The Relationship of Language and Culture (of Dr. Sarita Jain)

Language is the principal means whereby we conduct our social lives. When it is used in contexts of communication it is bound up with culture in multiple and complex ways. The words people utter refer to common experience. They express facts, ideas or events that are communicable because they refer to a stock of knowledge about the world that other people share. Words also reflect their authors’ attitudes and beliefs, their point of view that are also those of others. In both cases, language expresses cultural reality.
But members of a community or social group do not only express experience; they also create experience through language. They give meaning to it through the medium they choose to communicate with one another, for example speaking on the telephone or face-to-face, writing a letter or sending an email message, reading the newspaper or interpreting a graph or a chart. The way in which people use the spoken, written or visual medium itself creates meanings that are understandable to the group they belong to, for example through a speaker’s tone of voice, accent, conversational style, gestures and facial expressions. Through all its verbal and non-verbal aspects, language embodies cultural reality.
Finally, language is a system of signs that is seen as having itself a cultural value. Speakers identify themselves and others through their use of language; they view their language as a symbol of their social identity. The prohibition of its use is often perceived by its speakers as a rejection of their social group and their culture. Thus we can say that language symbolizes cultural reality.
We can define culture by considering the following poem by Emily Dickinson.
Essential oils – are wrong –
The Attar from the Rose –
Be not expressed by Suns-alone –
It is the gift of Screws –
The General Rose- decay –
But this – in Lady’s Drawer –
Make Summer – When the Lady lie –
In Ceaseless Rosemary –

