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Variations in Language Across Cultures

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  • 0:01 Purpose of Language
  • 1:12 Cultural Variations
  • 3:10 Eastern New England
  • 4:12 Inland North and South
  • 6:15 Variations Overall
  • 7:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Social Studies, and Science for seven years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Language varies from culture to culture. Even within the same language, there are differences in how it is spoken. Watch this video lesson to learn some of the ways English differs in different cultures.

Purpose of Language

You can think of language as a live entity. It moves, adapts, and evolves just like living beings and society in general. Language, no matter the culture, is a system implemented by its people for the purpose of communication. This means language must follow rules decided by its speakers. Therefore, the lives those speakers lead determine how language is used.

You can think of culture as the ways a certain group of people choose to live. The history of the language, therefore, also reflects the history of the culture. For example, in the last 20-30 years, our society has exploded with technology. This new culture has changed how we speak. For example, if you had a question on a topic 20 years ago, your peer might direct you to an encyclopedia. Today, most of us would just say, 'Google it.' If you spend a minute to think about it, you can come up with many more examples of how new types of technology have influenced the way we speak. This lesson will focus on how culture causes variations in language.

Cultural Variations

Since language is a tool for its speakers, how the culture functions is represented in the language. Politics, technology, and social morals all factor into how language is used. An example of this can be seen in the rule for French speakers that demands different forms of the same word based on gender. For instance, a man would be labeled as 'Américan,' but a woman is 'Américanne,' with the extra 'ne' adding more sound to the word. This implies that differentiating between the genders was something the French society found extremely important when their language was developing.

When trying to understand how culture creates variations in language, there are some important terms you need to know. First, standard language refers to the variety of language that is predominant and generally accepted as the most proper form. For English, this variety would exclude urban slang and incorrect grammatical usage. Second, dialect refers to a variety of language that has different pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary from other varieties of the same language. For instance, in England, speakers have a different dialect than American speakers because they have some of their own rules for pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.

Third, accent refers to only phonological differences. Basically, an accent occurs when speakers sound different when speaking the same language. Most of the variations between cultures that speak the same language occur because of different accents. In the United States, we have as many as nine different cultural regions with varying accents of the English standard language. Each of these regions has developed variations over time based on culture. For the rest of this lesson, we'll look at a few of those cultural variations that can be seen in the United States.

Eastern New England

The first cultural region we'll look at is the Eastern New England area. This area extends from New York City, up through Boston and north to Maine. The culture of this region is one of the oldest in our country. Immigrants from England and other European countries were some of the first ones to arrive in the New World. Because of this European influence, the language has developed a different accent than the rest of the country.

One of the main variations from Standard English includes the loss of the pronunciation of the letter 'r' before a consonant. In words like 'cart,' 'dark,' and 'fort,' the 'r' sound will be hard for a listener to hear or possibly even nonexistent. In addition, some speakers in this region might not differentiate between certain vowel sounds. For example, some people would pronounce the words 'tot' and 'taught' in exactly the same manner. This is generally understood not to be indicative of Standard English.

Inland North

A second region is the Inland North, which extends all the way from the state of New York across the northern part of the country to North and South Dakota. This is a wide range, but overall most speakers follow the same general policies. For example, in this region most vowels are spoken with short sounds and are not elongated or emphasized. No distinction is made between the vowel sounds in words like 'merry,' 'marry,' and 'Mary.' All three have the same short 'e' sound.

This is the region that is generally understood to speak the standard language for American English. Through westward expansion, people moved from the New England area to these parts of the country. Being in the midland, this culture was generally away from a European influence that would have changed the accent of the language.

South

A third region in the United States is the South dialect, which encompasses Louisiana across to the Carolinas. Again, there are some differences even between speakers within those states, but many of their mannerisms are similar. For instance, a common trait is for the speakers to glide the vowels in words. In other words, the vowel sounds are drawn out adding a sort of twang to the words.

In addition, some short vowel sounds are simplified or combined with others. So that words like 'pin' and 'pen' actually sound exactly same. This is greatly different from the Inland dialect, which has a distinct sound for the 'e' and 'i' sounds. These aspects of the Southern dialect allow for a more melodic spoken language. This follows with the principles of the culture, which have long been known for a more relaxed and laid-back attitude. The rush and brashness of the dog-eat-dog business world was not cultivated in the Old South. The people from that time valued manners and hospitality. This is reflected in the language through making sounds longer, more melodic and even more soothing.

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