Words and Cultures


  • Introduction
  • Whorf
  • Kinship
  • Taxonomies
  • Color
  • Prototypes
  • Euphemisms

  • Introduction

    The exact nature of the relationship between language and culture has fascinated, and continues to fascinate, people from a wide variety of backgrounds. That there should be some kind of relationship between the sounds, words, and syntax of a language and the ways in which speakers of that language experience the world and behave in it seems so obvious as to be a truism.

    It would appear that the only problem is deciding the nature of the relationship and finding suitable ways to demonstrate it. But, as we will see, what is ‘obvious’ need not necessarily be ‘true’: the sun does not rotate around the earth, nor is the earth at the center of the universe! When we do try to specify any such relationship, we run into problems that are no less formidable than those just mentioned: we may be misled by the ‘obvious.’

    In this lecture, we will look at various ways in which language and culture have been said to be related. As we will see, some of the resulting claims are unprovable, others are intriguing, but only one or two are potentially of great interest.

    A few words are necessary concerning what I mean by ‘culture.’ I do not intend to use the term culture in the sense of ‘high culture,’ i.e., the appreciation of music, literature, the arts, and so on. Rather, I intend to use it in the sense of whatever a person must know in order to function in a particular society. This is the same sense as in Goodenough’s well-known definition (1957, p. 167): ‘a society’s culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members, and to do so in any role that they accept for any one of themselves.’ That knowledge is socially acquired: the necessary behaviors are learned and do not come from any kind of genetic endowment. Culture, therefore, is the ‘know-how’ that a person must possess to get through the task of daily living; only for a few does it require a knowledge of some, or much, music, literature, and the arts.

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    One long-standing claim concerning the relationship between language and culture is that the structure of a language determines the way in which speakers of that language view the world. A somewhat weaker version is that the structure does not determine the world-view but is still extremely influential in predisposing speakers of a language toward adopting a particular world-view. This claim has intrigued many anthropologists and linguists and there is a fairly extensive literature concerning it. The opposite claim would be that the culture of a people finds reflection in the language they employ: because they value certain things and do them in a certain way, they come to use their language in ways that reflect what they value and what they do. In this view, cultural requirements do not determine the structure of a language – the claim is never that strong – but they certainly influence how a language is used and perhaps determine why specific bits and pieces are the way they are. A third, ‘neutral,’ claim would be that there is little or no relationship between language and culture.

    The claim that the structure of a language influences how its speakers view the world is today most usually associated with the linguist Sapir and his student Whorf, a chemical engineer by training, a fire prevention engineer by vocation, and a linguist by avocation. However, it can be traced back to others, particularly to Humboldt in the nineteenth century. Today, the claim is usually referred to as the Linguistic relativity hypothesis, Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or the Whorfian hypothesis. I will use the latter term since the claim seems to owe much more to Whorf than it does to Sapir.

    Sapir acknowledged the close relationship between language and culture, maintaining that they were inextricably related so that you could not understand or appreciate the one without a knowledge of the other. The passage which most clearly summarizes his views (1929b, p. 207) is as follows:

    “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 for 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 up on 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.”

    Whorf extended these ideas, going much further than saying that there was a ‘predisposition’; in Whorf’s view, the relationship between language and culture was a deterministic one.

    One of Whorf’s strongest statements is the following (Carroll, 1956, pp. 212–14):

    “the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. 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 – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.”

    Although this view is a deterministic one, Whorf actually twice uses the word largely. He does not go all the way to say that the structure of a language completely determines the way its speakers view the world. However, he does go on to add (p. 214):

    “This fact is very significant for modern science, for it means that no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free. The person most nearly free in such respects would be a linguist familiar with very many widely different linguistic systems. As yet no linguist is in any such position. We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all 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.”

    In this view different speakers will therefore experience the world differently insofar as the languages they speak differ structurally, and not even the most sophisticated linguist aware of all the subtleties of structural differences among languages can escape to see the world as it is rather than as it is presented through the screen of this language or that.

    On several occasions Fishman (particularly 1960 and 1972c) has written about the Whorfian hypothesis concerning the kinds of claims it makes. One claim is that, if speakers of one language have certain words to describe things and speakers of another language lack similar words, then speakers of the first language will find it easier to talk about those things. We can see how this might be the case if we consider the technical vocabulary of any trade, calling, or profession; for example, physicians talk easily about medical phenomena, more easily than you or I, because they have the vocabulary to do so. A stronger claim is that, if one language makes distinctions that another does not make, then those who use the first language will more readily perceive the differences in their environment which such linguistic distinctions draw attention to. If you must classify camels, boats, and automobiles in certain ways, you will perceive camels, boats, and automobiles differently from someone who is not required to make these differentiations. If your language classifies certain material objects as long and thin and others as roundish, you will perceive material objects that way; they will fall quite ‘naturally’ into those classes for you.

    This extension into the area of grammar could be argued to be a further strengthening of Whorf’s claim, since classification systems pertaining to shape, substance, gender, number, time, and so on are both more subtle and more pervasive. Their effect is much stronger on language users than vocabulary differences alone. The strongest claim of all is that the grammatical categories available in a particular language not only help the users of that language to perceive the world in a certain way but also at the same time limit such perception. They act as blinkers: you perceive only what your language allows you, or predisposes you, to perceive. Your language controls your ‘world-view.’ Speakers of different languages will, therefore, have different worldviews.