Nature, Culture and Language:
One way of thinking about culture is to contrast it with nature. Nature refers to what is born and grows organically (from the Latin nascere: to be born); Culture refers to what has been grown and groomed (from the Latin colere: to cultivate). The word culture evokes the traditional nature/nurture debate. Are human beings mainly what nature determines them to be from birth or what culture enables them to become through socialization and schooling?
Emily Dickinson’s poem expresses well albeit in a stylized way, the relationship of nature, culture and language. A rose in a flower bed, a generic rose (‘The General Rose’), is a phenomenon of nature Beautiful, yes, but faceless and nameless among others of the same species, Perishable, Forgettable. Nature alone cannot reveal nor preserve the particular beauty of a particular rose at a chosen moment in time. Powerless to prevent the biological ‘decay’ and the ultimate death of roses and of ladies, nature can only make summer when the season is right. Culture, by contrast, is not bound by biological time. Like nature, it is a ‘gift’ but of a different kind. Through a sophisticated technological procedure, developed especially to extract the essence of roses, culture forces nature to reveal its essential potentialities. The word ‘Screws’ suggests that this process is not without labour. By crushing the petals, a great deal of the rose must be lost in order to get at its essence. The technology of the screws constrains the exuberance of nature in the same manner as the technology of the word, or printed syntax and vocabulary, selects among the many potential meanings that a rose might have only those that best express its innermost truth – and leaves all other unsaid. Culture makes the rose petals into a rare perfume, purchased at high cost, for the particular, personal use of a particular lady. The lady may die, by the fragrance of the roses essence (the Attar) can make her immortal, in the same manner as the language of the poem immortalizes both the rose and the lady, and brings both back to life in the imagination of its readers. Indeed, ‘this’ very poem left for future readers in the poet’s drawer, can ‘Make summer’ for readers even after the poet’s death. The word and the technology of the word have immortalized nature. The poem itself bears testimony that nature and culture both need each other. The poem wouldn’t have been written if there were no natural roses; but it would not be understood if it didn’t share with its readers some common assumptions and expectations about rose gardens, technological achievements, historic associations regarding ladies, roses and perfumes, common memories of summers past, a shared longing for immortality, a similar familiarity with the printed word, and with the vernacular and poetic uses of the English language. Like the screws of the rose press, these common collective expectations can be liberating as they endow a universal rose with a particular meaning by imposing a structure, so to speak, on nature. But they can also be constraining. Particular meanings are adopted by the speech community and imposed in turn on its members, who find it then difficult, if not impossible, to say or feel anything original about roses. For example, once a bouquet of roses has become codified as a society’s way of expressing love, it becomes controversial, if not risky for lovers to express their own particular love without resorting to the symbols that their society imposes upon them, and to offer each other as a sign of love, say, chrysanthemums instead – which in Germany, for example, are reserved for the dead! Both oral cultures and literate cultures have their own ways of emancipating and constraining their members.
The screws that language and culture impose on nature correspond to various forms of socialization or acculturation Etiquette, expressions of politeness, social dos and don’ts shape people’s behaviour through child rearing, behavioural upbringing, schooling, profession training. The use of written language is also shaped and socialized through culture. Not only, what it is proper to write to whom in what circumstances, but also which text genres are appropriate (the application form, the business letter, the political pamphlet) because they are sanctioned by cultural conventions. These ways with language or norms of interaction and interpretation form part of the invisible ritual imposed by culture on language users. This is culture’s way of bringing order and predictability into people’s use of language.
Communities of Language Users:
Social conventions, norms of social appropriateness, are the product of communities of language users. As in the Dickinson poem, poets and readers, florists and lovers, horticulturists, rose press manufacturers, perfume makers and users, create meanings through their words and actions. Culture both liberates people from oblivion, anonymity and the randomness of nature, and constrains them by imposing on them a structure and principles of selection. This double effect of culture on the individual – both liberating and constraining plays itself out on the social, the historical and the metaphorical planes.
People who identify themselves as members of a social group (family, neighbourhood, professional or ethnic affiliation and nation) acquire common ways of viewing the world through their interactions with other members of the same group. These views are reinforced through institutions like the family, the school, the workplace, the church, the government and other sites of socialization throughout their lives. Common attitudes, beliefs, and values are reflected in the way members of the group use language – for example, what they choose to say or not to say and how they say it. Thus, in addition to the notion of speech community composed of people who use the same linguistic code, we can speak of discourse communities to refer to the common ways in which members of a social group use language to meet their social needs. Not only the grammatical, lexical and phonological features of their language (for example, teenage talk, professional jargon, political rhetoric) differentiate them from others, but also the topics they choose to talk about, the way they present information, the style with which they interact, in other words, their discourse accent. For instance, Americans have been socialized into responding ‘Thank you’ to any compliment as if they were acknowledging a friendly gift: ‘I like your sweater’ … ‘oh thank you!’ The French, who tend to perceive such a compliment as an intrusion into their privacy, would rather downplay the compliment and minimize its value: ‘oh really? It’s already quite old!’ The reactions of both groups are based on the differing values given to compliments in both cultures, and on the differing degrees of embarrassment caused by personal comments. This is a view of culture that focuses on the ways of thinking, behaving and valuing currently shared by members of the same discourse community.
There is another way of viewing culture – one which takes a more historical perspective. For the cultural ways which can be identified at any one time have evolved and become solidified over time, which is why they are so often taken for natural behaviour. They have sedimented in the memories of group members who have experienced them first hand or merely heard about them, and who have passed them on in speech and writing from one generation to the next. For example, Emily Dickinson’s allusion to life after death is grounded in the hope that future generations of readers will be able to understand and appreciate the social value of rose perfume and the funeral custom of surrounding the dead with fragrant rosemary. The culture of everyday practices draws on the culture of shared history and traditions. People identify themselves as members of a society to the extent that they can have a place in that society’s history and that they can identify with the way it remembers its past, turns its attention to the present, and anticipates its future. Culture consists of precisely that historical dimension in a group’s identity. This diachronic view of culture focuses on the way in which a social group represents itself and others through its material production over time – its technological achievements, its monuments, its works of art, its popular culture – that punctuate the development of its historical identity. This material culture is reproduced and preserved through institutional mechanisms that are also part of the culture; like museums, schools, libraries, governments, corporations and the media. Language is not a culture free code, distinct from the way people think and behave, but, rather, it plays a major role in the perpetuation of culture, particularly in its printed form.
Imagined Communities:
These two layers of culture combined the social (synchronic) and the historical (diachronic), have often been called the sociocultural context of language study. In addition, there is a third essential layer to culture, namely the imagination. Discourse communities are characterised not only by facts and artefacts, but by common dreams, fulfilled and unfulfilled imaginings. These imaginings are mediated through the language that over the life of the community reflects, shapes, and is a metaphor for its cultural reality. Thus the city of London is inseparable, in the cultural imagination of its citizens, from Shakespeare and Dickens. Language is intimately linked not only to the culture that is and the culture that was, but also to the culture of the imagination that governs people’s decisions and actions far more than we may think.
Insiders / Outsiders:
To identify themselves as members of a community, people have to define themselves jointly as insiders against others, whom they thereby define as outsiders. Culture, as a process that includes and excludes, always entails the exercise of power and control. Only the powerful decide whose values and beliefs will be deemed worth adopting by the group, which historical events are worth commemorating, which future is worth imagining. Cultures, and especially national cultures, resonate with the voices of the powerful, and are filled with the silences of the powerless. Both words and their silences contribute to shaping one’s own and other’s culture. For example Edward Said describes how the French constructed for themselves a view of the culture of ‘the Orient’ that came directly from such writers as Chateaubriand, Nerval and Flaubert, and that only served, he says, to reinforce the sense of superiority of the European culture. The Orient itself was not given a voice. Such Orientalism, Said argues, has had a wide-ranging effect on the way Europeans and American have viewed the Middle East, and imposed that view on Middle Easterners themselves who implicitly acquiesce to it when they see themselves the way the West sees them. Similarly, scholars in Gender Studies, Ethnic studies, Gay studies have shown the hegemonic effects of dominant cultures and the authority they have in representing and in speaking for the others. Ultimately, taking culture seriously means questioning the very base of one’s own intellectual inquiry, and accepting the fact that knowledge itself is colored by the social and historical context in which it is acquired and disseminated. In this respect language study is an eminently cultural activity.
The study of language has always had to deal with the difficult issue of representation and representativity when talking about another culture. Who is entitled to speak for whom, to represent whom through spoken and written language? Who has the authority to select what is representative of a given culture: the outsider who observes and studies that culture,
or the insider who lives and experiences it? According to what and whose criteria can a cultural feature be called representative of that culture?
In the social, the historic, and the imagined dimension, culture is heterogeneous. Members of the same discourse community all have different biographic and life experiences, they may differ in age, gender or ethnicity, they may have different political opinions. Moreover, cultures change over time. Cultures are not only heterogeneous and constantly changing, but they are the sites of struggle for power and recognition.
Culture can be defined as membership in a discourse community that shares a common social space and history and common imaginings. Even when they have left that community, its members may retain, wherever they are a common system of standards for perceiving, believing, evaluating and acting. These standards’ are what is generally called their ‘culture’.
There are several aspects of culture:

