has had to hire
a lawyer to try to get him out of his adverse circumstances.
In a Japanese hotel: “You are invited to take
advantage of the chambermaid.”
Outside a Paris dress shop: “Dresses for
In a Rome Laundromat: “Ladies, leave your
clothes here and spend the afternoon having
a good time.”
Why are Australians always happy when
their mothers die?
They always say “Mothers die” with a smile
on their face.
Language, Culture, and Meaning
It is common to ask “What does that word
In fact, most meanings are not inherent in
words; they are internal (held inside our
heads); Words bring those meanings to
awareness as required.
Words can have many different meanings
depending on your background and culture.
The word “cool” can mean something
related to weather for one person and
something trendy, nice, and “with it” for
Every person draws on his/her unique
background to decide the meaning of words.
People can only use similar meanings of
words if they have had similar experiences.
A cancer patient, a relative of a cancer
patient, and a doctor all have different
meanings for “cancer.”
Words can have many different meanings.
– The 500 most common words in English have
about 14,000 meanings.
– Cat – animal, jazz musician, type of tractor,
type of fish, kind of sailboat, or a kind of whip.
– In America, words can change because of
simple borders or even rivers.
– Which words are different between Taiwanese
Mandarin and Chinese Mandarin? How about
Chinese English and American English?
There are more ideas, feelings, and things to
represent than there are words to represent
them, so we must use our personal
background and experiences to get meaning
from the words we encounter.
Culture and meaning
If culture is included as a variable in the
process of deciding meaning, then the
problem becomes bigger.
Culture teaches us both the symbol (dog)
and what the symbol represents (a furry,
four-legged, domesticated animal).
Intracultural communication tends to be
very easy, because you have the same
background and experiences.
Intercultural communication often becomes
difficult as speakers attempt to establish
common meanings for words.
It becomes even more complicated when
you throw in words (in different languages)
for abstract ideas.
What does freedom mean? Love? Wealth?
Nature? Leadership? Democracy? Security?
Not only do cultures have different words,
but also varying ideas about what these
The Sami have many words for snow and
reindeer, because they are so important to
Sami culture. They have no words for
computer, printer, or hard drive.
One word for
have been digging
and eating in one
place and left, so
it‟s no use to go
American vs. British English
British English – boot, bonnet, lift, and
American English – Car trunk, car hood,
elevator, and cookie.
The British billion is the American million.
Language and Thought
Just as verbal behavior differs from one
culture to another, thought processes and
perceptions of reality also differ.
How people think and speak is ultimately
determined largely by their culture. We call
this Linguistic Relativity.
Benjamin Lee Whorf – Language and
thought are so intertwined that one‟s
language determines the categories of
thought open to him or her.
– “We cut up and organize the spread and flow of
events as we do largely because, through our
mother tongue, we are parties to an agreement
to do so, not because nature itself is segmented
in exactly that way for all to see.”
Language is not simply a means of
reporting experience; rather, it is also a way
of defining experience.
“Linguistic relativity is the degree to which
language influences human thought and
meanings. It proposes that in human though
language intervenes between the symbols
and the ideas to which the symbols refer.”
In Hindi, there are no single words for
“aunt” or “uncle.” Rather, there are
different words for Father‟s older brother,
father‟s younger brother, wife‟s older
Similar to Mandarin
In Navajo, it is important to express both
the nature and direction of movement.
English – One dresses.
Navajo – One moves into clothing.
English – One is young.
Navajo – One moves about newly.
English vs. Navajo
English – I must go there.
Navajo – It is only good that I shall go
English – I make the horse run.
Navajo – The horse is running for me.
English vs. Navajo
English and Navajo “express different
concepts presupposing people‟s (and other
animate beings‟) rights to individual
English and Navajo vocabulary differs for
having to do things or being compelled to
English vs. Navajo
English has many words that express coercion:
cause, force, make, compel, order, must, have to,
Navajo has no such words. They say “it is only
good that I shall go there.”
– “Whereas English readily expresses the idea
that a person has a right to impose her or his
will on another animate being, Navajo again
does not express direct compulsion.”
“There is the closest of relationships
between language and thought… Language
may not determine the way we think, but it
does influence the way we perceive and
remember, and it affects the ease with
which we perform mental tasks."
Contextualization refers to how you create
sense from fragmentary images of your
environment by combining them to develop
a larger mental image.
Group the words: seagull, sky, dog
Group the words: pen, notebook, magazine
Culture and Rules of Interaction
Human languages frequently seem to be the
only communication system that combines
apparently meaningless elements (words) to
create meaningful structures (sentences and
Nothing more clearly distinguishes one
culture from another than its language.
The broken vending machine sign
United Kingdom – “Please Understand this
Machine does not taken 10p Coins.”
America – “NO 10p COINS!”
Japan – Would express regret at the
inability to accept 10p coins and offer
apologies to the consumer.
The rules seem arbitrary and nonsensical to
nonnative speakers, but the rules make
perfect sense and seem more logical to
Four characteristics: (1) directness and
indirectness, (2) Maintenance of social
customs and relationships, (3) expression of
affect, and (4) value of talk.
