The influence of social contacts on language and culture in a changing society

Essay, 2013

14 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of content

1 Introduction

2 Language and culture in Society

3 Change on culture and language by social contacts

4 Tok Pisin in Melanesia

5 dentity and Language

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The occurrence of social change is not always retraceable. The origin of these changes are not always obvious in terms of identifying the reasons of process. The phenomenon of change in a social context probably attracts more public notice than any other social issue. For centuries people have speculated about the causes of language change as such. How language develops over time and what culture has to do with it is highly remarkable. As a matter of fact, the study of language and culture had been always considered together. To do an appeal to the essence and changes within a cultural group leads to the following research question:

"What are the correlations of language and culture in a social group and how are they changing over time, especially in a situation of social contacts ?"

The propose of this paper is to give an insight on the meaning of language and culture change and to show the exceptional capabilities of social contacts that leads to major changes in societies. However, it will not provide a deep theoretical approach of linguistic and anthropological notions, but will mention a more general and limited outline of some sociolinguistic notions.

The following chapters will first focus on the significance of a language in culture and furthermore will continue to dispute the relations to culture as such. Although there are many proposal on language, an anthropological view will be provided, with the intention to see language as a practical phenomenon in society. Next, the referring a few changing processes and the causes and impacts will be mentioned. The analysing of factors and influences that leads to change will be displayed and subsequently will mention one illustration on a particular language called Tok Pisin. Finally, the importance of language for identity will complete the paper.

2 Language and culture in Society

2.1 Importance of language in cultural communities

Human language is instrumented differently by different language communities. With different views of living, cultural groups can only exist when language and culture are taking their individual parts as units of practices.1

Although not all type of communication are linguistic, language is by far the most powerful and flexible medium of communication and besides this, all known human groups possess language and apply it accordingly in everyday life . At the same time, language, as verbal interactions, is a social practice in which utterance are selected in accordance with socially recognized rules and expectations.2 When it comes to the definition of language, many notions had been purposed on the concept of language. Foley (1997) defines language as an important communicative practice that contains particular signs which are shared and transferred within a particular group and its generation to enable a coordinated community. Referring to that, "human are thoroughly language-constituted beings."3 (p.24) Another similar notion describes language as a system of symbols as well, which enables not only a space of communication for exchange in the way of verbal and non-verbal speaking , but is also there as a function to classify and symbolize the world in a particular group of culture and enables an understanding of its social reality.4 The assertion 'The sky is blue', for instance, contains symbols that inform about a condition and symbolically indicates to something that is intelligible and meaningful in the context of a cultural group who speaks the same language. A social construction of reality is therefore only possible with language, and only through language, cultural communities are able to comprehend the social reality which is expressed and conveyed, firstly to other speech communities and to subsequent generations too.5 In short, without language there would not be a living possible. The practice of language creates a certain cultural tradition, encodes a common knowledge, and allows traditional transmissions of a community by sharing knowledge to each other through communication.6

To observe the definition of language by itself makes only sense when it will be considered together with culture. These two units are intertwined and coexistent, and therefore cannot put out of one’s context. Just as language is a practice in society, culture do as well.

Next, Foley (1997) describes culture as a transgenerational domain of verbal and non-verbal practice in which social beings are able to communicate. These practices are always communicative and are a part in ongoing time periods of social structural relationships. Culture is like a structure of communication in a cultural group. In his own words he states as follows: "Culture, then consists of the things people do to communicate in ongoing transgenerational histories of social interaction."7 (P. 14)

To have a second perspective on culture, the anthropologist Geertz makes a clear notion on culture, claiming that culture is a system of symbols, cultivated by the experience and habits of a cultural group: "culture is as a system of public meanings encoded in symbols and articulated in behaviour seen as symbolic action".8 (Foley,1997,p.16) It is a domain in which we are able to describe our world and practice it in our individual perception.

2.2 Relationship of culture and language

As described above, culture and language are two units which cannot exist alone. Language exists only in culture and culture make sense if there is a medium of communication, which is language. Commonly, language and culture are always in correlations and cannot be separated.