    Whorf’s ideas were based on two kinds of experience. One was acquired through his work as a fire prevention engineer for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company; the other was acquired through his linguistic work, as Sapir’s student, on Amerindian languages, principally on the Hopi language of Arizona. In his work investigating the origins of fires, Whorf found that speakers of English would use the words full and empty in describing gasoline drums but only in relation to their liquid content; consequently, they would smoke beside ‘empty’ gasoline drums, which were actually ‘full’ of gas vapor. He found other examples of such behavior and was led to conclude that ‘the cue to a certain line of behavior is often given by the analogies of the linguistic formula in which the situation is spoken of, and by which to some degree it is analyzed, classified, and allotted its place in that world which is “to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group”’ (Carroll, 1956, p. 137).

    However, it was his work on Amerindian languages that led Whorf to make his strongest claims. He contrasted the linguistic structure of Hopi with the kinds of linguistic structure he associated with languages such as English, French, German, and so on, that is, familiar European languages. He saw these languages as sharing so many structural features that he named this whole group of languages Standard Average European (SAE). According to Whorf, Hopi and SAE differ widely in their structural characteristics. For example, Hopi gram- matical categories provide a ‘process’ orientation toward the world, whereas the categories in SAE give SAE speakers a fixed orientation toward time and space so that they not only ‘objectify’ reality in certain ways but even distinguish between things that must be counted, e.g., trees, hills, waves, and sparks, and those that need not be counted, e.g., water, fire, and courage. In SAE events occur, have occurred, or will occur, in a definite time, i.e., present, past, or future; to speakers of Hopi, what is important is whether an event can be warranted to have occurred, or to be occurring, or to be expected to occur.

    Whorf believed that these differences lead speakers of Hopi and SAE to view the world differently. The Hopi see the world as essentially an ongoing set of processes; objects and events are not discrete and countable; and time is not apportioned into fixed segments so that certain things recur, e.g., minutes, mornings, and days. In contrast, speakers of SAE regard nearly everything in their world as discrete, measurable, countable, and recurrent; time and space do not flow into each other; sparks, flames, and waves are things like pens and pencils; mornings recur in twenty-four-hour cycles; and past, present, and future are every bit as real as gender differences. The different languages have different obligatory grammatical categories so that every time a speaker of Hopi or SAE says something, he or she must make certain observations about how the world is structured because of the structure of the language each speaks. (We should note that Malotki (1983) has pointed out that some of Whorf’s claims about the grammatical structure of Hopi are either dubious or incorrect, e.g., Hopi, like SAE, does have verbs that are inflected for tense.)

    In the Whorfian view, language provides a screen or filter to reality; it deter- mines how speakers perceive and organize the world around them, both the natural world and the social world. Consequently, the language you speak helps to form your world-view. It defines your experience for you; you do not use it simply to report that experience. It is not neutral but acts as a filter. Romaine (1999) states the position as follows: ‘No particular language or way of speak- ing has a privileged view of the world as it “really” is. The world is not simply the way it is, but what we make of it through language. The domains of experience that are important to cultures get grammaticalized into languages . . . [and] no two languages are sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.’

    Those who find this hypothesis attractive argue that the language a person speaks affects that person’s relationship to the external world in one or more ways. If language A has a word for a particular concept, then that word makes it easier for speakers of language A to refer to that concept than speakers of language B who lack such a word and are forced to use a circumlocution. Moreover, it is actually easier for speakers of language A to perceive instances of the concept. If a language requires certain distinctions to be made because of its grammatical system, then the speakers of that language become conscious of the kinds of distinctions that must be referred to: for example, gender, time, number, and animacy. These kinds of distinctions may also have an effect on how speakers learn to deal with the world, i.e., they can have consequences for both cognitive and cultural development.

    Data such as the following are sometimes cited in support of such claims. The Garo of Assam, India, have dozens of words for different types of baskets, rice, and ants. These are important items in their culture. However, they have no single-word equivalent to the English word ant. Ants are just too important to them to be referred to so casually. German has words like Gemütlichkeit, Weltanschauung, and Weihnachtsbaum; English has no exact equivalent of any one of them, Christmas tree being fairly close in the last case but still lacking the ‘magical’ German connotations. Both people and bulls have legs in English, but Spanish requires people to have piernas and bulls to have patas. Both people and horses eat in English but in German people essen and horses fressen. Bedouin Arabic has many words for different kinds of camels, just as the Trobriand Islanders of the Pacific have many words for different kinds of yams. The Navaho of the Southwest United States, the Shona of Zimbabwe, and the Hanunóo of the Philippines divide the color spectrum differently from each other in the distinctions they make, and English speakers divide it differently again.

    English has a general cover term animal for various kinds of creatures, but it lacks a term to cover both fruit and nuts; however, Chinese does have such a cover term. French conscience is both English conscience and conscious- ness. Both German and French have two pronouns corresponding to i>you, a singular and a plural. Japanese, on the other hand, has an extensive system of honorifics. The equivalent of English stone has a gender in French and German, and the various words must always be either singular or plural in French, German, and English. In Chinese, however, number is expressed only if it is somehow relevant. The Kwakiutl of British Columbia must also indicate whether the stone is visible or not to the speaker at the time of speaking, as well as its position relative to one or another of the speaker, the listener, or possible third party. Some Japanese sentences are almost completely the reverse of corresponding English sentences in their word order.

