How Language Reflects Culture & Affects Meaning

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  • 0:04 Language & Culture Link
  • 0:31 The Aspects of Language
  • 2:21 Coded Cultural…
  • 3:19 The Cultural Job of Language
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Culture affects language, giving rise to words, influencing their use, and providing context. Language, in turn, supports culture, promoting social bonds and allowing for shared information. In this lesson, we explore the relationship between language and culture.

Culture is intrinsic to language. Language relates common experiences and backgrounds, and these histories, in turn, create words specific to our culture. Have you ever been in a group of people talking about a shared experience, and something is said that makes no sense to you, while everyone else laughs? This inside joke makes you feel excluded and shows how the shared experience of culture affects meaning. Understanding the words without understanding the culture may not be enough for comprehension.

The Aspects of Language

Language is not only words but also pronunciations, tone, and particular dialects. All of these parts of a language are shaped by culture. Culture, meanwhile, is influenced by shared experiences, environment, and history. Language is created and shaped by the needs of a culture as it changes. This means that language and culture are fluid, shifting to reflect one another and the changing landscape of the world.

Let's first take a look at the relationship between language and nature. The natural world has had a significant effect on language since the Stone Age. One of the oldest European languages, Ogham, is based upon nature, specifically trees. Each symbol can be translated to a letter, but also stands for a specific type of tree. Whether it's ash, oak, or aspen, the trees have notations. Ogham is an old language that originated in Ireland, where nature was part and parcel of the pagan belief system of the culture.

Native American language also reflects nature, names being based on it. Meanwhile, Eskimos and certain Native Americans from Northern Canada have many words for snow, since snow is such a significant presence in their lives.

Now let's take a closer look at accents and dialects. As a culturally-based aspect of language, accents differ in every country and even territories within a country. Texans have a twang, Southerners may drawl, and those in the Northeast speak faster than their Southern neighbors. You can recognize someone's culture by listening to speech patterns and accents.

You can also recognize someone's culture in their vocabulary and dialect. For instance, in England a boot is the trunk of a car, while in America a boot is a shoe. And, of course, there's the age-old debate on whether a soft drink is soda or pop. Each language has evolved and created individual meanings for words due to their culture.

Coded Cultural Language & Messages

Culture is what makes a group of people unique. Our experiences within our various cultures shape how we behave with humanity at large and within our groups, changing how we speak. For example, teenagers speak in acronyms, initials, and emojis in social media. Professional speech in an office may include jargon unique to an industry or company culture.

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