What are languages, and what role do languages play in cultures?

Various forms of written language
Various forms of written language

Language is defined as a set of sounds, combination of sounds, and symbols that are used for communication.Languages do not merely differ in the technical sense across linguistic boundaries, but present various concepts vital to the existence of a culture. Most linguists agree that there are about 5000-6000 languages, with over 1,000 in the continent of Africa alone.

The following PowerPoint, as well as the other slideshow presentations on this page, is meant to accompany the textual information provided. This presentation provides an introduction to the geographic concept of language, a quick activity, and information as well as analysis:



Language, on this page, is analyzed in the context of culture. Thus, to understand language, one must understand culture, and vice-versa. Culture is the sum total of the knowledge, attitudes, and habitual behavior patterns shared and transmitted by the members of a society (This is anthropologist Ralph Linton’s definition; hundreds of others exist). Culture represents our very expression of existence. Every
thing - what we eat, our clothing, our social interactions, and even the pronounce our words, mark our culture. As such, countries with diverse cultures usually have influences of cultures from various geographic regions, blending in one area. Malaysia, for example, is an island/peninsula nation with a history of interactions from mainland Asia, particularly China, Bumiputeras (indigenous Malays), Indian immigrants and other South/[East] Asian groups.
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Art of different complex language

The role that languages play in culture is infinite. Language unites a group of people. Language is significant in identifying cultures in that it is not just a way to communicate, but is a tool that expresses a set of beliefs, interpretation of the surrounding world, and our concepts of reality. For example, in some East Asian languages, the past, present, and future all use the same tense, representing chronology as less significant than in other cultures. Some native African tongues have no word or concept of a
God, explaining certain animist practices.
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Language has evolved and developed alongside humans.

A culture without language is actually not a culture at all. A language is what carries a groups way of life from one generation to another. Traditions, values, and entire religions are preserved by language. Historically, colonization has infringed upon natural patterns of language. Much of Africa, for example, was compelled to adopt the language of their colonizers after their independence for the sake of unity, since national borders were drawn haphazardly by European colonizers. Such colonizers did not recognize the ethnolinguistic and tribal diversity of their ex-colonies. The West African nation of Nigeria, for example, has over 370 cultural groups, and over 500 different languages, agglomerated into arbitrary borders. Consequently, the government of Nigeria uses English as its standard language, or the variant of a language that a country's political and intellectual elite seek to promote as the norm for the use in schools, government, the media, and other aspects of public life. English can very well also represent the nation's official language, the language selected, often by the educated and politically powerful elite, to promote internal cohesion; usually the language of the courts and government.


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Key Questions:
  1. What are languages, and what role do languages play in cultures?
  2. Why are languages distributed the way they are?
  3. How do languages diffuse?
  4. What role does language play in making places?

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