    Lucy (1992a, 1996) tried to test Whorf’s ideas. He used the grammatical category of number in English and in Yucatec Maya, a language of Mexico. Both languages mark nouns for plural. English, however, has a contrast between ‘count’ nouns like tree and book and ‘mass’ nouns like water and sugar (we say trees and books but not waters and sugars, except in very marked circumstances). Yucatec pluralization is optional and then only for nouns denoting animates. Lucy hypothesized that English speakers would be more conscious of the numbers of objects they see than Yucatec speakers and would also see more objects as countable. He asked speakers of the two languages to look at pictures of ordinary village life and, using a cleverly devised non-verbal test requiring sort- ing and recall, found that the two groups did differ in the predicted directions:

    “In remembering and classifying, English speakers were sensitive to numbers for animate entities and objects but not for substances. By contrast, Yucatec speakers were sensitive to number only for animate entities . . . the two groups had very similar patterns of response for the animate and substance referents where the two languages roughly agree in structure, but . . . they differed with respect to ordinary object referents, that is, where the grammars of the two languages are in maximal contrast. “(1996, pp. 49–50)

    Other tests produced similar results. Some evidence, therefore, does exist for the kind of claims Whorf made.

    Given such evidence, we are faced with the task of drawing defensible conclusions. Those conclusions are generally different from the ones that Whorf drew. For example, the words fist, wave, spark, and flame are nouns in English, so we tend to see the events or actions they name as having some kind of existence as ‘things.’ But we also know that this existence is of a different kind from that of houses, rocks, cats, and trees. We can, therefore, understand that words for the same events or actions can appear as verbs in Hopi: we know that houses and rocks comprise a different order of ‘things’ from fists and waves. One language refers to certain characteristics of the real world in terms of one possible sub-set of characteristics; another favors a different sub-set. However, speakers of both languages may still be aware of all the characteristics. They are not required to refer to all of them.

    Syntactic evidence can also mislead investigators. Much of the evidence is provided by literal translation, as though breakfast were understood as a ‘break in a fast,’ or cats as ‘cat’ plus ‘plural,’ as though in a group of cats one cat were noticed independently of, and before, the presence of the other cats. Over-literal translation is very dangerous, particularly of metaphoric language. English, for example, is full of metaphors: ‘I see what you mean,’ ‘He grasped the idea,’ ‘You’re behind the times,’ and so on. At best, the syntactic evidence suggests that languages allow their speakers to make certain observations more easily in some cases than others.

    An obligatory grammatical category, for example tense- marking in English verbs, will lead to certain things being said in English that need not be said, for example in Chinese. Periodically, scholars meet to examine Whorf’s ideas but the results (e.g., Pütz and Verspoor, 2000, and Enfield, 2002) tend to be either disappointing or inconclusive. There continues to be little agreement as to exactly what Whorf meant, how the hypothesis associated with his name can be tested, and what any ‘results’ might indicate.

    Pinker (1994, pp. 59–67) has no patience at all for any of Whorf’s ideas. He says that Whorf’s claims were ‘outlandish,’ his arguments were circular, any evidence he gave for them was either anecdotal or suspect in some other way, and all the experiments conducted to test the ideas have proved nothing. How- ever, Whorf’s ideas still exert their fascination. Do different languages produce different world-views? That question is certainly behind many linguists’ belief that endangered languages should be protected (see, for example, Dixon, 1997, p. 144, and Nettle and Romaine, 2000). It is also, as we will see in chapter 14, behind the idea that teaching a standard language to a child who speaks some nonstandard variety is essentially a liberating, empowering act. These are but two examples.

    Broader attempts to relate types of language structure to patterns of social organization have also met with failure. One problem has been trying to char- acterize languages by structural types. Language typology is an interesting topic in its own right (see Comrie, 1989), but it is somewhat doubtful that there is any close relationship between the particular types of language, no matter how these are defined, and the cultures of the people who speak them. Boas (1911) long ago pointed out that there was no necessary connection between language and culture or between language and race.

    People with very different cultures speak languages with many of the same structural characteristics, e.g., Hungarians, Finns, and the Samoyeds of northern Siberia; and people who speak languages with very different structures often share much the same culture, e.g., Germans and Hungarians, or many people in southern India, or the widespread Islamic culture. Moreover, we can also dismiss any claim that certain types of languages can be associated with ‘advanced’ cultures and that others are indicative of cultures that are less advanced. As Sapir himself observed on this last point (1921, p. 219), ‘When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.’

    Finally, the claim that it would be impossible to describe certain things in a particular language because that language lacks the necessary resources is only partially valid at best. We must assume that all languages possess the resources that any speaker might require to say anything that he or she might want to say in that language. Some languages, like English, Russian, French, and Chinese, for example, have had these resources developed in a tremendous variety of ways. But there is no reason to suppose that any other language is incapable of similar development. It might be difficult currently to discuss advanced nuclear physics in Tukano or Basque, but should a compelling necessity arise in the Tukano- speaking and Basque-speaking communities for people to become experts in nuclear physics and use Tukano and Basque to do so, the two languages should prove quite adequate. No society has rejected such modern ‘advances’ as tele- vision, computers, and sophisticated weaponry because its people lacked the linguistic resources to use them. As recent events in many parts of the world have shown, one can go from camels and abacuses to Mercedes and computers in but a few short years.

