Language and Communication 



A fine discussion on metaphors in language in relation to culture is:

A very good source on writing systems past and present is found at: http://alumni.EECS.Berkeley.EDU/~lorentz/asw/ A good starting place if you are interested in specific living languages. A tutorial on linguistic anthropology, covering some of the same material in the lectures A short tutorial on primates, including primate communication


symbol — a physical phenomenon which can be either an object of some sort, or a sequence of behaviors, or a sequence of sounds, which has its meaning bestowed upon it by those who use it.


Thus, there is no necessary relationship between the physical nature of the cross and the symbolic meaning of a cross to a Christian. Nor is the meaning of "horse" inferable merely from the sounds themselves — there is no "horsiness" in the word "horse"

Symbols have many important ramifications, but for our purposes there are two main aspects of this. The human capacity to make use of a large variety of different symbolic forms, particularly vocal speech, enables man to:

1. symbols enable you to convey meaning to others. Enable culture to accumulate through time. The late literary critic Kenneth Burke hypothesized a particularly bright wren who managed by accident to get a recalcitrant young wren out of the nest by gently tapping it on the beak.

Now if the wren could write a dissertation on "The principle of leverage as a means of debirding nests, or denesting birds" there would be enormous savings in birdhours, and the invention might spread through birddom. Of course, lacking symbolic speech and thought, birds are spared our capacity for demagoguery — they cannot be filled with hatreds for bird populations which they have never met.

While some mammals do seem capable of "inventing" things (particularly the higher primates), there is nothing like this uniquely human phenomenon of the accumulation of innovations through time. It was partially for this reason that Kroeber( a major figure in Anthropology two generations ago) referred to culture as "super-organic" — that is, while culture was in some ultimate sense a product of organic activity (the human brain) once created it seemed to have a life of its own, beyond the organism.


2. Symbols enable experience to be continuous; they enable memory to operate in a more systematic and ultimately efficient way. A problem can be kept in mind, even though it is not physically present. 


Necessary to distinguish between:

analogical symbol where there is some inherent connection or analogy between the symbol and the thing it symbolizes or referent. The hands of the clock. A graph.

Digital symbol as where there is a wholly arbitrary relationship between the symbol and the referent —— eg. the numbers of the clock, or the letters on the page. [note here that this is a broader use of the word digital than in computereze, which refers to arbitrary messages using a binary code).



Much non-human mammalian communication is not about objects but rather about the immediacy of social relationships in the experienced present. Some examples.

1.         Cat rubs self against human body. What is cat "saying"? Not "I want milk", but something rather more  like "dependency!" That is, the cat is making a general communication about the particular social relationship, of which the providing of milk is one part.

2.       Young wolf gets uppity and starts messing with the nubile females. Older wolf firmly presses young wolf’s snout to ground. He is not saying “Don’t do that" but rather "dominance!"

3.       Herd of bison stampede in certain direction when approached by predator. Now we really do not know exactly what is going on tin this complex kind of communication, but surely the bison are not “saying” to each other "Tiger approaching north by northeast, stampede south by southwest". That is the way humans would do it.


So most mammalian communication is mainly communication about social relationships in their immediacy. Human communication is mainly about objects —- but we must recognize that "object" means anything which can be "objectified". Social relationships for humans can be "objects" in this sense, as when one says "he is my father" — this is about social relationships but it is not about the immediacy of a social relationship, it is about an objectified entity called a "father."

Human communication is mostly communication about objects or objectified social relationships using digital symbols.

But bear in mind that humans also communicate directly about social relationships in the manner in which other animals do.

Our non-human animal background in not very far beneath the surface. Tactile communication, for example, in humans can directly communicate a social message (caressing, holding etc. seem to have some universal direct potential for social communication) But the matter because very complex indeed when we realize that tactile behavior may have a specific digital culturally defined meaning. The pat on the back, the specific symbolism of the black power handshake — these are clearly digital symbols.

 This emphasis on digital object specific communication is probably closely related to the evolution of the hand.  It is not surprising that primates, who are after all animals who have a very great capacity to manipulate objects using the hand, should  evolve an appropriate style of communication.

Furthermore, bear in mind that the higher apes also have some capacity for digital communication of the sort found among humans.