Therefore without any communication, a living within a group cannot exist. It has been tried to dispute the relationship of language and culture in many ways, and apparently was not easy to define and describe it. There are many approaches on the concept of the relations of culture to language and on the discipline of linguistics and anthropology in general.9

The anthropologist Lévi-Strauss defines language as a condition of culture in a specific way that can be assume in two different ways that makes the relatedness very clear :

" First, it is a condition of culture in a diachronic way, because it is mostly through the language that we learn about our own culture (...) But also, from a much more theoretical point of view, language can be said to be a condition of culture because the material out of which language is built is of the same type as the material out of which the whole culture is built: logical relations, oppositions, correlations, and the like."10 (p. 402) As a result, language can be regarded as a unit that is not directly embedded in culture and stands at its own, but is still in correlation with culture. They two are coexisting and simultaneously are having their own function and influence that are shaping each other in various ways. 11

Brown(2000) makes the correlation of these units evident by saying this: "A language is a part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language; the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture."12 (p. 165)

The relationship between language and culture is deeply rooted. Language is used to maintain and convey culture and cultural ties. Different ideas stem from differing language use within one’s culture and the whole intertwining of these relationships starts with the practice of them. Moreover, the process of language and culture are by no means stagnant, but dynamic. They are always in developmental processes and open to innovation and changes.13

3 Change on culture and language by social contacts

3.1 Culture change

When it comes to culture change, there first have to be contacts with people who are in various specific ways different to each other. Nearly every situation of such a social contact leads to an exchange of knowledge and information e.g. acquiring a foreign language. The social contact of an individual or a group can normally not be avoided, especially in multicultural environments, where people always find themselves in interaction with each other. Culture therefore do not exist in isolation and is always changing due to social forces. As mentioned in chapter 2.1, a culture exists of encoded symbolic actions which are articulated in practical actions. These are always modifiable. In fact, every cultural group are undergoing transformations of various types and degree which are internal and external influences like media, social values, religion etc.14 Additionally, changes within a single culture are often a direct reflex of changes in a whole society. Any society consists of groupings with conflicting interests and variable constraints imposed on them ; may it be status, world views, political or social interests, it can be unstable and over time can be translated into cultural change. The result of these are manifold. Major forces on population can be coercive power like colonialism or missionization.15 But also non-coercive powers like a incidences e.g. travelling, voluntary migration, can lead into change as well.16

Because systems like religion or policy as a common structures generally work to maintain stability in society, cultures are often stable enough and remain so, unless the condition to which they are adapted changes. In a stable society, changes may occur gently and gradually. The adoption of cultural elements from one society by members of another, known as diffusion,17 are mostly advantageous to its community.18 However, the acceptance of new innovations leads to the loss of an older one. The phenomenon called acculturation occurs, when groups having different cultures come into intensive first hand contact , resulting in subsequent massive changes in the original culture patterns of one or both groups. It always involves an element of force, either directly, as in the case of conquest, or indirectly, as in the implicit or explicit threat that force will be used if people refuse to make the change that those in the other group expect them to make.19

3.2 Language change

Linguistic change is commonly embedded in cultural change. As society undergoes cultural changes, the linguistic forms and the social meanings, may also change. Cultural contact probably is the most common vector of culture change and is often manifested in linguistic change.20 Though the time of language change cannot be defined exactly, it is highly evident that languages had been influencing each other in various ways throughout history, especially in language contact situations. Contacts of language involve speakers that simultaneously brings psychological, sociological and linguistic features in exchange ,and are leading to change in a speech community.21 Grammatical rules of a language are what link sounds to meaning. Just as language change in their sound system, they can also change in their grammatical system and in the meaning of their words. The substances of language (morphology, syntax, semantics, phonologically) are very flexible to changes. A simple contact has long been considered as highly important for the understanding of language change.22

Speakers also fill lexical gabs by generating new words and joining existing words together in new compounds, according to the existing rules of their language, in order to express new meanings.23 Language can influence each other in their vocabulary too, as words are frequently copied from one language to another. Additionally, language do not copy just mere words, but they can also copy grammatical constructions, and sometimes even the morphemes that are used to construct sentences in a language.24 This phenomenon is called borrowing. When a foreign word is been used in another language and cultural context, the original meaning of the word will acquire a new one and probably changes in phonology as well. But words obviously do not shift randomly from one meaning to another when they undergo semantic shift of this kind. However, changes in language are usually taken in smaller steps and in long periods, in which the history of one word can often be analysed.25 In the process of language shift, a gradual replacement of one language by another will take place. This is often the outcome of language contact in an immigration situation. It is not only manifested in whole a cultural society as such, but also in single groups of society like class, family, age groups and the like. When changes are profitable to a speech community, they reshape them in their own culture and linguistic domains.26