    The most valid conclusion concerning the Whorfian hypothesis is that it is still unproved. It appears to be quite possible to talk about anything in any language provided a speaker is willing to use some degree of circumlocution. However, some concepts may be more ‘codable,’ that is, easier to express, in some languages than in others. A speaker, of course, will not be aware of such circumlocution in the absence of familiarity with another language that uses a more succinct means of expression. Every natural language not only provides its speakers with a language for talking about every other language, that is, a metalanguage, but also provides them with an entirely adequate system for making any kinds of observations that they need to make about the world. If such is the case, every natural language must be an extremely rich system, one that allows its users to overcome any predispositions that exist and to do this without much difficulty.

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    One interesting way in which people use language in daily living is to refer to various kinds of kin. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is a considerable literature on kinship terminology, describing how people in various parts of the world refer to relatives by blood (or descent) and marriage. Kinship systems are a universal feature of languages, because kinship is so important in social organization. Some systems are much richer than others, but all make use of such factors as gender, age, generation, blood, and marriage in their organization. One of the attractions that kinship systems have for investigators is that these factors are fairly readily ascertainable. You can therefore relate them with considerable confidence to the actual words that people use to describe a particular kin relationship.

    There may be certain difficulties, of course. You can ask a particular person what he or she calls others who have known relationships to that person, for example, that person’s father (Fa), or mother’s brother (MoBr), or mother’s sister’s husband (MoSiHu), in an attempt to show how individuals employ various terms, but without trying to specify anything concerning the semantic composition of those terms: for example, in English, both your father’s father (FaFa) and your mother’s father (MoFa) are called grandfather, but that term includes another term, father. You will find, too, in English that your brother’s wife’s father (BrWiFa) cannot be referred to directly; brother’s wife’s father (or sister-in-law’s father) is a circumlocution rather than the kind of term that is of interest in kinship terminology.

    This kind of approach sometimes runs into serious difficulties. It is often virtually impossible to devise an exhaustive account of a particular system. You may also be unable to account for the many instances you may find of terms which are very obviously kinship terms but are used with people who are very obviously not kin by any of the criteria usually employed, e.g., the Vietnamese use of terms equivalent to English sister, brother, uncle, and aunt in various social relationships. Such an approach also misses the fact that certain terms recur to mark different relationships; for example, English uncle is used to designate FaBr, MoBr, FaSiHu, and MoSiHu, and also non-kin relationships, as when children are sometimes taught to use it for close friends of their parents. A rather different approach to kinship terminology is therefore often employed.

    In this latter approach, an investigator seeks to explain why sometimes different relationships are described by the same term, e.g., why Spanish tío is equivalent to both English uncle and either father’s or mother’s male cousin, and why similar relationships are described by different terms. Burling (1970, pp. 21–7) describes the kinship system of the Njamal, a tribe of Australian aborigines, in this way. To understand why the Njamal use the terms they do, you must know that every Njamal belongs to one of two ‘moieties,’ that of his (or her) father; the mother belongs to the other moiety. Marriage must be with someone from the other moiety so that husbands and wives and fathers and mothers represent different moiety membership. This fact, and the need also to indicate the generation, and sometimes the sex, of the reference or ego (i.e., the person from whom the relationship is expressed), and occasionally the other’s age relative to the ego (i.e., as being younger or older), provide the keys to understanding the Njamal system.

    One consequence is that a young Njamal man calls by the same name, njuba, his mother’s brother’s daughter (MoBrDa) and his father’s sister’s daughter (FaSiDa), which are both English cousin. But he uses turda for his father’s brother’s daughter (FaBrDa) and his mother’s sister’s daughter (MoSiDa) when both are older than he is. He calls any such daughters who are younger than he is maraga. All of these are cousins in English. He may marry a njuba, since a cross-cousin is of the opposite moiety, but he cannot marry a turda or a maraga, a parallel cousin of the same moiety. Moiety membership is the over- riding consideration in the classification system, being stronger than sex. For example, a term like maili is marked as ‘male,’ e.g., FaFa, FaMoHu, or FaMoBrWiBr when used to refer to someone in an ascending generation and in the same moiety. In a descending generation, however, maili is also used to designate membership in the same moiety, but in this case it can be applied to both males and females, to DaDaHu, BrSoDa, and DaSoWiSi.