Obviously, the capacity for culture is very closely related to the human capacity to communicate through the use of vocal speech.

Now vocal speech and human communication involves a very number of distinctive elements, but at the outset we must notice something that is very often overlooked. The capacity for language, as Kenneth Burke noticed, involves the ability to use the negative. There are in fact no negatives in nature itself, and so far as we know the negative to be entirely a property of human (and possibly some higher primates) communication systems. "Do not touch the hot iron", "it is not raining", "I am not going to put on my rubbers." etc.

Aside: Freud (and many others) noticed  that when people use the negative they must at least implicitly or subconsciously have thought of the positive. Thus when a patient says": I do not hate my father" or "I am not a mean person" the therapist must assume that the patient must have at least considered the possibility that he might hate his father or be a mean person".


The communication systems of all higher animals is highly complex, and human communication consists of many forms, some of which we may share at least in part with other non-human animals. (As Gregory Bateson pointed out) it is a real mystery and marvel that animals are able to communicate adequately for certain purposes across species boundaries.

While vocal speech is the most significant and important kind of communication for the study of human culture, we must recognize other kinds of communication in humans which are significant and which can be analyzed.

kinesics —- study of body language forms, such as eye contact, distance, smell, touch etc. which are subject to great cultural variability. 

proxemics — study of the communication potential involved in the way in which people use space. Americans, for example, have very rigid (if unconscious) patterns of how far one may position one’s body from another in terms of the social distance between the parties and the social situation. This is often a matter of mere inches. Latin Americans typically approach more closely in a variety of circumstances, while Arabs may wish to approach so closely that they can smell the breath and odor of the other, which in important. Americans generally feel that if one is in close physical proximity to another (as in being seated at a restaurant table with a stranger) that there is an obligation to maintain a conversation. My own experience in England is that the assumptions are subtly different in this kind of situation.

 paralanguage — non linguistic sounds or gestures which may accompany language and which either alone or in combination with sounds carry certain meaning.

e.g. Way in which men communicate the presence of an attractive woman. American lifts eyebrows, Italian presses forefinger into cheek and rotates it, Greek strokes cheek, Brazilian puts imaginary telescope to eyes, Frenchman kisses fingertips, Arab grasps his beard.

E.g. In most European countries head nod means "yes", but in Bulgaria and Greece it means "no" Tausug raise eyebrows to indicate assent.

(class saw a film on different style of paralanguage around the world)

metalanguage — communication about communication. -- the complex set of signals and cues which enable a hearer to interpret something in its context. As a joke, or ironically, or with anger, or mockingly, etc. 

One other very important distinction in human communication systems, which is not found in lower animals to any extent, is the distinction between referential meaning and the social meaning in context. Thus "Get the hell out of here" can mean "leave" or it can mean "you’re joking" or something depending on intonation and kinesics (such as facial expression, etc.)

Design Features of Speech based Human Language

Many anthropologists understand human language in terms of 13 so called "design features" first proposed by linguist Charles Hockett. Most of these are obvious, but a few are really crucial and will have to be examined in detail:

1.       Vocal—auditory: produced through nose and mouth and received through the ears.

2.       Broadcast transmission: heard from all directions (but often subject to gestural cues depending on culture)

3.       Rapid fading: words do not stick around (as distinguished from communication based on smell – urination, etc.)

4.       Inter—changeability: speakers can both utter and understand the same words. The words bring out latently in the speaker that which they are intended to communicate to the hearers We can talk to ourselves.

5.       Total feedback: speaker can hear what he says and monitor it. Again, this presupposes a sense of self in humans

S.      Specialization: speech serves only to communicate and speaker and hearer can do other things at the same time.

7.       Semanticity: there is a regular connection between spoken words and regularly accepted meanings.

8.       Arbitrariness: connection between words and their meaning is completely arbitrary.

9.       Discreetness: humans can produce a great variety of sounds, but every language makes use of a very small range of these possibilities.

10.     Displacement: humans can communicate about things and events not physically present or remote in time and space.

11.      Productivity: people can say new things never before said.

12.     Traditional transmission: while humans are programmed biologically to learn a language, the specific language they learn must be acquired from others —— it is not instinctive.

