Unit 2 : Language and Culture

Then came the word.
[Lords] Tepeu and Gucumatz came together in the darkness and talked together.
They talked there discussing and deliberating; they agreed; they united their words and thoughts.
They created all the creatures.
(Quiche Mayan creation myth from the Popul Vuh)

What is language?

Language per se is a uniquely human phenomenon defined as a system of communication and symbolization based on sounds produced by our highly specialized speech organs. As a symbolic system, language can be considered as part of culture, but it is usually treated separately from other cultural subsystems within the specialized subdiscipline of linguistics. This arrangement reflects a partial independence of language and culture, since people who speak different languages may have similar cultures, and groups within the same language community may show quite marked cultural differences (e.g., English is spoken as a native language in both Jamaica and Ireland). Moreover, languages exhibit patterning, especially within their sound and grammatical structures, that is uniquely linguistic and requires specialized methods of recording and analysis. On a broader level, however, language and culture are both symbolic in nature, so that theories, models, and findings developed for one subdiscipline are useful for understanding the other. Accordingly, our main interest in this unit will be to consider the relationship between language and culture and the importance of linguistics for the cultural anthropologist.

Human language originally evolved from prehuman communication systems, such as the call systems that can be observed in use among other primates, our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom. Monkeys and apes are usually social species and communicate with group members by using a variety of vocalizations, sometimes as many as twenty. Different sounds are used to indicate hunger, sexual desire, delight, danger, welcome, and other important emotional states. Even finer discriminations have been observed. For instance, Kenyan vervet monkeys use different calls to warn group members of leopards, eagles, snakes, or baboons, each of whom usually approaches their prey from a different vantage point. (You may see this behaviour illustrated on Marc Hauser's Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory - Vervet Monkey Vocalizations. You may also like to listen to his audio files of different macaque calls.)

As complex and adaptive as these animal communication systems can be, they lack several imporant features of human communication. All natural nonhuman systems are based on signs, representations that are directly related to fixed stimuli and produced only in direct response to them. They are genetically conditioned and are therefore closed and lack the inventive capacity that makes human systems so versatile and powerful. Human language is based upon learned symbolic processes and includes five interrelated features absent from nonhuman communication.

    Displacement. The ability to produce a vocalization is separated in space and time from a stimulus in the form of an object, event, or emotional state. Human language elements are symbolic and can be produced in the absence of direct experience. Calls or signs are closely tied to immediate situations. They are based on emotional states evoked by given stimuli and are produced only when those stimuli are present.

    Arbitrariness. Language elements such as words are composed of sound sequences that are completely unrelated to the stimuli or referents which they are meant to represent.

    Openess. New elements may be added to the language in response to real or perceived changes in environment or needs.

    Creativity. Existing elements may be combined in new ways to produce innovative ideas and strategies.

    Duality of patterning. Language is complexly and independently structured on the levels of sound and meaning.

As these features evolved in the course of human cultural development, simple and limited vocal communications were transformed into a complex symbolic system that became essential to new and unique patterns of technology,