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May 16, 2009

Language and Culture

Excellent example of paper 2. Name withheld by student request. Spring 2009.

"The formation of culture among humans is made possible by language. Learning the language of a culture is essential to becoming part of a society." (Andersen/Taylor, 2008:59) This is something I never really critically thought about until recently. Ideas had floated around in my head, but until reading this chapter in our text on culture and language I had taken language for granted. Language is powerful in that meaning is given to words and symbols and these meanings then shape our society and its culture with our thoughts and expectations.

The first time I was confronted with the power of language and culture was when we read the piece on the" Nacirema". Words like medicine-man, shrine, ritual, and magic were used. Just by flipping the word American around and by using words such as these that our culture doesn't associate ourselves with, we have trouble identifying with these "Nacirema" people. Then in class you had us close our eyes and asked us what we imagined when you said the word tribe. What did it mean to us? What was the skin color of the people? For most of us that single word conjured us a very specific image. The people of a tribe are primitive, savages even, and their skin is not white. Our culture teaches us this through language. This is a testament to how powerful language and culture are because it is an automatic response; one that isn't questioned or thought about in the moment. Similarly, "American" culture is seen as the culture of the United States, but what about Canada, Mexico, and South America? These are all part of America each with their own cultures, of which are very different from those of the U.S. This was pointed out to me just the other day by a friend when I made a comment about "Americans", and I was specifically speaking about the United States government and its affect on the education of its people.

"The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, states that language determines other aspects of culture because language provides categories through which social reality is understood. In other words...language determines what people think because language forces people to perceive the world in certain terms. It is not that you perceive something first and then think of how to express it, but that language itself determines what you think and perceive." (Andersen/Taylor, 2008: 59) The "other aspects of culture" mentioned encompasses the power of language in forming assumptions and expectations among society.

I've had the privilege in recent months to be a teacher's assistant in a first grade class room. The class is taught bilingually, and the school is considered a low-income school. This low-income categorization itself leads to assumptions regarding the children and their families. Admittedly, when I was told where the school was located, that it was low-income, and bilingual I had certain expectations regarding the kids and their families. I expected them to be mostly Hispanic (it's a Spanish emersion program), and since they are in a low-income area I assumed their parents weren't educated past a certain level. I even made assumptions about religion, values, and future potential. I'm not proud of my assumptions, but I think owning up to them is crucial in changing my thought process in future interactions.

The word boyfriend or girlfriend in our culture means certain things and carries expectations. If someone is your boyfriend or girlfriend it symbolizes monogamy (in most cases), an expectation of time spent together, of mutual affection and similar interests, and a shared connection or closeness. It is the verbally symbolic public representation of your non-single status. As an example, I dated someone for 5 months in which he was officially my boyfriend. Ironically during that time we discussed his abhorrence of labels and how he didn't understand why two people couldn't just spend time together knowing that they shared all the things that boyfriends and girlfriends do but not being labeled as such. A few months later we broke up. That was a little over a year ago to this day. In the year that has passed we have interacted as a couple - short of the label - and its working. However it is a struggle for me, which makes no sense because we truly get along better and enjoy each other more since we "broke up". The part that is a struggle is that I feel like I want a boyfriend, but really what I want is the label. Here I have a guy who wants to spend time with me, who I have similar interests with, a guy who shares mutual affection and whom I'm monogamous with, but somehow it doesn't feel complete. Here's the kicker, the reason we didn't work when we were officially boyfriend and girlfriend is that when we were I had expectations. He should call me on certain days or times, and we should spend a certain amount of time together, that I should act a certain way because I was his girlfriend. The "couple" language, what it means in our culture, and specifically what it meant to me was causing us to fail. All the things I wanted in a relationship I got once I let go of the need for the label and its perceived meaning. Without its expectations and meaning we are flourishing, and I am much happier. These examples, I think, support Sapir and Whorf's theory.

Language is powerful. It is the tool that we use to communicate and interact with others. It is the tool that conveys who we are and what we are about, and it is the tool we use to pass on this information to future generations. Because it is such a powerful tool I think great care should be taken to use it wisely. I know that I haven't always, and taking this class had indeed opened my mind to choosing my words carefully and to think more critically about their meaning and whether that meaning is valid.


Andersen, Margaret L. and Taylor, Howard F. 2008. Sociology in Everyday Life. Cenage Learning. Mason, Ohio.
Miner, Horace. "Body Ritual among the Nacierma".