Language and culture

Book of Knowledge

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List of all languages referred to in the Book of Knowledge and other sections of the website.


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Let’s Revise! – Chapter 6

Go to the Let’s Revise section to see what you can learn from this chapter or test how much you have already learnt!

Chapter Author: Nicole Nau

Most people agree that language and culture are tightly connected. Some people also say “language is culture” or “culture is language”. However, such very general statements are not very helpful – what do they mean? If culture and language were simply the same, why would we need two different labels? Not all expressions of culture require language, and not all aspects of language are culture-dependent. It is worth taking a closer look at the relationship between language and culture. In this chapter we will ask what the two concepts have in common and what roles language has in cultural practices. Another aspect, how cultural peculiarities are reflected in language, is dealt with in Chapter 2 (Exploring Linguistic Diversity).

Culture, cultures, and cultivation

The words “language” and “culture” are used both as collective nouns and as countable nouns. In English we may ask “What is language?” or “What is a language?”.

Answers to the first question will give some characterization of language as a human capacity, or as a means of communication etc. (see Chapter 1), while with the second question we want to know what characterizes and distinguishes individual languages such as Polish, Irish or Turkish. The same two perspectives can be applied to “culture”. A culture – with the plural form cultures – is defined in the following way:

  • “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society” (Oxford Dictionary)
  • “a particular set of customs, morals, codes and traditions from a specific time and place” (

One of the ties between language and culture is that ideas, customs and traditions are typically passed on through talking. Some parts of a culture may not rely on words – for example, one may pass on a dance or a traditional craft by showing and imitating – but most customs are related to ideas, beliefs, knowledge that can only be understood when being recounted Language is especially important for the maintenance of our intangible cultural heritage, and at the same time it is part of it.

Intangible Cultural Heritage

“Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.“ (UNESCO)

Read more and find out which cultural practices have already been inscribed into the UNESCO list at their website!

Culture as an uncountable noun (without a plural form) is a more abstract concept that rouses different associations. The Latin word cultura was first of all used in the context of agriculture. In order to produce crop, one has to cultivate the ground – just letting plants grow by their nature is not enough. This idea was then extended metaphorically to the development of an individual and of human society. Culture in the broad sense is what humans add to nature in order to achieve something better. In many European languages, the concept is associated to civilization, refinement, education, or arts. For example, in Polish the adjective kulturalny (literally: “cultural”) means ‘educated, refined, sophisticated’ when speaking of persons, but also referring to language. Most people agree that there are ways of expressing oneself that are more “cultural”, or “cultivated” than others. However, there are different views on what characterizes cultivated speech and its opposite, which may be conceived as “primitive”, “vulgar”, “uneducated” or simply “careless” speech. At different times and in different parts of European societies, one or more of the following features were (are) held to characterize refined language, or the speech of an educated (cultivated) person:

  • having a pleasant voice, speaking with a pleasant rhythm and intonation
  • speaking with a particular accent, for example from a region that is thought of as more cultivated than others, or speaking without a local accent (your speech doesn’t show from which region you come)
  • using sophisticated words, internationalisms of Greek and Latin origin
  • speaking in “whole sentences”, such as in written language
  • speaking politely, showing respect towards the listener

Study question 1: What is your idea of cultivated (“good”) language and its opposite – “bad language”?

Study question 2: Which aspect of the concept “culture“ is illustrated in this Hungarian poster of the International Mother Language Day? What is its message?

(anyanyelv ‘mother tongue’, nemzetközi ‘international’, napja ‘day’)

Poster by the Hungarian artist Varga Gábor Farkas

Culture means diversity – so does language!

Speaking of “a” language and giving it a label such as “Polish” suggests a certain unity. However, within this unity there is also a lot of diversity: the speech of an elder peasant from southern Poland, a young worker from Gdańsk, or a university professor from Poznań is certainly not identical, yet they all speak “Polish”. Or think of various texts, such as a poem by the classic poet Adam Mickiewicz, a newspaper report, a discussion in an Internet forum – the language in each of them has different characteristics. The same holds for a culture. According to the definitions given above, “Polish culture” is the set of ideas, customs, traditions of Polish people. Evidently, not all people in Poland share all these ideas and customs, and a particular custom shared by a larger group of people usually shows some variation. At a closer look the set that defines a culture or a language thus consists of several overlapping subsets.

Linguistic varieties – the different ways of using a language – can broadly be divided into three classes:

  • geographical varieties – varieties used only in certain parts of the territory where the language is spoken;
  • social varieties – varieties used by parts of the society, defined by factors such as age, gender, or occupation;
  • functional varieties – variation associated to the situation and the function in which the language is used.

A given variety often does not fit neatly into one of these classes – for example, it may be used within a certain region only by a certain social group, or by a socially defined group only in certain situations and for certain functions. In this section we will mainly be concerned with geographical and social varieties, while typical functional varieties will be discussed in the following section when we will turn to genres.

Geographical varieties and local identity

Dialects remind us of the staggering diversity and beauty of humanity. (dialect blog)

Geographical varieties may occupy larger or smaller territories. In the case of languages spoken in several states, the language of each state can be considered a geographical variety, for example the French spoken in France, Switzerland, Belgium, or Canada. At the other extreme are local rural dialects spoken in one particular village or parish (called Ortsmundart in German). In between are dialects of territories such as a county or a cultural region within one state, or sometimes extending across state borders. For example, Alemannic German dialects are spoken in territories across the borders between Germany and France and between Germany and Switzerland. Dialects of a middle range – more than one parish, less than a state –, especially when they are associated to a cultural region, are probably the most important to speakers of a given language.

