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Language Ideology, Loss, and Culture

Sample Paper 2 by Lauren Langley - Winter 2011

Henslin (2009) discusses language as something that allows the human experience to be cumulative, cooperative and goal directed (p.57). Language allows culture to exist. It gives us the opportunity for a collective experience that includes a shared past, present, and a social future. Furthermore, languages are not universal - just like gestures, mores, values, and customs (which consequently are supported by language), language is a unique way of perceiving the world around us and making sense of it all. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that embedded in language, each and every language, are these unique ways of looking at the world. Learning a language is part of the sociological experience - we learn the perceptions, knowledge, history, traditions, and attitudes of our respective cultures. In this way, according to Henslin, "language both shapes and reflects our cultural experience." (p. 44).

So what happens when a language disappears from this earth?

We lose those unique ways of viewing the world. When a language dies, we lose parts of the ideas and knowledge of a culture - while a people may survive language death, so much of their culture dies with the language. There is tradition, language used for ritual, general and unique understandings about the world and life and the role of humans - this all exists in language. Language loss leads to a narrowing of the human mind - a 'tunnel vision' of thought. The thinking, values, mores, and morals reflected by the language of the dominant culture will prevail, thus creating more of an imbalance and inequality among cultures, and within societies. If there is a view of the dominant culture as 'superior', then that language, too, becomes 'superior'.

In American culture and society, not only the English language itself, but 'proper' grammar and pronunciation are associated with success, education, and even superficial ideas about 'intelligence'. This language ideology has led to culture clashes, and helped fuel the rise of a dominant social class in America. This has had an incredible impact on the development of socioeconomic classes, social inequality, and has had a role in perpetuating racial discrimination rooted in the world's history of cultural domination and ideas of superiority.

African American Vernacular English has been the subject of much interest and controversy in the study of language (note: despite the name AAVE and the race of the majority of its speakers, we should look at AAVE as it exists in culture - that is, at the root of the relationship between language and culture, it goes beyond race, and we can look at it as a cultural phenomenon - i.e. White, Hispanic, and Asian people are speaking AAVE too). Having in the past been perceived by prescriptive linguists and closed minded folk as a "lazy" use of English, or "slang", the dialect has attached to it connotations ranging from lack of education to deviance - all based on perceptions about the relationship of language use within a society. In fact, this dialect has a very structured grammar and syntax - there is a right and a wrong way to speak AAVE - this is not something you see with slang, and by no means is it a lazy way of speaking English. In the mid-1990's, when The Oakland school district proposed starting a program that would incorporate AAVE into classroom learning activities, people, including members of the African American community, were up in arms. The proposal was misinterpreted as one that would teach children the vernacular, which most people at the time equated with slang not appropriate for an academic environment. In reality, it was an attempt to recognize the student's language as valid yet different from the "standard" English being taught in schools with the hopes of giving students an opportunity to excel in an environment that was otherwise unaccommodating with standards that were setting them up for poor performance. While it is true that a standard language and dialect is necessary for communication and progress, what happens to the hundreds of thousands of minority languages and dialects as one dominant language becomes standard, and subsequently the 'ideal'?

The ideology of language superiority leads to ideas of cultural superiority, and vice versa. When cultures which have been shaped by values and social 'norms' reflected in a language experience oppression, that language too will suffer. During colonization, the dominating culture would force their language upon the people they viewed as less than. Since they viewed their culture as so clearly superior, their language, too, was the right way to speak, and subsequently described the right way to 'know' how to live, much like the way the Taker society works as described in Ishmael. In the film "The Linguists", a group of Native American adults discuss how up until the 1960's, children were forbidden to speak their tribal languages in the mainstream schools they were forced to attend. This is how languages die - someone somewhere decides that a culture's voice is not as valid as the majority, and so that voice is ultimately silenced. It could be due to colonization, or it might begin within a culture as we see with industrialization and economic changes affecting societies - many South American indigenous languages have died and are dying out due to an increase in the number of children leaving their small societies in pursuit of opportunity in the bigger cities. Children do not learn the language of their parents, perhaps out of practicality, and so the language remains with the elders and dies with the elders. Also discussed in "The Linguists" is Chulym, a Siberian language, which is close to complete language death. The Chulym people are looked down upon as a culture by the dominant society. For whatever reason, their culture is viewed as inferior, and the result was much like what was seen with the Ladakh people- there evolved a sort of "inferiority complex" when it came to speaking the Chulym language - something that would, just by speaking the words, identify a person by others as well as in their own minds as inferior. The linguists in this film travelled to the Chulym community in order to assess the status of the language and attempt documentation. They met with several elders who were hard of hearing and difficult to understand before learning that their driver and guide, who was in his 50's, was in fact also a fluent Chulym speaker. He was embarrassed about this fact, and in his mind it was a personal flaw which, because of the perceptions of the dominant culture, made him inferior, and this is why he withheld this information initially. Children as well as adults were embarrassed to speak the language in public, and the language slowly began to die. If we look at Cooley's idea of the self looking glass (Henslin, p. 64), we can see that children growing up surrounded by language ideology will ultimately internalize the attitudes of the people around them and adjust their relationship with language accordingly - and subsequently this will reflect on culture.

And so it becomes that there develops a stigma associated with a minority language (native or foreign) spoken within a society whose dominant culture revolves around another language - That culture, as is seen with the case of Native American students, has this incredible ability to shape the fate of a language, all based on perceptions about language use. Conversely, we also see language ideologies stemming from socioeconomic factors, racial conflict, feelings of superiority, and patriotism coupled with politics.


Henslin, James M. Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach, Eighth Edition. 2009.

AAVE: African American Vernacular English. The Linguist List (http://linguistlist.org/topics/ebonics/)

Norberg-Hodge, Helena. The Pressure to Moderise.

Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. 1992

"The Linguists". IronBound Films, 2008.