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Symbols and Language

Symbols and Language

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will define and explain the significance of symbols and language in cultural transmission. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis will be discussed.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

Video Transcription

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Hello. And welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. In today's lesson, we're going to discuss symbolism, language, and culture, as well as begin to speculate on their interrelation.

The central aspect of culture is absolutely symbolism, and specifically, human language. Human language understood, then, as a symbolic system. And symbol is something that stands for something else. So I have here x symbolizes y. And three examples of symbols. So the American flag here may symbolize historical sacrifice, freedom, American values, as well as this idea of unity, which is, itself, an American value. And we can think of many other things that the American flag can be said to symbolize. So all this becomes acute and painful if you see somebody burning an American flag. And depending on the degree to which you subscribe to these values symbolized by the flag, you're either more or less upset by the flag burning.

Likewise, a second symbol, the dollar sign, stands for and symbolizes a green piece of paper. Or, in American culture, it could symbolize power. We associate power, prestige, worthiness, success, winning with money.

Thirdly, the word tree. And I have here my beautiful, artistic rendition of a tree. That thing out there in the world. Tall, it grows, that's a tree. We call it a tree.

So symbols are arbitrary and conventional, meaning that there is no necessary link between this symbol, tree, and this thing out there in the environment. So really culture is just a set of symbols, a very important set of symbols, though. It's not just a set. And we learn this symbolic set-- the culture of our society-- we learn the symbolic set through cultural transmission, which is the social process through which children come to adopt the ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that are considered appropriate of adults in their culture.

Language is the heart, the absolute central heart of the symbolic system of culture. And it's really the heart of human society itself. Language, then, is the symbolic system that facilitates human-to-human communication and sharing. You may be thinking, this is sociology. Why are we going to look at language? Well, some scholars have even argued that language is what defines society and gives us a sense of community at all. What makes society possible?

So, for instance, Benedict Anderson gave us this idea of an imagined community. The US is an imagined community. We never see each other face-to-face, and the country is 3,000 miles across. But yet we still have this sense of fellow feeling. Why is that? How is that? Well, it's because we share the same symbolic code. The symbols I had on the board earlier, we all share those referents, and we share the symbolic code that is encoded in language itself. You're much less likely to feel a sense of community and camaraderie with someone who doesn't speak your language. And in America, this can fuel hate when somebody who doesn't speak your language, you're interacting with. So language and symbolism are very powerful things, and they're really what makes us human.

Language is so important that some have even argued that our linguistic systems structure our thinking. For instance, I can only think in English. And the categories of the English language are the way that I see and understand the world. Does this affect my consciousness? Scholars have long debated this. They have long wondered the effect of language on human consciousness and thought patterns. What effect does this have?

Well, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis answers this question in the affirmative. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the claim that culture and the thought patterns of a people are strongly influenced by the language that they speak. To give you an example, in America, we call snow snow. Or maybe there's slush. But that's it. There's two categories of snow. That's it.

Contrast that with the Inuit, who anthropologist have documented have up to eight words for snow. Does this make the Inuit more perceptive? Would an Inuit person see varieties of snow in Minnesota where a Minnesotan only sees snow? These are interesting questions. I think it's fascinating to think about the interaction of language, consciousness, and culture. But it's really difficult to disassociate these three things in any way that can be studied scientifically.

So there is much debate about the scientific validity of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Nonetheless, it's a very interesting hypothesis. So we bring it up in reference to language, symbolism, and culture. Well I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. Have a great day.

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.