13.     Duality of pattern: language has two levels of patterns -- the patterns of the sounds or phonemes, and the patterns of the morphemes, or units of meaning.



The human vocal apparatus is capable of producing an almost infinite variety of sounds.

A little reflection will convince you that if every sound had a specific meaning then any variation or deviation in the way the sound was made would alter the meaning and thus interfere with the communication. All communication systems (even for animals) must deal with the problem of what communication theorists and computer jocks call noise — interference in the channel which blocks the efficient transmission. The easiest way of dealing with noise is to increase the redundancy (roughly the "repeatability") of the message.

Very obvious in military and aircraft transmissions ("calling all cars, calling all cars, be on the lookout for green, repeat green, Cadillac.").


Redundancy is such an important feature of human speech that in most instances we are still able to understand the message in even the most garbled transmissions. In fact, very few human utterances are phonetically, semantically or grammatically complete. If you were to set up tape recorder and record "ordinary" speech you would find very few complete sentences or "proper" pronunciation. Even a formal lecture is likely to have less than 50% complete sentences.

One extremely important type of redundancy in human speech is the fact that of all the possible sounds humans can make, each language regularly uses only a small proportion in any regular patterned way. Thus, for example there are several sounds used in Dutch which have no significance in English.

/sch/ as in schip (ship) and /g/ as in schrevinegen ( a seaside resort) or brug (bridge)


phone —— simply a sound . Phonetics is the study of the vocal mechanisms involved in the production of speech sounds.

phoneme - a groups of similar related sounds which function in a similar way in the language, and which serve to contrast meaning, although phonemes do not carry meaning in themselves. Phonemics is the study of the system of phonemes in a language.

The significance of the phoneme is only in relation to the way in which it contrasts with other phonemes in the language. No phoneme exists in isolation, but only as part of a system of contrasts.

Thus in English /th/ /d/ contrast as in time-dime, tip—dip, toe-doe, tame-dame, do—to, trove-drove, tat-dat, tot-dot,fad—fat, mad—mat, cad-cat, sat—sad, etc.

In Tausugs daya (wealth)— daya’ (glottal stop]’ (to lie on back)

In English. The night rates are falling

The nitrates are falling

(here juncture is phonemic)


The method of determining the phonemes in a language is based on identifying the minimal contrasting pairs:  minimal differences in sound which make a difference in meaning.

Languages differ in the number of phonemes: English about 35 (depending on dialect), Italian about 22, Hawaiian about 15, some languages may have as many as 55 or 60 phonemes, but that seems to be the upper limit.


Note: a phoneme is not a sound per se, but rather exists solely as a classification of sounds in the mind — it is a psychological reality rather than being a physical thing.

in English /v/ b/ distinction phonemic as in base-vase and vat-bat, but in Spanish vaso (glass) could just as easily be said baso There is no phonemic distinction between b and v , although a clear difference in sound. Actually, most Spanish speakers make this phoneme somewhere between spoken English b and English v.


Duality of Patterning

Another distinctive design feature of human language is the fact that patterning occurs on  at least two levels at once. The first level is the structure of the phoneme in the language. The second level is the level of patterning of morphemes.

morpheme -—smallest meaningful units of a language

the/man/brough/t/ the/box/es/to/the/teach/er (+ intonation as in ?)

Bound v unbound morphemes—a bound morpheme must be attached to some other morpheme.

Note: a phoneme can be a morpheme at the same times English plural /s/ is a single phoneme which acts as a morpheme because of this "duality of patterning".

Note: morphemes can have different phonemic shapes e.g. English plural /ez/ or /s/


Important to recognize the difference between language (the system) and speech (the actual behavior).

There are a few common misconceptions about language:

1. There are no so—called "primitive" languages. No language is less or more complex taken as a whole than any other, although some languages are simpler and more complex in terms of certain of their features. Thus the phonemic structure of Hawaiian is a bit less complex than in English (fewer phonemes) but it would appear that this is made up by having longer and generally more complex words (discrete strings of morphemes).

