Language is Built on the Need of Its Culture

The language of a people defines its culture in many ways.

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”
-Wade Davis

Electronic Field Trip at the International Museum of CulturesThe Electronic Field Trip from the International Museum of Cultures discusses this concept. Below is an excerpt from the e-Field Trip on Mexico. It touches upon how a language is built upon the foundation of its culture.

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Docent:

What language is spoken in Mexico?

Student:

Spanish. My mother speaks Spanish when she is mad at me.
(student laughter.)

Docent:

Yes, Spanish is the dominate language in Mexico, but did you know that there are 7 language families in Mexico and 298 of individual languages besides Spanish? The map on the back wall shows, in white, where Spanish is the primary language and, in the colors, where other languages are predominate.
(Cut to map)
Docent: (CONT.)
You can see that most of the non-Spanish speakers live in the southern part of Mexico. Some of the languages are tonal which means that the only difference between “I’m going, and I’m not going” may be the tone of your voice. Likewise, some are also nasal, and you must say a vowel through your nose. If you don’t, you might say “chili pepper”, like I did when you really wanted to say “horse’s tail”!

Student:
That could be a problem if you were trying to make chili and put a horse’s tail in the pot.
(student laughter.)
Docent:
You’re right. Languages, to some extent, are partially a result of need. Mixtec dialects can have as many as 20 different words for corn, like the Eskimos have many words for snow: soft snow, slushy snow, icy snow, etc. The Tzeltales in the state of Chiapas have 25 verbs for “carry”, depending on HOW you are going to carry something: on your back, over your shoulder, in a pocket, in your hand, etc.

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As we learn from the e-Field Trip, language is constructed on the foundation of the culture. If an indigenous culture is taught to speak a language from another culture, what is added and what is lost? How can the impact be measured?

Contact the International Museum of Cultures for more information on the Electronic Field Trip and other educational tools.

2 thoughts on “Language is Built on the Need of Its Culture

  1. Hi IMOC–

    I am looking forward to learning more from your blog. There are a number of really interesting posts here, particularly this one about language’s role in cultural construction. I noticed that you popped over to my article on the commodification of language, and that prompted me to review my post (I’m an awful proofreader of my own work). Anyway, I found and then fixed some typos and a nagging problem with a preposition. Anyhoo, it’s updated. Here’s the link: http://kristineoliveira.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/brief-ara-report-commodification-of-language/

    Please keep up the good work, and I’m looking forward to learning more!

    –kristine

  2. Pingback: Language Endangerment Can Affect Cultural, Economic, and Spiritual Goals | International Museum of Cultures BLOG

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