    In such an approach, we collect the various kinship terms in use in a particular society and then attempt to determine the basic components of each term. We may go even further. For example, as Hudson (1996, pp. 85–6) points out, in various societies, including the Seminole Indians of Florida and Oklahoma and the Trobriand Islanders of the Pacific, a single term may refer to a very different type of relationship, e.g., father (Fa), father’s brother (FaBr), and so on to include even father’s father’s sister’s son’s son (FaFaSiSoSo), but to exclude father’s father (FaFa). Hudson points out that the key to understanding such a system is to assume that there is some typical concept as ‘father’ and that there are certain ‘equivalence rules’ such that (a) a man’s sister is equivalent to his mother; (b) siblings of the same sex are equivalent to each other; and (c) half-siblings are equivalent to full siblings. Since same-sex siblings are equivalent, ‘father’s brother’ equals ‘father.’ The complicated ‘father’s father’s sister’s son’s son’ reduces to the term for ‘father’ In this system the same term is used for all the relationships shown in the table. We might feel it strange that one should refer to so many different kinds of relationship with a single term, but this is because we live in very different circumstances, in which not knowing who your father’s father’s sister’s son’s son is may be more usual than knowing this information. Then too, having to use such a potent term as father to refer to that person, who may well be younger than oneself, would cause us additional concern. Some people do, of course, use father to people other than their male biological parents, e.g., to in-laws, adoptive parents, and priests; but these usages tend to be marked, i.e., rather special, in ways that the above usage is not.

    It is important to remember that when a term like father, brother, or older brother is used in a kinship system, it carries with it ideas about how such people ought to behave toward others in the society that uses that system. Fathers, brothers, and older brothers are assumed to have certain rights and duties. In practice, of course, they may behave otherwise. It is the kinship system which determines who is called what; it is not the behavior of individuals which leads them to be called this or that.

    As social conditions change, we can expect kinship systems to change to reflect the new conditions. The profound social change in Russian society in the last century produced certain changes in Russian kinship designation. At one time it was very important to identify certain in-laws. There were separate words for your wife’s brother, shurin, and for your brother’s wife, nevestka. In modern Russian these unitary terms are no longer used. Instead, the phrases brat zheny ‘brother of wife’ and zhena brata ‘wife of brother’ are used. Like- wise, yatrov ‘husband’s brother’s wife’ has totally disappeared, and the term svoyak is now used to refer to any male relative by marriage when previously it could be used only for your wife’s sister’s husband. It is now no longer necessary to refer constantly to such relatives or to be so precise as to a particular relationship. Changing family structures have removed them from daily contact. The new longer phrasal terms also indicate the current lack of importance given to certain kinship relationships, in keeping with a general linguistic principle that truly important objects and relationships tend to be expressed through single words rather than through phrases.

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    The above discussion of kinship terminology shows how basic are certain systems of classification in language and society. Language itself has its own classes of units: vowels and consonants; nouns and verbs; statements and questions; and so on. People also use language to classify and categorize various aspects of the world in which they live, but they do not always classify things the way scientists do; they often develop systems which we call folk taxonomies rather than scientific classifications. A folk taxonomy is a way of classifying a certain part of reality so that it makes some kind of sense to those who have to deal with it. Typically, such taxonomies involve matters like naturally occurring flora and fauna in the environment, but they may also involve other matters too (see Berlin, 1992).

    One of the best-known studies of a folk taxonomy is Frake’s account (1961) of the terms that the Subanun of Mindanao in the southern Philippines use to describe disease. There is a considerable amount of disease among the Subanun and they discuss it at length, particularly diseases of the skin. Effective treatment of any disease depends on proper diagnosis, but that itself depends on recognizing the symptoms for what they are. Much effort, therefore, goes into discussing symptoms. As Frake says (pp. 130–1):

    “The ‘real’ world of disease presents a continuum of symptomatic variation which does not always fit neatly into conceptual pigeonholes. Consequently the diagnosis of a particular condition may evoke considerable debate: one reason a patient normally solicits diagnostic advice from a variety of people. But the debate does not concern the definition of a diagnostic category, for that is clear and well known; it concerns the exemplariness of a particular set of symptoms to the definition.”

    The Subanun have a variety of categories available to them when they dis- cuss a particular set of symptoms. These categories allow them to discuss those symptoms at various levels of generality. For example, nuka can refer to skin disease in general but it can also mean ‘eruption.’ A nuka may be further distinguished as a beldut ‘sore’ rather than a meoabag ‘inflammation’ or buni ‘ringworm,’ and then the particular beldut can be further distinguished as a telemaw ‘distal ulcer’ or even a telemaw glai ‘shallow distal ulcer.’ What we have is a hierarchy of terms with a term like nuka at the top and telemaw glai at the bottom. For example, in this case a telemaw glai contrasts with a telemaw bilgun ‘deep distal ulcer.’ As Frake says (p. 131):

    “Conceptually the disease world, like the plant world, exhaustively divides into a set of mutually exclusive categories. Ideally, every illness either fits into one category or is describable as a conjunction of several categories. Subanun may debate, or not know, the placement of a particular case, but to their minds that reflects a deficiency in their individual knowledge, not a deficiency in the classificatory system. As long as he accepts it as part of his habitat and not ‘foreign,’ a Subanun, when confronted with an illness, a plant, or an animal, may say he does not know the name. He will never say there is no name.”

    Diagnosis is the process of finding the appropriate name for a set of symptoms. Once that name is found, treatment can follow. However, we can see that the success of that treatment depends critically not only on its therapeutic value but on the validity of the system of classification for diseases: that last system is a ‘folk’ one, not a scientific one.

    Diagnosis is the process of finding the appropriate name for a set of symptoms. Once that name is found, treatment can follow. However, we can see that the success of that treatment depends critically not only on its therapeutic value but on the validity of the system of classification for diseases: that last system is a ‘folk’ one, not a scientific one.

