is the key means by which culture is transmitted and a cultural identity gained.
Differences in language mean differences in culture and are a potential source
of misunderstanding and conflict between peoples.
The geographic study
of language focuses on distributions of language and on the evolution of languages
and language patterns over time and space. Studies focus especially on source
areas and paths of diffusion.
Contact between languages is increasingly
common in our world economy, and this causes languages to be in constant change.
Still, concerted efforts are made by some groups to preserve their linguistic
Significance of Language
a system of spoken communication using sounds to transmit meanings. Most languages
are almost always matched by a written system, and language is a critical component
of cultural identity. And many languages have borrowed a writing system from another
language. For example many Western European languages including English, French,
Spanish and German use the Latin alphabet; Japan borrowed the Chinese character
set. Turkey is a interesting example; soon after World War I they changed their
character set entirely, yet the spoken Turkish language stayed the same. And many
countries that once had colonial masters had a language (or at least a character
set) forced on them, particularly in the Pacific Islands.
languages can be extremely difficult. One reason is that meanings are often contained
in phrases rather than single words. For example, translation of the words in
the phrase "out in the field" to another language will miss the connotative
meaning entirely. Values, experiences, and meanings of a cultural group are contained
in its language. Finding similar words for similar meanings in different languages
is one key to determining if they evolved from a single root language.
Estimates of the number of languages spoken today range from about 3,000 up to
6,500 because of differences in differentiating distinct languages from the dialects
of one single language. Dialects are versions of one language with different
vocabularies, pronunciations, accents, and sometimes different syntaxes; most
dialects are regionally based, such as the Southern accent in the United States,
but dialects can be class- or gender-based. The majority of languages have relatively
few speakers, numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Mandarin Chinese
has the most native speakers, those for whom it is their first language,
but it is not the most commonly spoken language. English is the primary or second
language of choice for more people because of the legacy of the British Empire
and American dominance in economics, military, power and computers.
the last several centuries, hundreds of languages and the knowledge they contain
has become extinct as the last speakers have died. Younger generations learned
other languages so that they could participate in the larger society and consequently
adopted different cultural identities. And this is a growing trend caused by globalisation.
And the cost to keep languages alive is very high. Examples of where Government
has intervened to promote their native languages (at huge costs to tax payers)
include Scotland, Canada New Zealand and Australia.
In the United States,
European settlers, with their weapons and diseases, caused the disappearance of
of probably 200 languages, and their speakers; more recently, in 1995, the last
speaker of North Pomo died in California, and the language died with her. The
loss of these and other languagesincluding Gothic, Manx, and Cornish in
Europemeans the loss of meanings and experiences that were contained in
Researchers in the Amazon Basin who are engaged in
chemical prospecting, that is searching for medicinal plants, question native
Brazilians whose languages contain the knowledge of local plants and their uses.
evolve from a single language as populations separate and the frequency and intensity
of interactions decline. Over time, if the vocabulary, pronunciations, and accents
of the dialects become sufficiently different, then they have evolved into related
but different languages, and the speakers into members of related but different
cultures. British English and American English have different accents and use
different vocabulariesBritish say "tap" rather than faucet, for
But within both the United Kingdom and the United States regional
dialects exist. East and West Midland are two dialects in the United Kingdom,
and Southern and Bronx dialects are found in the United States.
who spoke Latin, settled in what is now Spain, France and Portugal; dialects arose
in each of these Roman provinces, influenced by local conditions and populations,
and became Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
Contact between speakers
of different languagesor in some cases between dialectscreates difficulties
in communication and generates a need for mutual intelligible language. A simplified
version of one language, called a pidgin language, may be used during exchanges
between different cultures, but not among members of the same culture. A pidgin
English, for example, developed in the Caribbean for use between African slaves
and English speakers. If a pidgin is used enough to become the primary language
of a population, then it becomes a creole. Swahili, which evolved from
Arabic and Bantu languages, in eastern Africa, and Bazaar Malay in Malaysia are
creoles. Lingua francasliterally "Frankish languages"are
existing languages adopted by members of different cultures, and are an alternative
to pidgins and creoles. Several
lingua francas have been used in different regions at different times. Latin,
Arabic, and Hindi were or are lingua francas. Lingala is now used in the western
Congo, and English is the most commonly used lingua franca today.
a country is formed from a mixture of cultural groups with different languages,
polyglot state is created and an official language may be needed. In a
number of former British colonies; such as Fiji, Ghana, and India, English has
become an official language to enable communication among the diverse groups and
to avoid reognising one tribal language above others. French, Dutch, and Portuguese
are used as official languages in many of the former colonies of those countries.
Cynically this was very convenient for the colonial masters who seldom bothered
to learn the native languages.
Language is also evident in the cultural
landscape as place-names, and the choice of language on signs is another visible
symbol of culture on the landscape. Toponymy, the study of place-names,
can reveal the history of a region and the values of the people. Throughout the
United States places have been named by immigrants in honour of their native lands,
such as New Rochelle, New York (France) and New Bern, North Carolina (Switzerland).
Pakistan's capital of Islamabad, translated as "the place of Islam,"
is clear evidence of that countries religious values.
Different language evolved over perhaps the last 200,000 years
as members of cultural groups separated and language divergence occurred. The
earliest languages have long been extinct, but by comparing vocabularies and sound
shifts among modern languages some earlier languages, called proto-languages,
have been reconstructed. One protolanguage, Nostratic, spoken perhaps 15,000 years
ago, has been reconstructed from such modern languages as English. Turkish, Finnish,
Arabic and scores of other modern languages; the original location of Nostratic,
in the Middle East, has not yet been determined.