2. All languages have a grammar and vocabulary adequate to its needs. It is true that English has a much larger vocabulary than any other existing language, but this is due to the fact that it has a rather special history in which Norman French derived and German derived cognates exists for most words (thus ‘calculate’ and ‘reckon", or "kingly’ and ‘royal’, etc). But the average speaker of English has a no greater vocabulary in everyday use than the average speaker of say Tausug or Navaho.

 3. All languages equally easy to learn as first languages by children, although the ease of learning of a second language is influenced by the similarity of the second language to the original language of the speaker.

4. All languages are equally old, in the sense that there is a historic continuity which can be traced back always in those instances in which the records are available. Linguists generally classify languages historically in terms of the presumed connections between them. These connections are best seen in terms of a small number of words --in the core vocabulary of a language — a group of several hundred words in which it is assumed are present in all languages (words for hand, mouth, eye, simple verbs like to walk, to run, objects like the sun, etc)

 Indo-European macro family —spoken by about 1/3 of the world today. Came out of central Asiatic steppes or perhaps SW Russia about 5000 years ago. Celtic, Albanian, Hittite (extinct, formerly in what is now Turkey], Iranian, Armenian, Germanic, Greek, Slavic, Latin and Latin-derived languages etc. The expansion of Indo_European speaking peoples probably due to the horse and the advantages of the new technology associated with it.

Sino-Tibetan —Chinese, Burmese, etc.

Austronesian - including all Malay—and Polynesian languages (including Tausug and other Philippine languages].

Turkic languages —— including Hungarian, Lapp, Lithuanian,Turkish, Mongol, etc.

Many American Indian languages and language families. Some American Indian languages may only have a few hundred speakers. In the US Navaho has perhaps the largest number of speakers. In South America Guarani, is widely spoken in Paraguay and Bolivia. Nahuatl (Aztec) and Mayan still spoken in Mexico.


Japanese has no known historical connections (although some possibility may be related to the Turkic family). This is not because Japanese is really unique, but rather because that it has been isolated so long. Although his theories have been soundly criticized in some respects, the linguist Morris Swadish estimated that languages tend to change their core vocabulary in a fairly predictable rates ( about 87% retention every 1000 years.) This means that after about 7000-8000 years or so it would become difficult to identify, with any reliable degree of statistical accuracy, any resemblance between two languages which had diverged from each other for that length of time. Japanese is thus an old language not in the sense that it has not changed, but only in the sense that the point at which it branched off was so long ago that all similarities have been lost.

Thus, modern Japanese is just as different from the Japanese of 5000 BP (before present) as contemporary English is to Proto-IE.

When we say that all languages are equally old (or equally "new") there is one exception:


Pidgin’ —— very simplified special purpose language (usually for trade, or master-slave relations) which arises in situations of inter—ethnic contact. A pidgin is always a second language used for some specialized purposes -— it is simpler (both in terms of grammar and vocabulary), but still adequate for its special purpose. One of the best known is an English based pidgin spoken in New Guinea.

Creole —in some situations a pidgin is so widely used that it begins to become more complex in grammar and vocabulary and attains the status as a full general purpose language. Creoles are always based on some the grammar of some existing language, often with many changes, and sometimes a very mixed vocabulary. Creole languages in Philippines, Caribbean Islands, and many other places. Creoles are really the only languages in which we can identify a specific time of origin —that point in time in which a pidgin begins to be used as the first language in the home, rather than merely a secondary trade language. There is a French based Creole in Lousiana, (as well as the non-Creole French Cajun) 



Humans can make up new sentences which have never been said before — human communication is completely open ended in this sense.

This is a crucial and very unique feature of human communication, although some recent evidence seems to indicate the higher apes have at least some biological capability along these lines.

Earlier attempts to teach apes to speak failed for the obvious reason that chimps and gorillas lack the human vocal mechanism.

More success recently in using American sign language, which is a gesture based system founded on the model of human speech in terms of grammar and vocabulary (it is a fully developed language in spite of the fact that it uses visual signs instead of speech) . A few chimps have been taught to use a couple hundred "words" with. a very simple grammar (although chimps do not seem to distinguish between certain kinds of word order) . But some evidence for a minimal amount of word productivity — combining word for "food" and word for "feces" to mean "radish".

