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Understanding How Culture Influences Language

By Baby Rani

The relationship between language and culture is as old as mankind. Through the centuries, people and their living practices have evolved, resulting in wide-reaching changes in societal culture. This in turn, has influenced language to be what it is today.

Simply put, spoken and written communication with pre-set meanings for each word written or uttered is what we refer to as language. Culture, on the other hand, is defined by the activities of people, sometimes governed by a geographical boundary. Every culture is unique in itself. It includes language, art, music, mannerisms, religion, games, dress, rituals, law and belief. Having two such expansively defined fields, how far would one have to go to observe the effect that culture has on language? Answer: As far back as man himself.

Man started to communicate with his few kinsmen through symbols. Mutually understood grunts became spoken communication. Population started to thrive. Groups of people separated and changed. The concepts of race and socioeconomic were established and thus began the rich diversity of cultures. Large groups were classified into families and each family was then broken down to sub-families and the world as it stands today is an amalgam of all of them.

Comparative linguists try to pin the origin of a language to its common ancestor. Since cultures themselves have undergone centuries of transition, it’s only natural that languages, too, would have evolved and changed the same way. Researchers have broadly classified the world of language into three families; European and Asian, Pacific and African, and American Indian.

Each of the above families has had its own cultural traits. The peculiarity of each family shaped the way the language was spoken and understood amongst them. Every minuscule tribe had its own phonetics. Grammar, the order of words, the use of vowels, consonants and the tonal accent, too, varied between tribes and groups. Thus, different languages from the same region had a lot of similarities, but when examined closely, had identities of their own. These distinctions helped evolve the respective language over centuries.

Social traits, which are culture dependent, also influenced language in the way different genders or classes within the same tribe or race spoke to one another. Trade jargons were established in multilingual regions.

Over time, languages borrowed sounds, grammar and vocabulary from one another. This doesn’t necessarily mean they originated from the same region. Point in case: The striking derivatives in English taken from Sanskrit and European languages made use of American Indians'. Independently, languages like English were standardized, but the way the language is spoken in different parts of the world is a reflection of the effects of culture. Trousers in Britain and pants in America mean the same but sound nowhere near alike, courtesy of the respective cultures.

Having evolved from a common protolanguage, it’s only fair to say that there are more similarities between languages today than differences. Culture enriches language, affecting dialect, grammar and literature, to name a few. As more and more people mingle, the world is literally becoming one. As a result, different languages from their respective cultures help to understand and appreciate the evolution of the world and its people as it is today, for when man started out, language was solely meant to be the means that bridged the gap between him and his fellowmen.