    Burling (1970, pp. 14–17) has applied this same kind of analysis of part of the vocabulary of a language to the pronoun system in Palaung, a language spoken in Burma. There are eleven pronouns altogether, and these can be plotted as in table 9.2, using the components shown in that table. Such an analysis indicates that we can associate certain phonological features we find in the pronoun sys- tem to components of meaning: -ar ‘duality,’ -y ‘more than two,’ and the initial y-, p-, and g- related to various combinations of ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ of ‘speaker’ and ‘hearer.’ The analysis also shows us that pronouns referring to a single person (Ñ, mi, and În) exist as a separate phonological set.

    Analyses into taxonomies and components are useful in that they help us to organize data in ways that appear to indicate how speakers use their languages to organize the world around them. The analyses show how systematic much of that behavior is and do so in a rather surprising way. A folk taxonomy of disease is something that develops with little or no conscious attention. That it can be shown to have a complex hierarchical structure is there- fore a rather surprising finding. That the Palaung pronoun system is also as ‘neat’ as it is in the way it makes use of its various components is also intriguing. Evidently, language and culture are related very closely, and much of the relationship remains hidden from view to most of us. Only rarely do we get glimpses of it, and even then we may not know quite what to make of our discoveries.

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    Our world is a world of color but the amount of color varies from place to place and time to time. A January flight from Acapulco, Mexico, to Toronto, Canada, takes one from a sun-drenched array of colors to a gray drabness. Except to those blinded to it, color is all around but it is not everywhere treated in the same way. The terms people use to describe color give us another means of exploring the relationships between different languages and cultures. The color spectrum is a physical continuum showing no breaks at all. Yet we parcel it out in bits and pieces and assign names to the various component parts: green, blue, yellow, red, and so on. We also find that we sometimes cannot directly translate color words from one language to another without introducing subtle changes in meaning, e.g., English brown and French brun. An interesting issue is how colors are referred to in different languages. Are color terms arbitrary, or is there a general pattern? If there is a pattern, what are its characteristics and why might it exist? Berlin and Kay (1969) tried to answer questions such as these, drawing on data from a wide variety of languages.

    All languages make use of basic color terms. A basic color term must be a single word, e.g., blue or yellow, not some combination of words, e.g., light blue or pale yellow. Nor must it be the obvious sub-division of some higher-order term, as both crimson and scarlet are of red. It must have quite general use; i.e., it must not be applied only to a very narrow range of objects, as, for example, blond is applied in English almost exclusively to the color of hair and wood. Also, the term must not be highly restricted in the sense that it is used by only a specific sub-set of speakers, such as interior decorators or fashion writers.

    According to Berlin and Kay, an analysis of the basic color terms found in a wide variety of languages reveals certain very interesting patterns. If a language has only two terms, they are for equivalents to black and white (or dark and light). If a third is added, it is red. The fourth and fifth terms will be yellow and green, but the order may be reversed. The sixth and seventh terms are blue and brown. Finally, as in English, come terms like gray, pink, orange, and purple, but not in any particular order. In this view there are only eleven basic color terms (although Russian is acknowledged to have twelve since it has two in the blue region: sinij ‘dark blue’ and goluboj ‘light blue’). All other terms for colors are combinations like grayish-brown, variations like scarlet, modifications like fire-engine red, and finally the kinds of designations favored by paint and cosmetic manufacturers.

    An attempt has been made to relate the extent of color terminology in specific languages with the level of cultural and technical complexity of the societies in which these languages are spoken. There is some reason to believe that communities that show little technological development employ the fewest color terms; e.g., the Jalé of New Guinea have words corresponding to dark and light alone. On the other hand, technologically advanced societies have terms corresponding to all eleven mentioned above. Societies in intermediate stages have intermediate numbers: for example, the Tiv of Nigeria have three terms; the Garo of Assam and the Hanunóo of the Philippines have four; and the Burmese have seven.

    One approach to investigating color terminology in languages is predicated on the scientific fact that the color spectrum is an objective reality: it is ‘out there,’ waiting to be dealt with and, moreover, we know that humans possess rods and cones in their retinas specifically dedicated to color perception. Consequently, if you ask speakers of a language to name chips from the Munsell array of color chips you can access their knowledge of what color means to them. The claim here is that human cognition is so alike everywhere that everyone approaches the spectrum in the same way. Moreover, as cultural and technological changes occur, it becomes more and more necessary for people to differentiate within the color spectrum. Instead of picking bits and pieces of the spectrum at random as it were and naming them, people, no matter what languages they speak, progressively sub-divide the whole spectrum in a systematic way. The similar naming practices appear to follow from human cognitive needs that are the same everywhere.

    Lucy (1997) is highly critical of the above claim, declaring that you cannot find out what ‘color’ means to speakers by simply asking them to label Munsell color chips. He says (p. 341): ‘color is not “out there” in the light but in our perceptual interpretation of light, . . . communicatively relevant encodings of visual experience do not lie “in there” in the biology but in socially anchored linguistic systems.’ In this alternate view, color systems are social constructions rather than biologically determined ones. The issue is still unresolved.