Some critics of these studies have argued that the animals are merely acting out complex sequences of stimulus and response, like trained pigeons . But Koko the gorilla was often observed "talking" to herself when alone, and this at least is very significant.

Your text discusses Chantek the orangutan who was taught to sign.

The only thing we can say about these experiments is that the higher apes are a lot closer to us in language ability than had been thought, but we should not underestimate the considerable gulf that does exist however.

Note: evolution often results in latent capacities which are not used by the organism in its natural setting. Chimps have a capacity (to use a proto "human" type language] which they do not make use of because they have no need for it in the wild. If humans were captured by some aliens from outer space, could they teach us to make use of capacities we latently have, but do not make use of?

Productivity (the ability: to say things not said before) implies a very crucial distinction between competence and performance.

Noam Chomsky, at MIT, has very radically redefined the nature of the debate and the crucial issues in linguistics in the last 40 years or so.

Take two superficially English sentences (to use his well known example)

Time flies like an arrow

Fruit flies like bananas

Any speaker of English intuitively "knows" that these are grammatically not the same at all. That is, the grammatical rules which would enable a speaker of English to create two new sentences of the same type are very different. Or take:

Flying airplanes can be dangerous.

We intuitively know that this sentence is ambiguous, that is it has two grammatical structures which vary the meaning, much like those drawings by Escher.

The ability to intuit the difference is a fundamental component of linguistic competence — the possession of rules for encoding and decoding speech messages, as distinguished          from the speech itself, or performance . .        

Possible to have adequate performance without competence. If one learns all the right phrases from a Berlitz phrase book as to how to order a meal in a French restaurant. One could — in theory at least—- learn this well enough that one could not be distinguished from native speaker. But if one could not create new sentences (no productivity) there would be no competence.

Thus language is not acquired through simple rote memorization. It would be impossible to memorize all the possible things you could say in any language. Furthermore, we would be unable to understand messages which are incomplete, garbled, ungrammatical, etc, because in order to do this we must have a model structure of the language (the competence ) in our minds.

Between the ages of 2—3 1/2 there is a tremendous burst of linguistic competence acquired in children in all societies. The kids build up an intuitive competence in the language based on very rough and limited experience of the speech itself.

This acquisition is based on a very partial limited and usually poor sample of adult speech. Children build up an amazingly good competence in their first language with only rough evidence to build upon.

Further, linguistic competence is largely unrelated to other cognitive skills and various forms and intelligence in other respect.

But note: the acquisition of performance skill must be based on some social interaction with others. Hearing children who grow up with deaf parents will learn ASL.. (American Sign Language) but not spoken English, even though they may look at lots of TV. Most of them will eventually pick up hearing and speaking skills in interaction with other hearing kids.

Related to this is the ability to "understand" grammatical nonsense: “twas brillig and the slithy toves did gire and gimble in the wabe”, colorless green ideas spin furiously (Chomsky’s classic example).

Buts "ideas green colorless furiously spin" — this is truly meaningless because it is not grammatical. (although it may be poetic in some sense]

We have the competence to understand grammatical nonsense because of the ideal structure of the language which we carry in our minds, even though we could never imagine the infinite variety of nonsense sentences which could be said in English.

Now , the fact that the fact that all children pick up competence in their language based on very fragmentary speech experience is strong evidence for the argument that there is a basic innate capacity for language in humans, (he calls this the fundamental deep structure] though the specific language must be learned by example.

 By the way, although we think that children must be "taught" to speak (say "dada", etc) in fact in most societies children just pick it up by being around adults with only minimal encouragement.

The distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘performance’ has applications to aspects of culture other than language.

eg. take flower giving behavior in American culture. We give flowers at a number of occasions, and we all have certain intuitive knowledge of the rules as to when it is appropriate to do so and when not. Flower giving often occurs in life crisis or transitions between social roles:  wedding funerals, births.  We could if we wanted think of new situations in which one eight give flowers and then intuitively "know" whether it is appropriate to do so even if we have never encountered that particular situation before. That is we "know" that it would be appropriate to give flowers to the wife of the mayor at the dedication of a new building, but not to the female lawyer after her summation to the jury. Flower behavior in American culture is not simply a matter of rote memorization of all the possible situations in which one has experienced flower giving conduct, but rather the presence in our minds of a set of latent rules for generating appropriate flower giving conduct.


