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Symbols and Language

Symbols and Language

Author: Paul Hannan

Recognize the significance of symbols and language in cultural transmission.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain Public Domain: All other images from www.; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology: Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on symbols and language. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

So, symbols and language. Let's start with a symbol. Now, wherever you're at, watching this tutorial, you see this object there on the screen. You can call this a symbol. It represents something.

And you know what that means. It means don't. It means stop. This thing is prohibited. So what a symbol actually is, is it's anything that has a meaning recognized by people within the same culture. So you come from the same culture as I do, you can look at that object there, and you could tell, this means do not use your cell phone.

Now when we think about languages, language is just a system of symbols used to communicate with other people. So on that first slide when I showed you, don't do this sign, I could have wrote the word stop. It would have had a very similar meaning that is communicating with you. But there's a difference between symbol and language. Languages are a system of symbols. But every symbol is not a language, because there's a systematic thing to it. So on your screen here you see sign language showing you the letters. It's a system, there's an actual order and pattern to it, versus just an individual symbol.

Now, Sapir and Worph are two researchers, and they had this idea called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. And this idea is that people's understanding of the world is shaped by the language they speak. What that's saying is that the languages you know and the words, the systematic symbols you use to communicate about the world actually change the way you think of the world.

And a great example of this that they talked about was the word for snow. Snow in English has a couple variations. We look out the window and we say, oh, it's snowing. You might add an adjective saying it's wet snow.

When talking about this hypothesis, people like to use the example of the Inuit. Now, there's some argument over exactly how many words for snow they have, but the Inuit or the Eskimos up in Alaska, they have many, many words for snow. And these words for snow, having so many words changes the way they look at the world and changes when they look at the details of snow. If they had only two words for snow, you could tell that snow maybe wasn't as important for their society.

So how are things passed on within a society? Well, it's called cultural transmission. And that's just the process by which one's culture is passed on. And this can be passed on to new people coming into your culture, or it can be passed on generationally.

So today's takeaway message. A symbol is just anything that has meaning recognized by people within the same culture, and your language is a system of symbols used to communicate with others. Cultural transmission is the process by which one's culture is passed on, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that people's understanding of the world operates through a cultural lens based on language.

That's it for this lesson. Good work, and hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know
Cultural Transmission

The social process through which children come to adopt the ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that are considered appropriate for adults in their society.


A symbolic system that facilitates human to human communication and sharing.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The claim that culture and thought patterns, or consciousness, of people are strongly influenced by the language they speak.


Something that stands for something else arbitrarily and conventionally.