Language and culture

by Melodine Chloe Melanie Sommier last modified Dec 12, 2013 11:17 AM

The idea of the interconnectedness of language and culture has a prominent place in the history of linguistics and the philosophy of language. For instance, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) held that while language is universal to all human beings, the languages of the world differ from each other and every language contains a world-view. For Humboldt, a people (nation, race) is endowed with mental powers, and particular languages and cultures are creations based on the autonomous and free work of these mental powers. Thus, languages and cultures express ‘the spirit of nation’, and the linguistic and cultural diversity reflect the differences in the mental powers of different peoples (nations, races).

The idea of linguistic relativism or linguistic determinism was later addressed and elaborated by American anthropological linguists Edward Sapir (1884–1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941). Sapir thought that while the typological characteristics (i.e. structural features) of a language do not correlate with particular types of culture, the lexicon of a language reflects the characteristics of a culture and history of its speakers. Whorf, in turn, went even further and argued that structural differences between languages can be seen as proof of the existence of different types of thinking. The principle of linguistic relativity, which assumes that how people think is conditioned (if not determined) by the languages they speak, is popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In this view, language is a key to the understanding of any particular culture. 

While this line of thought emphasizes the influence and power of language and its meaningfulness for members of cultural and ethnic groups, it also treats both language and culture in essentialist terms. That is, language and culture are seen as monolithic entities without problematizing their unity and uniformity. This view has been challenged by recent research on multilingualism within ‘new’ sociolinguistics which still takes language as an important marker of speakers’ cultural identity, but emphasizes the dynamic nature of the interaction between language and culture.


The need for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between language(s) and culture is brought about by an increased linguistic, social, and cultural diversity in many late modern societies today. This diversity of diversity, which some call ‘superdiversity’ (e.g. Vertovec 2007), is brought about by transnational movements of people, goods, and ideas, and by the fragmentation of traditional types of communities, ethnicities, and identities in the process. For example, it cannot be taken for granted that all Parisians speak in the same way, or that Finland is the country where all Finns live or which is, on the other hand, inhabited by Finnish people exclusively. The relationship between a speaker’s nationality, ethnicity, and sociolinguistic repertoire is often much more complex than this. Although culture-specific language practices and norms do exist, they are thus no longer as static as once assumed.

Therefore, in recent sociolinguistic research, or sociolinguistics of globalization (most notably in Blommaert’s 2010 book with this very title), the very concepts of ‘language’ and ‘culture’ have been questioned and redefined. Many scholars are now beginning to substitute ‘language’ with ‘resources’ and ‘multilingualism’ with ‘(poly)languaging’, for instance, to highlight what is essentially a paradigm shift concerning language and culture.



Harris, Roy Taylor and J. Talbot 1997. Landmarks in Linguistic Thought, Volume 1: The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. London and New York: Routledge. Chapter 13, pp. 169-182. Available at

Blommaert, Jan 2013. Language and the study of diversity. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, 74. Available at