Proscriptive and descriptive Grammar

The grammar of a language as described by the linguist is the grammar which is actually used in any given speech community. So called proscriptive grammar is the "correct" grammar taught you by your English teacher. It is almost always based around the standard speech found in some particular social class, and therefore is a phenomenon found only in societies which have social classes. "Correct" speech when applied between speech communities is always a question of political and cultural domination and prestige.

Take so called black English vernacular , which is usually regarded as a socially stigmatizing form of speech. Your text discusses this so-called Ebonics controvery,

So called black English very close to some southern dialects, but different as well.

Phonology. some phonological differences such as /f/ for /th/ as in /roof/ for Ruth or /def/ for death. Thus when a child sees "DEATH" in his reader and says /def/ he is actually correctly translating his own dialect into the orthography( spelling system) of English and should be rewarded. But the teacher may say "That’s wrong" and insist on correcting his pronunciation , so the kid just gets confused.

Loss of final clusters, especially /t/ and /d/. Thus the kid says /ghoses/ and /teses/ as plurals for ghost and test, which is actually correct, given the fact that /ghos/ and /tes/ are the singular. The kid is actually making good use of English rules for making plurals.

Your brother — /yu bruver/ this is correct.

There are some grammatical distinctions made in black English which are not made in literary standard "correct" English.

he be busy now (he is always busy now)

he busy now (he is busy at this moment)

Most speakers of black English learn BE at home and then learn a number of other dialects to cope with other social situations. This is called code switching or style switching, and many adult  Afro-Americans are very adept at it.

(Listen to Jesse Jackson’s or Al Sharpton’s speech in a variety of situations).

Code switching is less familiar to most middle class American whites, but very common in Europe. Most Swiss know dialect of their own village or town, standard Swiss vernacular German as spoken the large cities, and literary standard high German, and can switch back and forth with ease.

In some languages code switching is institutionalized to reflect social class and relative social position of the speakers. Two examples;

1. In Javanese there are three different levels or styles of speech, each quite different from each others. A person chooses based on a complex set of expectations depending on social class, the situation, degree of respect, and the relationship between them. A single sentence such as "Are you going to eat rice now" is so completely transformed in Javanese that not a single word is shared between the "highest and the "lowest" codes.

2. Another radical example of code switching occurs in Paraguay. Guarani, an Indian language has remained the dominant language of the people. More than half of all Paraguayans are bilingual in Spanish. Spanish is used in formal social relationships, to indicate respect, when engaging in official business. Guarani is used with friends and relatives, making love, and when talking to status inferiors. Situations in which the upper class person will speak Guarani to Lower class person, the lower will speak Spanish to the upper.

Other examples of this include: English aristocrats spoke Norman French well into the 15th century, and as late as the early 20th century educated Russian and Poles spoke French among themselves and Russian or Polish only when talking to the lower classes. Educated Czechs spoke German among themselves and Czech to the lower classes.


Most languages which have a number of different speech communities will show dialectical variation. These variations can be in phonology (sounds), vocabulary, and grammar, and can vary by geography, and social class.. The micro- dialects in the Boston area are a combination of social class (and education), locality, and original language and ethnic background of the speakers. 

Some dialects change very rapidly across certain boundaries, while others may show very slow gradations. One could take train from Amsterdam to Berlin and never cross a boundary where the language spoken in the home would abruptly change (although the language spoken in Berlin in and in Amsterdam would be unintelligible). At the Dutch —German border there would be no change, except that in the schools the kids would learn different literary standards.

Same thing if travel from Madrid through S Spain (Barcelona), S.France and into Italy, little abrupt change in the vernacular.

Most European languages have certain literary standards which are in fact merely local dialects (usually of the capital or major city). Parisian French, Castilian Spanish, the Dutch of Amsterdam, Swedish of Stockholm, English of Wessex and London, etc. For some reason standard American English has (perhaps fittingly) been based on the mass media — in particular "announcing school English" is really the dialect spoken in central Illinois and Iowa! The emergence of "anchorman English" as the prestige dialect in the United states occurred about the 1950’s or so. In the 1930’s the standard prestige dialect (upper class Eastern) was exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt, which was in part based on British English prestige models. But hardly anybody speaks like that anymore in this country.

