Culture & Language Research Paper Starter

Culture & Language

Culture and language are integrally related. Language represents one system of culture, and culture is transmitted via language. Investigations into the relationship between these two concepts involve exploring how individuals and societies construct, maintain and transmit identities. Frequently, this investigation involves examining the texts that are created within a society in order to establish the underlying assumptions and ideologies by which individuals are operating. Researchers are also interested in how multilingual individuals negotiate their identity by making language choices and how socialization processes impact the maintenance or evolution of language within a culture. This article provides a brief overview of issues related to the relationship between language and culture.

Keywords Code-Switch; Cultural Models; Discourse Analysis; Ethnography of Communication; Identity Formation; Ideology; Language Maintenance; Social Identity Theory; Social Networks; Stereotypes; Speech Community


Culture: Culture


Imagine this order of events: thousands of years ago, cultures began to form as humans learned to use tools and formed family units. Then, language evolved? Or perhaps the order goes like this, "One day humans began to speak; and with this new tool, they were soon able to form relationships, build civilizations and create culture."

The questions of which came first - language or culture - and which has a greater impact on the other - are classic “chicken and egg” questions that can propel late-night philosophers into many a wee-hour in the morning discussions. The fact is that language and culture are so integrally related that it is nearly impossible to separate one from the other. Yet this is the task that researchers in sociology, anthropology, linguistics and other human-oriented fields undertake as they attempt to understand who we are as individuals and as societies. This article will provide a very brief overview of some of the questions that researchers explore when considering the relationships between culture and language. Readers are cautioned that because this topic is somewhat broad, this article cannot be considered an all-inclusive review of the subject.

Ethnography of Communication

The study of the relationship between language and culture occurs in many fields, but in the field of Ethnography of Communication, it is of particular interest. Ethnographers focus on patterns of communicative behavior and how those patterns depend on and influence social processes. Language, as a rule-governed system used to communicate, invites ethnographers to explore how individuals use language and how they come to share linguistic behaviors. What ethnographers have discovered is that patterns of communicative behavior occur at the individual, group and societal levels of a society. At the societal levels, patterns relate to the functions of the language, categories of talk, attitudes and conceptions about language and speakers. At the group level, individuals who share membership in groups defined by characteristics such as age, educational level, sex, occupation, geographic region, etc. may mark their membership by using language similarly. At the individual level, personal characteristics may influence language use. For instance, an individual's language use may reflect various emotional states such as nervousness or fear (Saville-Troike, 2003).

Speech Communities

In order to explore language use within a particular level of society or cultural unit, ethnographers must first define parameters for the group to be studied. A speech community is the most common unit of analysis and consists of individuals who share both a language and the rules for interpreting and using that language. Members of a speech community typically share values, attitudes and beliefs about the language itself and its role in the society. Saville-Troike (2003) notes that a speech community cannot be defined only by its use of the same language. This is because language and language use are shaped by the context in which they exist. For instance, although English is a language used around the world, there are many varieties and dialects of English that have developed in different countries. These varieties may contain different vocabulary items, different syntactical constructions or different uses of grammar. Just because speakers in England, the United States, South Africa and India speak English does not mean that the speakers can be said to belong to the same speech community.

Identity Formation

In exploring language and culture within a speech community, a key area of study is identity formation. An individual's identity encompasses one's sense of who one is in relation to groups and networks in society as well as within societal structures and practices. For instance, one might define oneself as being male or female, as belonging to a specific religion or as a member of a certain social class. Within any society, there are many categories with which individuals can identify, and individuals generally see themselves as members of more than one category. Social Identity Theory proposes that individuals define themselves along two axes: social and personal. Social relates to memberships in various groups, and personal relates to the personal attributes one has that make one unique from others. For instance, on a college campus, students might identity themselves as being friendly, outgoing, shy, nervous or smart (personal axis) or according to their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, regional background or participation in academic or extracurricular activities (social axis) (Howard, 2000).

For any category that exists within a society, there is generally a set of rules or identifiers that mark individuals as members of the group. These rules develop over time through the interaction of group members. Because interaction most frequently occurs through language, language plays an important role in the establishment and maintenance of individual and group identity. For instance, language provides the means by which members can name their group/category. Language allows members of a group to talk about and evaluate themselves. Through this talk, members form self-perceptions and negotiate how they see themselves in relation to each other and people outside the group. Members may also mark their membership by adopting particular languages or language uses (e.g., using vocabulary specific to a particular field such as medicine or creating terminology only members know, such as slang in youth culture). Finally, through language, individuals are able to pass on the rules of group behavior to each other and from generation to generation (Howard, 2000; Saville-Troike, 2003)

Some of the questions researchers ask when exploring language, culture and identity are related to the relationship between language and cognitive processes. To what extent does language use change one's thinking about one's identity, roles and relationships to others? If someone begins to call oneself by a new name such as student or adult, to what extent does language cause one to see oneself as fitting into the category defined by that name? Also, researchers explore how interactions serve to shift or maintain identity. They examine how individuals produce their identity in their talk and investigate how the context of the situation affects identity formation during interactions.


The construction of identity through talk is of particular interest to linguists working in a discourse analysis framework. Discourse analysis involves the study of linguistic choices that individuals make as they interact. The purpose of the analysis is to uncover the underlying assumptions and ideologies of the conversation's participants. Speakers have many ways to identify themselves and their societal status as well as their attitudes, values and beliefs when they talk (Gee, 1999). For instance, some languages encode status right in the grammar of the language. In French, speakers can choose from an informal form of you (i.e., tu) for close friends and younger acquaintances and a formal form (i.e., vous) for use with people who are not as well known or of higher status. In Japanese, speakers can choose from a diverse range of address forms that show the speaker's relation to the hearer. Harumi Williams (as cited in Saville-Troike, 2003) provides an example of the choices a Japanese woman offering tea in her home might make, moving from lower to higher status:

• Ocha? (to own children) [tea]

• 2 Ocha do? (to own children, friends who are younger than self, own...

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