Rules of Interaction
– American (directness) vs. Chinese (indirectness)
Maintaining social relationships
– Japanese, social status, gender difference
Expressions of affect
– Word choice
Value of conversation.
– Throughout Africa, the spoken word rather than
the written word is generally the foremost
means of communication.
Directness and Indirectness
Most Americans use direct language. They
are not reserved or shy. We try to avoid
ambiguity and vagueness and get to the
Asians prefer indirection language – they
try to preserve dignity, feelings, and “face.”
American vs. Chinese insults
Americans prefer a direct assault – they
want an immediate effect.
Chinese prefer indirect insults – they want a
corrosive effect. The most powerful insult
would mean that the person would not be
able to fall asleep later because he/she is
still thinking about the words.
Maintaining Social Relationships
Some languages have formal and informal
pronouns or verb structures (Spanish,
The structure of the Japanese language
emphasizes a focus on human relationships.
Western languages tend to focus on objects
and their logical relationships.
– お at the beginning of a word means something
like “I'm expressing respect while speaking this
– “hayai” 早い can become “hayoo” (早う). This
transformation expresses further respect for the
phrase being spoken.
– "O ha yo o" (お早う) means “early with double
– "gozaru" (御座る) means something like "is"
with a side-message of “and by the way, I
recognize that you are superior to me.”
– some verbs ending in “ru” (る) can be
transformed to end in "imasu" (います) to
– "gozaru" (御座る) can become "gozaimasu" (
御座います), meaning “is” with a side-message
of “and by the way, I recognize that you are
superior, and am conveying respect.”
So "good morning", in Japanese is "Ohayoo
Gozaimasu" (お早う御座います), meaning
"it is early" with 3 side orders of respect and
a dose of humility.
The very structure of Japanese dictates that
you emphasize these relationships – very
different from Western languages!
The Thai language also has separate
vocabularies and structures for addressing
people of different classes.
There are at least 47 pronouns, including 17
forms for I and 19 forms of you.
There are at least 4 distinct Thai languages:
The Royal, the ecclesiastic, the Common,
Gender and Language
Some languages have different forms for
men and women.
In Japanese, women use the joseino or
onnakotoba style when they wish to
emphasize their femininity. At other times,
they use a sexually neutral style.
Mexican culture has a lot of male authority,
so there are different forms in Spanish.
A group of men would be ellos; a group of
women would be ellas. If a group has many
men and women, it is still ellos,
emphasizing that there are men in the
If there were a bunch of girls (niñas) and 1
boy (niño), the group would still be called
Expressions of Affect
In Korean, love is not expressed as openly,
as warmly, or as freely as in the United
British English uses many euphemisms
which allows the speakers to disagree
without being rude.
One might say, “I may be wrong here,
There are differences between British and
– U.S.: “No dogs allowed.”
– England: “We regret that in the interest of
hygiene, dogs are not allowed on the premises.”
– U.S.: “Please keep hands off door.”
– England: “Obstructing the door causes delay
and can be dangerous.”
When Americans get angry, they tend to
raise their voice in order to show their
In Navajo, you use enclitics (special
grammatical structures) to show anger.
Value of Conversation
Many cultures derive a great deal of
pleasure from conversation.
In Africa (and other tribal cultures), oral
communication is more important than
Arabs believe that Arabic is “God‟s
language” and treat it with great admiration
and respect – they love it dearly.
Greeks have a long tradition of rhetoric and
great use of language.
Mexicans enjoy wordplay and verbal
Language Diversity in the U.S.
The “inability to speak the language of the
community in which one lives is the first
step towards misunderstanding, for
prejudice thrives on lack of
Many in America wish to make English the
“Official Language of the U.S.”
All cultures and co-cultures have special
experiences that frame usage and meaning.
Many African Americans speak a particular
language style called African-American
vernacular English. (p. 185)
Women and Communication
Women‟s communication patterns and
practices differ in form and substance from
those of men.
Women communicate in order to foster
connections, support, closeness, and
Men communicate to exert control, preserve
independence, and enhance status.
Diverse message systems
When interacting with people from other
cultures, you should attempt to learn some
phrases of their language.
It is important to understand cultural
variations in the use of language.
Idioms are groups of words which, when
used together, have a different meaning
from the meaning the words have
When speaking with someone for whom
English is a second language, try to seek
clarity and avoid the use of idioms,
ambiguous words, culturally based
expressions, or cultural insensitivity.
What can men and women in the U.S. or in
Taiwan do to communicate better with one
What cultural factors determine the manner
in which affect is displayed orally? Is this
more likely in the U.S. or in Taiwan?
Are there any problems with language
diversity in Taiwan?
How do the characters in the film
communicate? What problems are there
(pay attention to topics in Chapter 6).
Think back to Chapter 4: Identities. How
does Flor‟s cultural identity affect her
daughter? What kind of cultural identity
does her daughter have?
Spanglish Homework (2)
In Chapter 5, we talked about beliefs,
values, and dominant U.S. Cultural patterns.
What are the beliefs, values, and dominant
cultural patterns for the Clasky‟s? How
about for Flor and Christina? What‟s
different between the families?