Aside: although we have no recordings, and dialects do change, it is a good bet that Abraham Lincoln (born and raised in central Indiana and Illinois) would have sounded somewhat like Dan Rather. But this was not the prestige dialect at the time and Lincoln was regarded as a bit of a hick when he first came to Washington.

What is the difference between a language and a dialect?  This is a very arbitrary distinction.  Linguists generally define a dialect as a local variety of a language which is more or less intelligible with other dialects of the same language.   But “mutual intelligibility” depends on situation and what is being talked about.  If one is conversing only about very simple things, Spanish and Italian are sufficiently similar to allow some small degree of mutual intelligibility.

In popular usage there is a political dimension to the definition of dialect vs. language.  Thus, Filipinos usually use the word “dialect” to refer to what are in fact different  languages.   Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese are clearly different languages, although they are referred to as different dialects.   On the other hand,  Macedonian and Bulgarian are sufficient mutually intelligible to be called dialects of the same language, but since the political independence of Macedonia,  Macedonians refer to their dialect as a “language”.    As one linguist put it: “a language is a dialect with an army and navy!”

Thus, language can be, and is, a powerful focus for nationalism and indeed some nations have really used their language as their national foundation (Czech identity was for many years really carried though the language and Czech literature). Quebecois identity is closely tied to language. In some states (India, Ceylon and the Philippines come to mind) the language issue is so complicated and incendiary, that everyone agrees that the use of a totally foreign language (English) is preferable for everyone.



Writing is a set of techniques for the graphic representation of speech.

logographic systems— representations of whole words or morphemes or parts of words, or ideas -- Ancient Egyptian, Chinese,

syllabic systems— represent syllables. Japanese, Cherokee.

alphabetic systems — representations of sounds (very roughly). How closely the spelling represents the actual phonemes is greatly variable. English spelling today still a legacy of the King James Bible, and sound patterns have changed a bit since then so our spelling is out of date, and thus hard for kids to learn. Spanish spelling is easier.

Writing certainly invented by Bronze age Egyptians and Chinese, alphabetic systems by early Semites, possibly Phoenicians (but based on some models that might have originated in Egypt). Earliest alphabetic systems used only consonants, later modified by Greeks to use vowels. All alphabetic systems derived from these early Semitic sources.

The Tausug write their own language using a modified Arabic script, although the writings are mostly for religious and political purposes.


Writing introduced a very radical change in human culture in a whole variety of ways, and in particular after the coming of printing and mass literacy. One clear effect we can afford to be sloppy with oral language, backed up as we are by writing forms. In most non—literate cultures oral forms are highly prized and memory is very great. 

Even the Greeks (one of the first, if not the first, society in which everyone—free males-- was literate) were very ambivalent about the effect of writing, preferring oral forms for most education. Plato in the Phaedrus says "written words seem to talk to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything , for a desire to be instructed, they just go on telling you the same thing forever."

 Since written communication is not usually accompanied by kinesics, proxemics, gestures,  metalanguage, etc. written forms tend to have much stricter rules. Written language cannot be just a translation of speech performance into text – as any beginning English comp student knows.


Language and Culture

Easy to think of language as simply a set of neutral markers for objects which exist in reality, but the opposite is actually more likely. The reality of objects is in large measure created by the act of naming them.

This was an idea of a brilliant linguist-anthropologist named Edward Sapir, one of his students Benjamin Whorf. You have read the assigned article by Whorf.

Great controversy over the relationship between language and the processes of thought. To what extent is the language we speak in some sense a channel which influences the nature of the kinds of things we can think?