    We do know that if speakers of any language are asked to identify the parts of the spectrum, they find one system of such identification much easier to manipulate than another. They find it difficult to draw a line to separate that part of the spectrum they would call yellow from that part they would call orange, or similarly to separate blue from green. That is, assigning precise borders, or marking discontinuities, between neighboring colors is neither an easy task for individuals nor one on which groups of individuals achieve a remarkable consensus. However, they do find it easy, and they do reach a better consensus, if they are required to indicate some part of the spectrum they would call typically orange, typically blue, or typically green. That is, they have consistent and uniform ideas about ‘typical’ colors. Speakers of different languages exhibit such behavior, always provided that the appropriate color terms are in their languages. As we will see in the following section, we can use this idea that people can and do classify in such a way to propose still another approach to relating language and culture.

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    Rosch (1976) has proposed an alternative to the view that concepts are com- posed from sets of features which necessarily and sufficiently define instances of a concept. Rosch proposes that concepts are best viewed as prototypes: a ‘bird’ is not best defined by reference to a set of features that refer to such matters as wings, warm-bloodedness, and egg-laying characteristics, but rather by reference to typical instances, so that a ‘prototypical bird’ is something more like a robin than it is like a toucan, penguin, ostrich, or even eagle. This is the theory of prototypes. As we saw in the preceding section, individuals do have ideas of typical instances of colors, and these ideas are remarkably similar among vari- ous cultural groups. Such similarity in views, however, is found not only in reference to birds and colors.

    A variety of experiments has shown that people do in fact classify quite consistently objects of various kinds according to what they regard as being typical instances; for example, (1) furniture, so that, whereas a chair is a typical item of furniture, an ashtray is not; (2) fruit, so that, whereas apples and plums are typical, coconuts and olives are not; and (3) clothing, so that, whereas coats and trousers are typical items, things like bracelets and purses are not (Clark and Clark, 1977, p. 464). The remarkably uniform behavior that people exhibit in such tasks cannot be accounted for by a theory which says that concepts are formed from sets of defining features. Such a theory fails to explain why some instances are consistently held to be more typical or central than others when all exhibit the same set of defining features.

    Hudson (1996, pp. 75–8) believes that prototype theory has much to offer sociolinguists. He believes it leads to an easier account of how people learn to use language, particularly linguistic concepts, from the kinds of instances they come across. He says (p. 77) that:

    “... a prototype-based concept can be learned on the basis of a very small number of instances – perhaps a single one – and without any kind of formal definition, whereas a feature-based definition would be very much harder to learn since a much larger number of cases, plus a number of non-cases, would be needed before the learner could work out which features were necessary and which were not.”

    Moreover, such a view allows for a more flexible approach to understanding how people actually use language. In that usage certain concepts are necessarily ‘fuzzy,’ as the theory predicts they will be, but that very fuzziness allows speakers to use language creatively.

    According to Hudson, prototype theory may even be applied to the social situations in which speech occurs. He suggests that, when we hear a new linguistic item, we associate with it who typically seems to use it and what, apparently, is the typical occasion of its use. Again, we need very few instances – even possibly just a single one – to be able to do this. Of course, if the particular instance is atypical and we fail to recognize this fact, we could be in for some discomfort at a later time when we treat it as typical.

    Prototype theory, then, offers us a possible way of looking not only at how concepts may be formed, i.e., at the cognitive dimensions of linguistic behavior, but also at how we achieve our social competence in the use of language. We judge circumstances as being typically this or typically that, and we place people in the same way. One person appears to be a ‘typical’ teacher, jock, burnout, teenager, or American, etc., while another does not. We then attempt to use language appropriate to the other as we perceive him or her and to the situation we are in. There is considerable merit to such an approach to attempting to understand how conversations, for example, proceed.

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    Taboo and Euphemism

    In one sense this lecture has been about ‘meaning,’ specifically about how cultural meanings are expressed in language. But language is used to avoid saying certain things as well as to express them. Certain things are not said, not because they cannot be, but because ‘people don’t talk about those things’; or, if those things are talked about, they are talked about in very roundabout ways. In the first case we have instances of linguistic taboo; in the second we have the employment of euphemisms so as to avoid mentioning certain matters directly.

    Taboo is the prohibition or avoidance in any society of behavior believed to be harmful to its members in that it would cause them anxiety, embarrassment, or shame. It is an extremely strong politeness constraint. Consequently, so far as language is concerned, certain things are not to be said or certain objects can be referred to only in certain circumstances, for example, only by certain people, or through deliberate circumlocutions, i.e., euphemistically. Of course, there are always those who are prepared to break the taboos in an attempt to show their own freedom from such social constraints or to expose the taboos as irrational and unjustified, as in certain movements for ‘free speech.’

    Tabooed subjects can vary widely: sex; death; excretion; bodily functions; religious matters; and politics. Tabooed objects that must be avoided or used carefully can include your mother-in-law, certain game animals, and use of your left hand (the origin of sinister). Crowley (1992, pp. 155–6) describes how in the Kabana language of Papua New Guinea people typically have personal names that also refer to everyday objects. However, there is also a strong restriction against saying the names of one’s in-laws. What happens, therefore, when you want to refer to the actual thing that your in-law is named after even though you are not using the word as a personal name? For such cases the language has a set of special words which are either words in the Kabana language itself (but with different meanings) or words copied from neighbor- ing languages with the same meanings. For example, the Kabana word for a particular kind of fish is urae, so if your in-law is called Urae this fish must be referred to as moi, the Kabana word for ‘taro’. The Kabana word for ‘crocodile’ is puaea but you cannot use this word if your in-law is called Puaea and you must refer to the crocodile as bagale, a borrowing from a neighboring language.

