How Language Shapes Our Reality

Amanda Zunner-Keating
16 min readNov 18, 2021


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Language is Symbolic

Imagine a written language that uses different letters than your own language(s). Specifically, please consider a language that you do not know how to read: Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Assyrian, etc. When you see written words in an alphabet that you do not know how to read, what do those letters and words mean to you? They probably mean absolutely nothing to you; they probably look like scribbles. If you were to see an Arabic or Japanese word painted on the side of a building, you wouldn’t take away any actual meaning from the symbols on the building.

That’s how non-English readers feel when they see English letters…they have no meaning. To a non-English reader, English letters look like scribbles and even the most profound sentence will carry no meaning for the person who doesn’t understand the symbols being used.

Let’s compare two words to illustrate this point. The Arabic word “kitab” (كتاب) is a meaningless sound to a person who can only speak English because “kitab” isn’t a word in our language. When we hear that word, we won’t understand what meaning the speaker or writer is trying to convey. At the same time, the word “book” means nothing to an Arabic-only speaker. The letters “b-o-o-k” are not letters in their language and are therefore meaningless, the sound of the word “book” carries no meaning. As you’ve probably already figured out, “kitab” is the word for “book” in Arabic. These two mean the same thing, but, if you are not initiated in the symbolic culture then you won’t be able to understand the meaning.

At this point, you should understand:

· Different words are equally useful and valid in their own cultures, but meaningless to outsiders. The words “book” and “kitab” mean the same thing but are expressed slightly differently.

· All languages are equally valid and complex in their own context (yes, even slang).

· If we don’t understand the symbols of the culture that we are examining, then we cannot understand the meaning that they are symbols to convey.

Cultural symbols function like parts of a language (Austin 45; Geertz: 1973; Kuper 187). Consider color as a cultural symbol. In our culture, the color white is often used in clothing to symbolize purity: many baptize children in white clothing and we expect brides to wear white to symbolize their virginity. However, in Hindu culture, white is the color of mourning (Singh and Tiwari, 2018, p. 27). People wear white to funerals in India and China, so a bride wearing white would be culturally incorrect. In Hindu culture, the bridal color is red (Singh and Tiwari, 2018, p. 28; Welsch and Vivanco 348). Both cultures use their symbolic colors consistently to convey meaning, and we can learn how these colors are used to better interpret meaning in the cultures.

At this point you should understand:

· Language is symbolic

· Culture is symbolic

· Symbolic anthropologists view culture like a language that can be translated

Language and Symbols are Arbitrary

Consider the English word, “book” and Arabic work “kitab” example. Neither of those words are inherently connected to the actual thing being discussed. For example: Imagine the written word “book” or the Arabic letters “Khaa” + “taa” + “baa” that spell “kitab” and consider that none of those letters draw the picture of a book when they are combined. Similarly, the letters are not an acronym for anything. Both words are simply the symbols that humanity, somewhat randomly, selected to carry meaning. Then, when we use these words in their cultural sense, we give them meaning, or reinforce established meaning, or change the meaning, or reclaim the meaning, etc. Words, letters, and all symbols are arbitrary (they don’t carry any inherent meaning) (Whorf VIII, 31).

Culture works the same way. When we design our cultural traditions, practices, rules, rituals, etc., they are all randomly assigned symbols that we have established. We then use those randomly assigned symbols to convey meaning to one another and, because we use them in a meaningful way, they start to carry meaning. White is not, inherently, a better bridal color than red is, but we’ve established those colors so deeply in our culture that it’s impossible to imagine swapping white out for red.