1. First of all how sentence are understood depends upon the experience of the hearer, which is of course heavily influenced by culture. Thus "The violinist got on the subway ahead of me" vs "The violinist asked an interesting question in our music theory course"   The first implies that violinist is carrying a violin. The second implies that the violinist is asking a music theory question from his perspective as a violinist.                                                                      

2. Now there is an obvious relationship between culture and vocabulary. The lexicon ( list of words) of any language is likely to reflect the kinds of things which are of interest. Navaho has lot of words for sheep and sandpainting, while many varieties of English have lots of names for parts of automobiles. This is obvious. This is focal vocabulary

3. Another important approach to this is the analysis of folk classification systems: such as tree is divided into pine, which divided into Monterrey Pine, etc. Or color terms which are greatly variable. (but if one knows how many terms there are for primary colors one can predict what they will be). Tausug does not distinguish between blue and green, and there are other languages which put green-blue-black into the same category. But this does not mean they cannot experience the difference. In English bats and birds are contrasted, but there are other languages where they are put into the same category.

3 Another important consideration is the uses of metaphors and metonyms in any given languages. Actually this is not so much a property of the language itself as it is of the ways in which the language is used in everyday speech and writing.

Metaphor vs metonym "The king is a lion",(metaphor) "Give the ham sandwich his check" (metonym).

These are not merely dead metaphors, but living conventionalized ones which may influence our world view, and reflect it.

In English, we talk of time as if it were a commodity as in "time is money", "save time", waste time" budget time, "lose time", etc. We talk of emotions in terms of space: "high spirits" or ‘feeling low, and temperature ("heated discussion) or color ( feeling blue or "seeing red". We have a widespread use of military and battle metaphors ("the war on drugs" "battle of the sexes" etc.) These are not merely dead metaphors, but on the other hand they do not necessary reflect deeply held views of the universe. Rather, they are something in between: cultural conventional ways of talking about things that by their nature are not easily conveyed in the formal patterns of the language. As such the use of metaphors changes more rapidly than the structure of the language itself.

4. Another consideration is the distinction between referential speech and speech acts. Sometimes when we speak we are merely describing something which we presume exists, but we also use speech to create the reality in a deliberate way: the best examples of this is the common use of words as elements in rituals, the very saying of which in the proper ritual context, creates the reality which it proclaims: "I christen thee the USS Swordfish", " I now pronounce you man and wife". Magical spells and incantations are another example of this use of speech; "May the blessing of the Lord be upon you", "The womb of my garden wakes, the womb of my garden works, the womb of my garden makes my yams grow strong" (Trobriand).

5. The power of labels. Every culture labels people in terms of moral, political, medical, and all kinds of social categories. It is reasonable to assume that if a culture has a particular label for a certain sort of person or characteristic of a person, people will come forward from time to time to claim the label.

In 1952 when the APA DSM-1 was first promulgated there were 106 forms of psychiatric abnormalities identified. In the latest edition the DSM-IV there are over 300 labels., including such culture-bound things as "disorder of written expression" (bad spelling?), and "lexical anhedonia" (inability to get pleasure out of reading.)

As fast as new medical categories appear, or new sexual or criminal or moral categories are invented, new kinds of people seem to appear to accept the labels. Let yourself fall into the new slots which define one’s self. The term "addict" comes to mind as more and more things are defined as being "addictive". Is it possible to become an "addict" if ones language and culture do not have the label? Not saying here that there is no experience (there are objective physiological effects of psychotropic substances) but only that self identification with the label is necessary for there to be significant perceived changes in conduct.

"Premenstrual syndrome" – this is a fairly recent medical condition. I would not argue that it does not "exist" objectively in the sense that there are no physiological realities, but only that the identification of these realities is made considerably more likely if the label exists. There is no such medical condition among the Tausug.


6. But is there a connection between culture and the grammatical patterns of a language?

Idea of B. L. Whorf: that grammar forces us to confront certain patterns of reality more than others. He is not saying that language determines thought, but only that it channels it in the sense that it is easier to say certain things in certain languages, and therefore more likely that people will say them. One could translate Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into Eskimo, but it would not be easy and it is unlikely that you could get an Eskimo to understand it.

Examples: In English four demonstratives this, that, these, those (sing v plural, relative distance from speaker). In Kwakiutl there are six demonstratives (visible v invisible and near me, near you, near him)


In English not possible to speak without specifying whether a noun is singular or plural (words like sheep are oddities). In most situations this is not really necessary as a property of reality, but we are forced to do it. Does this means that speaking English forces us to think that number is more important than it really is? In Tausug one does not have to indicate the plurality of nouns, although one can if necessary.