Language, Culture & Society

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Exercise ID: 1.40
Class size: Any
Level(s): I II III
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Open choice by student
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: language, culture, gender, power, oratory, class, code-switching, linguistic relativity
Region selection: open (student choice)
Region, if applicable: Various
Culture selection: Student chooses from entire collection
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable:
Samples: PSF

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? Yes
Assignments for students to complete in groups? No
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Francine Barone, Human Relations Area Files at Yale University

Language and Culture

Human culture and language are deeply intertwined. Anthropologists would have difficulty understanding a culture without becoming familiar with its language and vice versa. In fact, neither one can exist without the other.

A distinguishing aspect of human communication is that it is symbolic. In order to convey meaning, language uses arbitrary signs to stand for concepts. Whether spoken, written, or via gestures, people continually communicate with others throughout their lives. Yet the power and meaning of language goes far beyond its signs or symbols. Through language, humans are able to share beliefs, worries, perceptions, expectations, experiences and knowledge. These are the building blocks of communicating culture.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – or linguistic relativity – suggests that a language and its overarching categories or structures used to classify the world directly shape one’s perceptions, so much so that speakers of distinct languages are likely to view the world differently.


Sociolinguistics is the study of language as it relates to social structure and contexts such as gender, age, religion, geography, social class and status, education, occupation, ethnicity, nationality, and identity. Like culture, language is continually changing. Societal norms and practices impact the ways that people communicate with each other. Thus, by looking at how people speak to each other, we can deduce certain things about their relationships and relative status in society.

The power of language

Language use and patterns of speaking can tell us a great deal about power and agency in society. For example, ritual and religion are domains in which words are endowed with performative qualities, such as speaking a prayer aloud to ward off evil spirits. Saying “I’m sorry” can mend a strained relationship, while refusing to apologize can just as easily break it. Oratory is another category of expression that can “make things happen”, such as the speech from a charismatic leader that inspires a revolution.

Sometimes people are restricted from speaking in certain situations, such as based on gender or age. Sociolinguists pay attention to this contestable nature of language, including how more than one exclusive variant of a language can exist among its speakers.

Diglossia refers to the existence of two different ways of speaking (or “registers”) within a single language, typically with a “high” or formal variety and a “low” or informal, everyday variety. Speakers consciously select which register to used based on accepted social conditions. For example, one might speak differently when chatting with friends versus when addressing a college professor.

Bilingual, multilingual and plurilingual people may likewise switch from one language to another in the course of a conversation with one or more participants, known as code-switching. The motivations for switching codes in mid-conversation can range from a polite attempt to include nearby speakers of other languages, to a deliberate political act of defiance.


Activity 1: Ethnographic examples

Read the following ethnographic accounts of language use in different cultures and answer the questions provided.


Tukano (SQ19)

Sorensen (1967) – “Multilingualism in the Northwest Amazon”

“Multilingualism”, pages 677-678 on language exogamy


  • How are language, gender, and kinship connected in Tukano society?
  • How does this connection influence marriage patterns?
  • How many languages may be spoken in a single Tukano longhouse?
  • How does a Tukano decide which language to speak?

Highland Scots (ES10)

Coleman (1984) – Language Shift in a Bilingual Hebridean Crofting Community

Pages 84-88 on speaking Gaelic vs. English

  • What impression is given when a local person chooses to speak English over Gaelic?
  • How does age and location factor into Gaelic language identity?
  • Under what conditions do young people prefer to use English?
  • What other aspects of culture is Gaelic language use associated with?

Wolof (MS30)

Swigart (1994) – “Cultural Creolisation and Language Use in Post-Colonial Africa: The Case of Senegal”

Pages 177-178 on urban vernacular language

  • How do bilingual French and Wolof speakers combine the two languages?
  • What is the difference between an urban variety and a creole language?
  • What cultural status does mixing a vernacular language with a European language confer the urban Wolof speaker?

Taiwan Hokkien (AD05)

Barnett (1971) – An Ethnographic Description of Sanlei Ts’un, Taiwan, with Emphasis on Women’s Roles.

“Languages”, pages 77-78 on plurilingualism, gender, and age

  • What languages are spoken in Sanlei and for what purposes?
  • How does language use vary by age group?
  • What inhibits Taiwanese speakers from learning and speaking Mandarin?
  • What other language is most likely spoken by older men?

Serbs (EF06)

Pavlovic (1973) – Folk Life and Customs in the Kragujevac Region of the Jasenica in Sumdaija

“Swearwords, Curses, and Oaths”, pages 131-133 on power and speech

  • How common or uncommon is swearing?
  • What differences are there between how men and women curse?
  • How are curses invoked, and who might be cursed?
  • What are oaths used for?

Activity 2: Language and Culture Essay

Use eHRAF World Cultures to research how language intersects with another aspect of culture such as class, ethnicity, race, age, religion, occupation, gender, nationality.

Try to find at least 2 ethnographic examples from different world regions of language use as it relates to your chosen aspect of culture.

Write a short paper of 2-4 pages summarizing your findings and comparing and contrasting any similarities or differences you have found across the cultures you selected.

Consider how language use or patterns of speaking can be powerful, performative, or how they might reinforce or contest societal divisions.

You may wish to add one or more of the following subject categories to an Advanced Search:

  • Sociolinguistics (195)
  • Language (190)
  • Oratory (537)
  • Gender status (562)
  • Classes (565)
  • Status, role, and prestige (554)


Barnett, William Kester. 1971. An Ethnographic Description of Sanlei Ts’un, Taiwan, with Emphasis on Women’s Roles: Overcoming Research Problems Caused by the Presence of a Great Tradition. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms.

Coleman, Jack David Bo. 1984. Language Shift in a Bilingual Hebridean Crofting Community. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Xerox University Microfilms.

Pavlovic, Jeremija M. 1973. Folk Life and Customs in the Kragujevac Region of the Jasenica in Sumdaija. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files.

Sorensen Jr, Arthur P. 1967. “Multilingualism in the Northwest Amazon.” American Anthropologist Vol. 69 (no. 6): 670–84.

Swigart, Leigh. 1994. “Cultural Creolisation and Language Use in Post-Colonial Africa: The Case of Senegal.” Africa Vol. 64 (no. 2): 175–89.