Dr. Angelle Khachadoorian

AFCLC Associate Professor of Anthropology

Topic: Sociolinguistics – Patterned, Lived, Adapted

Culture is like an intricately woven cloth, with individual “threads” that wind, tie in and merge with each other. These cultural threads are all of the different sub-components of a culture. No portion of a culture is stand-alone. Rather, there are links and ties between each facet, such as the beliefs people share, the symbols that have meaning to them, the social structures in their communities, and the way they view universal human concepts such “family” or “learning.”

All cultures are complex and multifaceted. There are no simple cultures – just people trying to oversimplify what they’re describing. Oversimplification is appealing because these cultural threads are often difficult for us to “see” when we look at the whole picture of a culture. Because all human cultures have some threads in common – such as the belief in kinship, regardless of how a family is specifically defined –we can attempt to get a closer look at a culture by pulling out and analyzing some of these smaller parts. The Air Force Culture and Language Center labels these parts “domains.” Generally speaking, all cultural domains interact with all other cultural domains. They tie together to create the complex systems that we know as the world’s cultures. One fundamental cultural practice that can be pulled out and examined fairly easily is language. Language is a particularly interesting component of culture because of three qualities that it shares with culture as a whole.

Probably the most important characteristic common to culture and to language is that they are both patterned. Languages have sets of rules that are so fundamental that we teach them to children in their earliest grades at school. We call these rules a language’s “grammar.” A grammar can have rules that define everything from the order of words in a sentence (or even whether word order matters), what sounds are allowed in the language, what is considered “proper” speech versus “informal” speech, and what rules are never broken and which are flexible. (For example, we break the “i before e except after c” rule every time we deign to drink caffeine with a neighbor). Similarly, we can see culture as having a sort of grammar as well. Cultures have rules – mostly unspoken – that define what is right and wrong to do, say, value or think. A culture provides us with what sociologist Erving Goffman labeled “social scripts” – standardized rules on how to behave in different situations, and how to respond when someone “goes off script” and breaks a social rule.

The rules of a language have to be fairly rigid in order for our sentences to make sense. In English, word order is important. There is a significant difference in the meaning of the sentence, “The dog licked the man” and the sentence “The man licked the dog.” One sentence describes something so normal that it is unremarkable. The other sentence makes a reader want to grab a napkin to wipe off their tongue.

A grammar tells us what sounds and spellings are typical or not in a language. This consistency gives speakers guidance on how to pronounce new words when they come across them. In languages with predictable spelling, such as Spanish, someone hearing a word for the first time could easily figure out how to spell it correctly.

A word with an unusual sound or spelling can signal to linguists that it might have been borrowed from another language. The “zh” sound, common to Russian and French, is uncommon in English. I can only think of five words where it occurs in our language: mirage, visage, dressage, portage and garage. The sound and spelling of these words indicate they are borrowed from French. (My challenge to readers: can you think of any other words in English with the “zh” sound?).

English has absorbed so many words from other languages, it is hard to make spelling rules that apply consistently. We cannot make a rule that says ‘all two syllable words in English that end with “age” have the “zh” sound.’ Even though they are spelled virtually identically, “garage” and “garbage” sound quite different! Our conclusion? Due to the history of the English language, the grammar for English emphasizes word order, but does not depend on standardized spelling.

Generally speaking, culture grammar is far more flexible than that of a language. Linguistic rules can be memorized from a book, without ever having to interact with speakers of that language. Cultural rules are more dependent on the specific situation, the other participants in the interaction, and the intended outcome. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “what should I do in this situation?” or “what is the polite thing to do?” you are experiencing questions with cultural grammar. Because a cultural grammar is more flexible than a linguistic one, I believe that if you truly screw up cultural rules, you are more likely to offend people than when you make a linguistic error.

Both culture and language have “proper” or “ideal” forms. Every culture has rules – some stated and some unspoken – about how people should act, and we teach those rules to children. We might believe strongly in those rules, even if we do not actually follow them in our daily lives. We know there are rules about not wearing white after Labor Day, always responding to a gift with a thank you card, or not laughing at your own jokes. Knowing a rule does not mean people actually follow the rule.   We call this difference “the Ideal versus the Real.” Experiencing the real-life way that people use culture and language will get you much closer to understanding a community, and their lives, values and motivations, than if you only understand the idealized, best-case-scenario version of either of these things.

Language and culture also share their need to be shared. All languages and all cultures need a set of active users or participants to maintain “health” and continue onto the next generation. Sometimes a community is discouraged, or even actively prevented, from passing on their language or culture. In response to this, the United Nations supports language rights for groups known as “linguistic minorities” (speakers of non-dominant languages) so that smaller communities do not lose their languages or their cultures.

Even though cultures and languages are shared by multiple individuals, not all members of a community (cultural or linguistic) know all aspects of that culture or language. You can speak your native tongue fluently and still not know all of the words in that language. Instead, speakers share enough words in their vocabularies that they can understand each other. A chemist and a chef who speak the same mother tongue might have very different professional vocabularies (even though their jobs do overlap quite a bit) but their everyday, common words are the same. They can understand each other, mostly, except where their professional values and terminologies do not intersect. (This gets into another topic for a different day: worldview.) The same holds true for culture members – they might not know all aspects of their collective culture, but they share foundational values, beliefs and behaviors. A chemist and a baker might see some things very differently (is a burnt loaf of bread a mistake or just an example of an interesting chemical reaction?) but they certainly can have a chat about the weather.

Maybe the most important characteristic that cultures and languages have in common is that they are both fluidly changing, adapting and developing, even throughout our own lifetimes. There is a difference though, mostly having to do with time. Cultural changes are typically slower than linguistic ones. New words enter our languages often. Yet, language can change slowly, too. We are tuned to new words suddenly entering the language, especially when they follow a significant culture change, but we are rarely aware of the subtler, longer-term changes that occur to words, accents, pronunciations and meanings. Listening to a reading of Chaucer’s works in the original Middle English will make you feel like you’re eavesdropping or in a dream – the words swim into and out of your hearing, and just when you think you might be grasping meaning, the accent or vocabulary will elude you again. And yet, it’s English. Just not our English, anymore. (An interesting side note: changes in language are easier to predict than changes in culture.) This tremendous adaptability is a strength of both culture and language. They are both constantly changing and being built and rebuilt to reflect our world. This is a healthy process. After all, things that are unchanging tend to get worn down over time.