Words and culture

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Words and culture

Words and culture

Relationship between culture and language



  • Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.
  • It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language
  • The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. . . .

Whorf(linguistic determinism)

  • the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade
  • We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.
  • The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena

Full and empty

  • In his work investigating the origins of fires, Whorf found that speakers of English would use the words full and empty in describing gasoline drums but only in relation to their liquid content; consequently, they would smoke beside ‘empty’ gasoline drums, which were actually ‘full’ of gas vapor.

Hopi and SAE

  • The Hopi see the world as essentially an ongoing set of processes; objects and events are not discrete and countable; and time is not apportioned into fixed segments so that certain things recur, e.g., minutes, mornings, and days.
  • In contrast, speakers of SAE regard nearly everything in their world as discrete, measurable, countable, and recurrent; time and space do not flow into each other; sparks, flames, and waves are things like pens and pencils; mornings recur in twenty-four-hour cycles; and past, present, and future are every bit as real as gender differences.


  • One interesting way in which people use language in daily living is to refer to various kinds of kin.
  • One consequence is that a young Njamal man calls by the same name, njuba,his mother’s brother’s daughter (MoBrDa) and his father’s sister’s daughter(FaSiDa), which are both English cousin.
  • Turda/Maraga


  • Conceptually the disease world, like the plant world, exhaustively divides into a set of mutually exclusive categories. Ideally, every illness either fits into one category or is describable as a conjunction of several categories


  • The terms people use to describe color give us another means of exploring the relationships between different languages and cultures.
  • Are color terms arbitrary, or is there a general pattern? If there is a pattern, what are its characteristics and why might it exist?

A basic color term must be

1. A single word

2. Not the obvious sub-division of some higher-order term

3. In quite general use

4. Not highly restricted in the sense that it is used by only a specific sub-set of speakers

According to Berlin and Kay, an analysis of the basic color terms found in a wide variety of languages reveals certain very interesting patterns.

The claim: human cognition is so alike everywhere that everyone approaches the spectrum in the same way

Lucy's criticism: ‘color is not “out there” in the light but in our perceptual interpretation of light, . . . communicatively relevant encodings of visual experience do not lie “in there” in the biology but in socially anchored linguistic systems.’

People have consistent and uniform ideas about ‘typical’ colors.

  • The thing is not best defined by reference to a set of features that refer to some matters, but rather by reference to typical instances.
  • Hudson believes it leads to an easier account of how people learn to use language, particularly linguistic concepts, from the kinds of instances they come across.
  • Prototype theory, then, offers us a possible way of looking not only at how oncepts may be formed, but also at how we achieve our social competence in the use of language.

Taboos and euphemisms

  • Certain things are not said, not because they cannot be, but because ‘people don’t talk about those things’; or, if those things are talked about, they are talked about in very roundabout ways.
  • Standards and norms change.
  • Euphemism is endemic in our society: the glorification of the commonplace and the elevation of the trivial.
  • Haas (1951) has pointed out that certain language taboos seem to arise from bilingual situations.


  • Speech is used in different ways among different groups of people.
  • The !Kung are talkative people.
  • The Western Apache of east-central Arizona choose to be silent.

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