3.3 Cause and Impact of changes

Changes on societies can be external or internal. Why language and culture change actually take place is basically because social contacts are implying them. It is very rare that contacts between communities which is characterized by diversity, in terms of power, wealth, prestige, knowledge and interests, do not lead to interaction and exchange. Every single contact within a culture community can cause a gradual or immediate change in society as such. The processes may be embedded in the course of globalization, modernity, or in the process of migration. Likewise, Colonialism, that is a major force, caused tremendous changes in many society in the world. Acculturation has taken place by diffusion of culture and its language and transformed linguistic and cultural features. Moreover the interest in another culture, e.g. intermarriage, travelling, can cultivate changes in societies as such.27 Migration for instance, is one of the most frequent and dynamic phenomenon of social contact that happens between cultural groups in society. People live in different environments with different rules and customs, speak differently and think about different things. In the course of migration, immigrants find themselves in a new social and linguistic environment to which they had to adjust in many ways and which adjust to them too. This always happens in correlations.28 In the process of language acquisition for instance, they may mispronounce words, create new ones, reinterpret morphological forms, borrow lexical items and put them together into sentences for the purpose of articulating themselves.29 When a population moves out of one territory into another, possibly driven by demographic pressure or the incursion of invaders and the like, it will take its language with them. But after a long period of time, this language and apparently the culture will cease to be the same as that practised in its original territory, due to the mutability and influence of social factors on it.30 Mobility per se usually induces language and culture change. But to live within a speech communities' territory is no guarantee for maintaining linguistic or cultural homogeneity. Language and culture change can occur among groups, simply by some social disparity in education, religion, class or basically by different interests as well.

Besides this, colonialism as a second major force, have engendered considerably impacts on culture and especially language. The outcome of it are manifold. To mention a few, it caused a dislocation of many languages, a formulation of pidgins and creoles, and even the disappearance of native languages.31 Pidginization and creolization are two processes that lead to creating a new type of communication, known as pidgin and creole languages.32 A pidgin language is basically not a native language, but a second language to its speakers which has been simplified and limited in vocabulary and grammatical structure. Pidgin language basically evolved out of at least two different language contacts. Under certain circumstances, pidgin had been, and still is, the language to communicate between two or more different languages and dialects. It has been generally simplified for the purpose of the interests of facilitating communication in a limited range of communication situations.33 Pidgins arose in a particular social context such as trade, and their evolving as the result of non-intimate social contact between groups of unequal power. On the other hand, creole languages grew out of a pidgin or possibly an unstable pre-pidgin that had become nativized in a particular speech community.34

Besides the creation of pidgin and creole languages, a further possible result of language change can be the death of a native language, which is the extreme and tragic outcome of multilingual contact situations. It occurs when all of the speakers in a language community shift to speaking a new language. Language death arises mostly out of social contacts, over a long-term period of time. When speakers of two different languages come into contact and one of them have power over the other speaker , either by force of social prestige or by demographic dominance, it is possible for speakers of the socially weaker language to abandon their language in favour of the dominant language.35 Dominant languages like French and English for instance are spread worldwide and have cause the death of many native languages. These modern languages will be acquired by younger generations, and as a result, the previous generation’s language will not be practised anymore and therefore be exterminated. Many ancestral languages spoken like in Melanesia are under pressure of modern languages. Nearly every inhabitant are already using therefore the wide spread pidgin language, known as Tok Pisin, to communicate.36


1 Burke, Lucy, Tony Crowley, and Alan Girvin.2000,p.254.

2 Ibi d.,p. 254.

3 Foley,W.1997, p.24.

4 Beer, B., Fischer, H. 2006, p.257.

5 Ibid.,p.257.

6 Ibid.,p.258.

7 Foley, Op. Cit. p.14.

8 Ibid.,p.16.

9 Burke, Lucy, Tony Crowley, and Alan Girvin.2000,p.402-403.

10 Ibid.,p.402.

11 Ibid.,p.402.

12 Brown,D.2000, P.165.

13 Beer, Fischer, Op. Cit. p.258-259.

14 Burke, Lucy, Tony Crowley, and Alan Girvin, Op. Cit. p.402-403.

15 Foley, Op. Cit. p.382.

16 Haviland, W.1996, p.47

17 Ibid.,p.424.

18 Ibid.,p.47.

19 Ibid.,p.47.

20 Foley, Op. Cit. p.384.

21 Coulmas, F.2005, p.146.

22 Crowley ,T. 1997,p.129.

23 Coulmas, Op. Cit. p.156.

24 Crowley, Op. Cit. p.151.

25 Ibid.,p.152-153.

26 Coulmas, Op. Cit. p. 157-158.

27 Ibid.,p.146.

28 Ibid.,p.147.

29 Ibid.,p.5.

30 Ibid.,p.5-6.

31 Ibid.,p.147.

32 Foley, Op. Cit. p.392.

33 DeCamp, D. 1974, p.74.

34 Holm, J. 1988, p. xvii

35 Crowley, Op. Cit. p. 297-280.

36 Ibid. ,p. 280.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


The influence of social contacts on language and culture in a changing society
University of Canterbury  (Social Anthropology)
Language and culture
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
creole language, pidin language, cultual contact, language and cultur, tok pisin, language and identity
Quote paper
Ivy Boachie (Author), 2013, The influence of social contacts on language and culture in a changing society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The influence of social contacts on language and culture in a changing society

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free