At this point, you should understand:

· Symbols are arbitrary

· Symbols carry meaning because we give them meaning

· When we use cultural symbols, we engage with their meaning (either by reinforcing or transforming their meaning)

Cultural Symbols (and Language) Evolve To Meet Changing Needs

We can turn to emojis to understand how symbols evolve over time to better adapt to our cultural needs. For example, the emoji that conveys the meaning “I’m laughing so hard that I’m crying,” was created because we are fortunate enough to live in a world that we experience that feeling often. If our culture didn’t include so much wonderful humor, we wouldn’t need an emoji to convey that emotion. New symbols are often created as a shortcut to convey new meaning. For example, we can type “I’m laughing so hard that I’m crying” every time we feel that way, but that’s very lengthy. So, instead, our culture developed the acronym “ROFL” to express something similar until emojis were developed. Both help us to convey that meaning quickly. (Whorf, 105) (Seargeant, 2019, p.61)

We Combine Symbols to Convey New Meaning

Symbols, of course, do not exist only in the literal sense, but we can use symbols of other symbols in our life. Consider the “thumbs up” emoji. Historically, that symbol is a hand gesture that symbolizes approval or understanding (sometimes sarcastically). In order to utilize that cultural hand gesture, we’ve created an emoji to mean the same thing. As you know, that hand gesture was then applied to social media to symbolize that you “like” something and “liking” now carry a lot of cultural power (consider how some make an entire living from social media).

What you should understand from our examination of emojis and language is:

· Symbols evolve to meet changing cultural needs

· Hand gestures and body language are cultural symbols and change from culture to culture and place to place

· We often combine multiple cultural symbols together to convey new meaning that still encompasses the original meanings of the symbols being used


Symbolic anthropology is related to linguistics (the study of human language). Linguists study human language and symbolic anthropologists examine human culture as a symbolic language. The symbols that we examine include: letters, body language, colors, traditions, ceremonies, clothing, gift-giving, etc. As you already know, “learn the local language” is one of the essential steps of participant observation, and you’ll be expected to apply that step in your emic and etic papers. It’s likely that you’ll already speak the language(s) of the people that you study. But, when you meet with your community, you’ll likely hear new slang or professional language that you’ve never heard before. Or, for example, maybe you’re studying a Jewish temple and you learn that this community uses the word “Rabbi” to refer to their religious leaders. If you learn that word for the first time during your fieldwork, then you’re successfully fulfilling the obligation to learn their local language. When you learn and strive to understand these new words, you’ll be practicing participant observation.

Language is a system of communication that uses symbols — such as words, sounds, and gestures — organized according to certain rules, to convey any kind of information (Guest 94–105). While animals also have language, human language is unique in a variety of ways:

· Human beings can think and discuss concepts theoretically

· Human beings can think of and discuss the future

· Human language is steeped in history and cultural traditions that change over time

· Human language is flexible and creative, each time we use a word we are contributing to its meaning

· Human language can convey symbolic meaning (Ibid)

Language is dynamic, ever-changing and it’s defined exclusively by the people who use it (Whorf, 385). While we refer to the dictionary for clarification, it is not the dictionary that designs our language but, rather, the way we use our language determines the dictionary’s definitions. Each year, Merriam Webster dictionary inducts new words into the dictionary based on how society is using these new terms. We can look at the “new word of the year” to better understand how society has changed:

New Words of the Year in Merriam Webster

2004 : Blog (A website that contains personal reflections)

2006 : Truthiness (The quality of something seeming to be true but not necessarily knowing the facts surrounding it)

2007 : w00t (a term used to express joy or approval)

2012: Ridic (an abbreviated version of the word “ridiculous” intended to reflect something’s absurdity)

2013: dumbphone (a cell phone that isn’t considered to be a “smart phone”)

2014: binge-watch (to watch many or all episodes of a show in rapid succession)

2015: bae (sweetheart, baby)

In 2019, Merriam Webster determined that the new word of the year is “they” to be applied as a singular gender pronoun. This addition reflected the way that society’s gender norms and identities are evolving to reflect people’s lived experiences.