  1. Culture is always the result of human intervention in the biological processes of nature.
  2. Culture both liberates and constrains. It liberates by investing the randomness of nature with meaning, order and rationality and by providing safeguards against chaos; it constraints by imposing a structure on nature and by limiting the range of possible meanings created by the individual
  3. Culture is the product of socially and historically situated discourse communities that are to a large extent imagined communities created and shaped by language.
  4. A community’s language and its material achievements represent a social patrimony and a symbolic capital that serve to perpetuate relationships of power and domination; they distinguish insiders from outsiders.
  5. But because cultures are fundamentally heterogeneous and changing they are a constant site of struggle for recognition and legitimation.
    The different ways of looking at culture and its relationship to language raise a fundamental question; to what extent are the world views and mental activities of members of a social group shaped by, or dependent on the language they use? The theory that languages do affect the thought processes of their users has been called the theory of linguistic relativity. Languages and societies are related and social and linguistic complexity is not unrelated. Just as it is naive to believe that there are societies that possess only very primitive cultures, so it is equally naive to believe that certain people speak primitive languages. All cultures and all languages are extremely complex. Some may actually be more complex than others. If both the culture and language of any group of people almost defy adequate description, then it can be assumed that the relationships that certainly exist between the two are not likely to be more transparent, even to well informed observers.
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Dr. Sarita Jain, Associate Professor
Department of English
G. D. Government College for Women, Alwar (Raj)
Email :
Mobile : 9829015648

Featured picture: Claude Monet, Springtime


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