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Language & Culture Jennifer L. Graves, M.A. Definitions of Language • A system of symbols that allows people to communicate with one another;

Language & Culture
Jennifer L. Graves, M.A.

Definitions of Language
• A system of symbols that allows people to

communicate with one another; a component of
culture (Macionis 2010).

• Language is by no means a mere means of
communication, but the mirror of the mind and
of the world view of the speaker (Humboldt
1827).

Does language shape reality?

Does someone who thinks in Cherokee experience the world
differently from someone who thinks in English?

Sapir-Whorf Thesis
• Thesis: People see and understand the world

through the cultural lens of language.
▫ Each language has its own distinctive symbols

(next slide) that serve as building blocks of reality.
▫ Each language has words or expressions not found

in any other symbolic system.
▫ All languages fuse symbols with distinctive

emotions so that a single idea may “feel” different
in different languages.

Sapir-Whorf Thesis
Language powerfully conditions all of our thinking… Human
beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the
world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very
much at the mercy of the particular language which has
become the medium of expression of their society. It is quite an
illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially
without the use of language and that language is merely an
incidental means of solving specific problems of
communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the
“real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the
language habits of the group…. We see and hear and
otherwise experience very largely as we do because the
language habits of our community predispose certain choices
of interpretation. [Sapir 1929:209-210]

Sapir-Whorf Thesis
The [grammar] of each language is not merely a
reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is
itself a shaper of ideas…. The categories and types that
we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not
find there because they stare every observer in the
face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a
kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be
organized by our minds…. [A]ll observers are not led
by the same physical evidence to the same picture of
the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are
similar, or can in some way be calibrated. [Whorf
1940a:221-214]

Culture & Language
• Linguistic Determinism – the way one thinks

is determined by the language one speaks
• Linguistic Relativity – differences among

languages are reflected in the differences in the
worldviews of their speakers
▫ This definition posits that Language 

Worldview. Might it be better to say that
Worldview  Language? Why or why not?
 Direction vs. Reflection

Conclusion
• The culture of a group makes sense of the world for

people in a particular group; it is the framework
though which they experience and understand the
world around them.

• Humans therefore can be seen as having no direct
access to ‘reality.’; instead, their reality is
thoroughly shaped by culture (Berger and Luckmann,
1967), especially through the particular language they
use.
▫ Culture and language are closely connected. The way a

language carves up reality and endows it with meaning
profoundly shapes the ways people who use that language
understand things (Saussure, 1959).

  • Language & Culture
  • Definitions of Language
  • Does language shape reality?
  • Sapir-Whorf Thesis
  • Slide 5
  • Sapir-Whorf Thesis (2)
  • Sapir-Whorf Thesis (3)
  • Culture & Language
  • Conclusion

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