    English also has its taboos, and most people who speak English know what these are and observe the ‘rules.’ When someone breaks the rules, that rupture may arouse considerable comment, although not perhaps quite as much today as formerly, as when Shaw’s use of bloody in Pygmalion or the use of damn in the movie Gone with the Wind aroused widespread public comment. Standards and norms change. Linguistic taboos are also violated on occasion to draw attention to oneself, or to show contempt, or to be aggressive or provocative, or to mock authority – or, according to Freud, on occasion as a form of verbal seduction, e.g., ‘talking dirty.’ The penalty for breaking a linguistic taboo can be severe, for blasphemy and obscenity are still crimes in many jurisdictions, but it is hardly likely to cost you your life, as the violation of certain non-linguistic taboos, e.g., incest taboos, might in certain places in the world.

    Haas (1951) has pointed out that certain language taboos seem to arise from bilingual situations. She cites the examples of the Creeks of Oklahoma, whose avoidance of the Creek words fákki ‘soil,’ apíswa ‘meat,’ and apíssi ‘fat’ increased as they used more and more English. A similar avoidance can sometimes be noticed among Thai students learning English in English-speaking countries. They avoid Thai words like fag ‘sheath’ and phrig ‘(chili) pepper’ in the presence of anglophones because of the phonetic resemblance of these words to certain taboo English words. Thai speakers also often find it difficult to say the English words yet and key because they sound very much like the Thai words jed, a vulgar word for ‘to have intercourse,’ and khîi ‘excrement.’ In certain circum- stances, personal names may even be changed as a speaker of one language finds that his or her name causes embarrassment in a different linguistic framework, e.g., the Vietnamese name Phuc in an anglophone group.

    The late twentieth century may have seen a considerable change in regard to linguistic taboo – in the English-speaking world at least – as certain social constraints have loosened. However, that decline may have been more than matched by the marked increase in the use of euphemistic language, the ‘dressing up’ in language of certain areas in life to make them more presentable, more polite, and more palatable to public taste. Euphemistic words and expressions allow us to talk about unpleasant things and disguise or neutralize the unpleasantness, e.g., the subjects of sickness, death and dying, unemployment, and criminality. They also allow us to give labels to unpleasant tasks and jobs in an attempt to make them sound almost attractive. Euphemism is endemic in our society: the glorification of the commonplace and the elevation of the trivial. We are constantly renaming things and repackaging them to make them sound ‘better’; we must remember that Orwell’s version of the future relied heavily on characterizing the inhabitants of that future world as having fallen victim to its euphemisms, its renaming of reality to fit a new order of society. It is even possible to argue that ‘politically correct’ language is euphemism in a new guise.

    In a series of publications Nadel (particularly 1954) has described how the Nupe of West Africa must be among the most prudish people in the world, distinguishing sharply between expressions that are suitable for polite conversation and those that are not. They constantly resort to circumlocutions and euphemisms in order to avoid direct mention of matters pertaining to parts of the body, bodily functions, sex, and so on. At the same time, however, they show an intense fascination with language and are prepared to discuss various linguistic complexities at length. It seems that they are quite aware of what they are doing when they use circumlocutions and euphemisms. As Nadel says (p. 57), ‘When they employ metaphors or otherwise manipulate expressions, they are always fully aware of the semantic implications.’ Apparently, the Nupe have developed indirect ways of referring to tabooed matters, ways they can employ on those occasions when it is possible to free themselves from normal constraints, e.g., in certain kinds of story-telling or on specific festive occasions.

    Taboo and euphemism affect us all. We may not be as deeply conscious of the effects as are the Nupe, but affect us they do. We all probably have a few things we refuse to talk about and still others we do not talk about directly. We may have some words we know but never – or hardly ever – use because they are too emotional for either us or others. While we may find ‘some thoughts too deep for words’ – something hard to prove – others we definitely take care not to express at all even though we know the words, or else we express ourselves on them very indirectly. Each social group is different from every other in how it constrains linguistic behavior in this way, but constrain it in some such way it certainly does. Perhaps one linguistic universal is that no social group uses language quite uninhibitedly. If so, it would be intriguing to hypothesize why this is the case. What useful function does such inhibition serve?

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    Further Reading

    Some basic books on language and culture are Foley (1997), Duranti (1997), Shaul and Furbee (1998), and Brenneis and Macaulay (1996). See Lucy (1992a), Lee (1996), Gumperz and Levinson (1996), and Pütz and Verspoor (2000) for more on the linguistic relativity hypothesis. A basic collection of Whorf’s writings is Carroll (1956). There is an extensive literature on kinship systems, e.g., Tyler (1969); Burling (1970) provides a good brief introduction. Hudson (1996) discusses prototype theory and Blount (1995) and Tsohatzidis (1990) are useful collections of papers. Berlin and Kay (1969) is a basic source for color terminology. Taboo and euphemism are also widely discussed: Farb (1974) and Mencken (1919) are well worth consulting. See Lakoff and Johnson (1980) on metaphors we live by.