Languages that diverged
from a single ancestral language are related and can be grouped into language
families. The Indo-European family of which English, Russian, Hindi
and Greek are members evolved from proto-Indo-European, a language that apparently
evolved in turn from Nostratic perhaps 9,000 years ago. Different languages diverge
at different times, so some languages are more closely relates than others. For
example, English and German, both of which evolved from a proto-Germanic language,
are more closely related to each other than to Spanish, Italian and other Romance
languages, which evolved from Latin.
The emergence of new languages was
probably never a smooth transition but involved a number of competing influences.
The English language can be traced to Germanic tribesespecially the Angles,
Saxons, and Juteswho invaded Britain some 1,500 years ago. English was also
influenced by Latin which was brought along with Christianity about 1,400 years
ago, and later by French, brought by William the Conqueror in 1066. The Vikings
also influenced the development of the language during their invasions of Britain
from the 9th to the 11th centuries. Today's English, of which British Received
pronunciation (BRP) is the standard dialect in the United Kingdom, is the result
of 1,500 years of linguistic development and cultural evolution.
the routes and timing by which members of a language family diffused into new
locations and can be estimated from linguistic similarities, the causes of the
diffusion are not as easily determined. For example, two major theories have been
used to explain the spread of Indo-European languages from their core area: the
conquest theory and the agricultural theory. According to the conquest theory,
Indo-European evolved among pastoral nomads in the steppes of what is now Ukraine
and spread west into Europe as nomads conquered neighbouring populations. More
recently, L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Robert Ammerman proposed the agricultural
theory, arguing that Indo-European started among farmers in the Caucasus Mountain
region who migrated slowly outward to Iran and India as well as to Russia and
Europe. The linguistic, genetic, and geographic data available are not yet conclusive
as to which, if either, theory is more correct.
The current spatial distribution
of language families reveals the global spread of Indo-Europeanthe most
widespread of all language familiesand a set of large and small regions
dominated by about 20 other language families. Even a few centuries ago, before
European colonisation overtook the Americas and the Niger-Congo speaking Bantu
peoples expanded southward in Africa, this map would have been far different.
Minor language families, from which few modern languages evolved, also exist but
do not appear on global scale maps. Within Europe, for example, the Basque language
is found in a small region from Biarritz, France to Bilbao, Spain, and is unrelated
to any other known language, suggesting long isolation of this cultural group.
The ability to trace languages back to earlier forms enables geographers
and linguists also to trace populations back to earlier locations. Linking modern
to an ancestral group provides evidence of earlier migrations and may be useful
in suggesting genetic similarities. Natives of Madagascar, for example, speak
an Austronesian language that diffused westward from the Pacific, and links them
with the Filipino and Vietnamese populations. In recent centuries, however, the
diffusion of languages has become increasingly associated with global economic
and political influences rather than with the relocation of cultural groups.
The importance of language as a cultural identifier
involves language influences in numerous political conflicts, ranging from regional
autonomy to the selection of languages in which school classes should be taught.
As a symbol of their culture, members of an ethnic group may seek to protect their
language from being overwhelmed by the language of the dominant society; in France,
for example, efforts by speakers of Provençal to protect their language
were finally granted government support for bilingual education in 1990. Dominant
societies, on the other hand, may try to reduce the use and importance of minority
languages in order to acculturate members of minority groups and strengthen the
larger, national identity. Thus, before the break up of the Soviet Union learning
the Russian language was compulsory in all Soviet republics.
In the United States, which has as yet no official language, numerous language-based
political issues have arisen in recent years. The choice of which language(s)
to use in grade schools has become contentious as the number of Spanish-speaking
residents has increased by about a half a million per annum for the last two decades,
and as some schools have defined Black English Vernacular, referred to as Ebonics,
as a separate language necessitating bilingual education. Several groups, such
as English First and English Only oppose the use of other languages and seek to
have national legislation passed to establish English as the sole official language
of the United States.
In a number of countries, languages that had been
suppressed are now being revived for future generations. In Wales ("Cymru"
in Welsh ( and Ireland ("Eire" in Gaelic) the number of speakers of
Welsh and Irish Gaelic is growing because of compulsory language education. In
the 1990s a number of cities in Western India were renamed in the regional Gujarati
language in response to a Hindi cultural revival; Bombay, for example, is now
Mumbai. The struggle for greater adoption of French within Quebec resulted in
the passage of Bill 101 in 1977, requiring education of most immigrant children
in French, and the use of French in workplaces, on signs and in public places.
English as the world's lingua franca is seen as a threat to some cultures
for whom language is symbolically very important. Beginning in 1975, the French
government has attempted to protect its language from the intrusion of English
words, banning them from television and radio broadcasts if French terms were
available. In the 1990s, not only has the French government made French its official
language, but it has also instituted laws to prevent English vocabulary from invading
the French language.
Wherever an ethnic group is seeking greater political
or economic power within a dominant society, language divisions may arise; this
is usually evidence of the larger cultural split rather than the cause. The split
of the island of Cyprus between the Turkish north and the Greek south in 1974
is easily mapped linguistically, but the cultural differences across the Greek
Line dividing the island are far more complex. In Belgium, a bilingual and bicultural
country, the Flemish north and Walloon south are divided by economics and history
as well as by language and culture.
Language is critical to perpetuating
a culture and its values, symbolism, and meanings.
Language is often used
by one culture to dominate another. Through the 17th and 18th centuries there
were many examples as European powers colonised the lands they 'discovered'. The
native populations were forced to learn the language of their colonial masters.
And as mentioned earlier, the expansion of the Soviet Union through the 20th century
saw the Russian language forced on millions of people across Eastern Europe and