Intro to The Whorf Sapir Hypothesis

Benjamin Lee Whorf was a linguist who had a particularly unique background, and who’s academic and professional research directly influenced the research of many who came after him. Benjamin Lee Whorf lived from 1897 to 1941 (Whorf & Carroll 1), but he was not originally an anthropologist or linguist, at all. In fact, Whorf worked as a fire prevention engineer for an insurance company in the United States (Whorf & Carroll 4). His insurance company needed him to visit the homes that had burned down, and to identify the cause of the fires. Interestingly enough, Whorf noticed over and over again that Americans we’re placing “empty” gas canisters next to heaters or open flames in their garages. (Whorf, 1997, p.2; Whorf & Carroll 135; White, 1990, p.18). When Whorf tried to explain to these policyholders that the empty gas canister had caused the fire, they were generally unable to understand what mistake they had made. This is because in the English language the word “empty” means that something is void of danger. Perhaps you already know that gasoline vapor is more flammable than liquid gasoline. So, in reality, placing an empty gas canister near a flame is very likely to catch on fire (in spite of the fact that we would describe it as empty). It was during this first-hand experience that Benjamin Lee Whorf realized that language literally shapes our ability to engage with reality (Eastmen, 30–31).

Whorf then entered a professional study in linguistics and he developed the arguments that we will refer to over and over again in this course. We call his argument the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis and it states that “language shapes reality” (Axelrod, 57, Guest). If you are multilingual, then you already know that this is true. There are just some words in the English language that cannot be translated to other languages, and there are just some words in other languages that can simply not be translated into English.

I like to use the word “vendetta” to illustrate this point. As you know, vendetta is actually an Italian word but English speakers have adopted it. This is because we simply did not have a word that meant the exact same thing, but we were able to expand our understanding of an expression and of reality by adopting the term. The term vendetta refers to getting revenge on someone, but it also carries the implication that the person who wronged you owes you a debt. We have the words “revenge” and “debt” in English, but we had not yet adopted the term that combined the two. Spend some time trying to think of other words that exist in other languages that simply cannot be translated to English. In some cases, English speakers have adopted these words but in other cases English speakers can simply not conceive of those concepts.

For example, you may have heard the term “emotional literacy” before in your life. The term “emotional literacy” refers to a person’s ability to describe their emotions using varied and complex language. For example, you don’t always feel simply happy or sad; sometimes you may feel inexplicably anxious, the weight of societal pressure, or manic euphoria. When we are able to have words to reflect our emotions, we can better be understood by those around us …but when we are limited in language we can feel frustrated and misunderstood.

We can look at the way that other languages signify emotional states and compare these to English to better understand

1. what is important in other cultures and

2. what other emotions and experiences we don’t recognize in our culture.

Here are some examples:

· “Jayus:” Is an Indonesian word that is used to describe “a joke that is so poorly told and unfunny that you can’t help but laugh.”

· “Hanyauku:” Is a word used in Namibia to mean, “to walk on tiptoes across hot sand.”

· “Gigil:” Is a Tagalog word that refers to “the overwhelming urge to squeeze or pinch something very cute.”

· “Tsundoku”: is a Japanese word that refers to “the act of buying a book and leaving it unread often piled together with other unread books”.

The Whorf Sapir Hypothesis is also known as “linguistic relativity”

Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that language is developed arbitrarily and that our language does not reflect reality but that, rather, our reality is determined by the language that we have. If you want to test his hypothesis, take a moment and sit in complete silence. When you are sitting in complete silence try and turn off your brain and stop any words from popping up. If you sit there, in silence, thinking to yourself “stop thinking! I’m not supposed to have words right now…why can’t I stop thinking?” Then you understand that we rely heavily on words to process our thoughts, feelings, and to describe and interpret what happens around us. It’s very challenging to simply experience life without assigning words to our experiences.

Benjamin Lee Whorf also argued that, when we name something, we achieve a few things including:

· We recognize the concept’s importance in our culture

· We give the concept a place in our cultural universe

· We usually assign some type of value to the concept

Benjamin Lee Whorf used the example of a Native American community that he was studying to illustrate the above points. Before the arrival of colonizers, these people did not have cigarettes, pens, or pencils. But they did have a word to describe “a thing that elongates the finger,” and this word would be used typically when a person was pointing to something with a stick. Because the Native American community did not use cigarettes, pens, or pencil’s in their culture, these words were unimportant to them and they continued to use the same term that means “a thing that elongates the finger” rather than adopting the English words or developing their own words to distinguish between each thing that elongated the finger. When we use overgeneralized language to describe many different concepts, we are reflecting that the differences are unimportant to us, but when we expand upon our language to create more and more descriptive terminology, we are recognizing that the differences carry cultural import for us.

Consider, for example, the countless new words we adopt every year to reflect different types of people’s sexualities. In reality, sexuality is infinitely diverse, but our language has been slow to reflect the true diversity of gender or sexuality. When we incorporate and dignify a word that recognizes the slight differences in people’s identities, we give them recognition and a place in our world. When we overgeneralize, we fail to recognize the reality of human diversity.

Benjamin Lee Whorf also argued that when we categorize things we also give them value in our hierarchical concepts. The human mind has a hard time not assigning value to something. So, perhaps you think that a pen is better than a pencil, or perhaps you think that some types of people are inherently better than others, you can see that this kind of thinking quickly becomes damaging and problematic and anthropologists strive to understand how people categorize things using language so that we can better understand how prejudices arise.

This is something that many scientists understand. Although a great deal of global science is conducted in English, The English language does not have a word to understand all the forms of existence across the entire universe. Scientists are increasingly encouraging people who speak other languages to get involved in the sciences because more diverse languages will bring about more diverse ways of thinking and, ultimately, this will lead to better and more complete scientific research.

When we look at the words that exist in a culture, we can understand what is important to that culture. We only strive to name things that matter to us and we don’t strive to name things that don’t have a place in our cultural world. For example, if you are an artist, interior designer or fashion designer, then you probably know the words for more colors than do those of us who are not artistic. Look, for example, at a sample of something teal next to a sample of something turquoise. If you end up thinking to yourself, “who cares? These are both just green!” then that is perfectly valid, it simply shows the anthropologist that the slight differences in shades are not essential to your work, or lifestyle. If you work with color every day, then mixing up the two would seem like an enormous mistake to you. Linguists have studied the way the different cultures understand color at length and the Yoruba people of West Africa are a wonderful example of linguistic relativity that demonstrates to us that even something like color is not universal.

The Yoruba who live in West Africa do not have the same 7 or so colors that we used to describe the world around us. This culture uses only three words for color. One word “funfun” is used to reflect anything that is white, silver, or light grey . The word “pupa” is used to reflect anything that we would call red, pink, orange, and deep yellow. The word “dudu” reflects anything we would call black, blue, purple, green, dark brown, red-brown, and a darker Gray (Stein and Stein 65). If you’re struggling to understand how this culture could only have three colors, return to the slight difference between teal and turquoise and remember that many English speakers cannot tell the difference between those two colors. It is not that anyone is right or wrong, or more or less intelligent, it’s simply the way our language constructs our reality.

You likely already know that, in reality, none of our human eyes perceive color in the way it exists. The world does not have color, but rather our brains use color to tell us the different atomic frequencies of the things around us. You probably already know that dogs do not see color like we do, and that parrots actually see more colors than human beings do. Furthermore, some humans are colorblind and don’t see colors the same way that others do. So, we know the color is not objective or absolute, and we know that culture and language can influence how we understand it and relate to it.

We use the term focal vocabulary to refer to words or terminology that develop a particular sophistication to describe the unique cultural realities experienced by a group of people (Guest p.99). For example, you likely already know that Eskimos have far more words for snow than English speakers do (Martin, 1986, p.418) because they experience snow more often and need to clearly be able to reference the weather and climate as it changes. Different generations can have different types of focal vocabulary and a fascinating new set of words continue to emerge around on-line dating. The way that the internet and smartphones have transformed many of the cultural experiences surrounding dating has required language to evolve to describe new types of relationships, breakups, and experiences.

Take a moment to think of other types of very specific and descriptive language that exists for people of different genders, sexualities, races, nationalities, generations, professional or academic roles and consider examining this in your daily life.

Supplementary Audio

NPR: “The Word Of The Year Is They”

As you listen, reflect on:

· The changing meaning behind the word “they”

· The way that language evolves to meet the needs of a changing society

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