For most speakers of a local dialect, this is the language in which they grew up, the language of home, family and friends. Speaking and hearing this variety gives them a feeling of belonging. It is part of their personal identity, whether they like it (most people do) or not. Those who didn’t grow up with a dialect often fail to understand the importance of this kind of variation. They are indifferent or even hostile towards the geographic diversity of their language, and sometimes they make fun of dialects and their speakers. Outside of their speech community, dialects are rarely prestigious varieties of a language, but some are more stigmatized than others. Sometimes there are historical reasons for differences in prestige of dialects. For example, dialects spoken in regions where the peasants were known to be poor may have lower prestige than dialects from wealthier regions.

In many European countries there are wide-spread stereotypes which dialect is “ugly” and in which region people speak “nicely”. How is it in your country? Is the prestige of a dialect connected to the economic success of its speakers, or can you find other historical reasons for differences in prestige?

Dialect versus standard

In Europe, dialects are usually opposed to a standard language that is common to all speakers regardless of the region they come from. It is important to recognize that the standard language is a variety, too – it is not “the language”, but only part of it. Apart from the geographical spread, several other features tend to distinguish dialect and standard, for example:

  • speakers: dialects are spoken with people one knows well, with family, friends, or neighbours, while the standard language is used with other people;
  • situation: dialects are used in informal situations – private conversations, free time activities –, while in formal settings people rather use the standard variety;
  • medium: dialects are mostly spoken, seldom written, while the standard language exists in spoken and written form – note that in several European languages the concept standard language is expressed as “literary language”;
  • acquisition: dialects are acquired in a natural way, without any explicit “learning” or studying, while the standard language is additionally taught in school (especially the writing);
  • standardization: as the term indicates, the standard language is a standardized variety, which means that its form is consciously developed. Dialects, in contrast, are non-standardized varieties of a language – only the actual use, the speakers’ unconscious choices of words and constructions decides about what is right and what is wrong.

These are only typical characteristics, not necessary features. For any given dialect, the situation may be different.

Study question: Think of a local dialect you know well. Which of the given characteristics are true for this dialect, which are not? Are there other differences in the use of this dialect and the standard language? Which differences do you find important, which are less important?

The standard variety is associated with education and schools, with writing and books, with the public sphere of life, and with formal situations that require a conscious and planned use of language. A dialect is associated with the private sphere, informal situations and spontaneous language use. Partly because of these oppositions, dialects sometimes become stigmatized as an “uneducated” variety and only the standard variety is held to be “cultivated” (compare the discussion of culture and cultivation above). Such a view was held by many people all over Europe at various times during the 19th and 20th century. Especially in the decades 1950-1980 many parents didn’t speak the local dialect with their children although it was their own first language, because they thought that raising the children in the standard variety would be the key to a better education and their getting on in life. They probably weren’t aware that children are perfectly capable of managing more than one variety of a language and that speaking a dialect at home should not prevent them from learning to speak and write in the standard variety when attending school. Because of this tendency, many dialects of European languages became endangered. For the children of these parents, the dialect wasn’t the most natural language any more. Maybe they still picked it up to some degree from their grandparents or from neighbours and friends, but they didn’t speak it fluently. In linguistic studies, these people have been described as “semi-speakers”. Of course this generation then didn’t speak the dialect with their children. This is a typical scenario that quickly leads to severe endangerment of languages and dialects.

Dialects don’t die!

Fortunately for the dialects, attitudes have now widely changed and local varieties have become popular again. People are no longer ashamed of their accent, and words and popular sayings are used as markers of a cultural region to which people are proud to belong. They often turn up in advertisements for local products, or in information for tourists. A recent hit in several European countries are GPS satnavs with dialect speakers. In Germany the first one in the Cologne dialect, launched in December 2009, was met with great enthusiasm. During the first year the voices were downloaded over 25 000 times (

Here is an example for the use of dialect in an advertisement. In Poznan, Poland, pyra is the local word for ‘potato’; the surrounding region Wielkopolska is famous for potato cultivation.

The local brew and the local dialect

The local brew and the local dialect (Photo: Nicole Nau)

Dialects, as any language, change over time. The different attitudes described above, ongoing industrialization and urbanisation, individuals’ increasing mobility, and the expansion of mass media are factors that heavily influenced the development of European dialects during the past 100 years. Many dialects have become more similar to the standard language, and sometimes all that is left is a couple of different words and a regional accent. A “true” dialect differs from the standard variety also grammatically. A popular misconception in Europe is that a dialect has no grammar. Of course it has, for there is no language without grammar! Only the grammatical system of a dialect is not the same as that of the standard language and in addition it is often not made explicit, not described in grammar books or taught in schools. However, it could be, and in recent time many attempts to write down the grammar of a dialect and to prepare teaching material have appeared in print and especially on the Internet. Here is an example:

Website "" (Bairisch lernen = learning Bavarian)

Website “” (Bairisch lernen = learning Bavarian)


Dialect or regional language?

When a dialect is used in writing and in public settings, when it is taught in schools and its system is fixed in grammar books and dictionaries, people start to ask “How do you write that?” or “Is this correct?”. This means the need for standardization arises. The dialect has lost most of the characteristics of dialects mentioned above, except for its association to a certain place or region. In such a situation it may be more adequate to speak of a regional language instead of a dialect (see also Chapter 9 Endangered Languages, Ethnicity, Identity and Politics). Regional languages are found in many European countries, for example Low German in Germany, Kashubian in Poland, Latgalian in Latvia. Typical for these languages is that they are strongly associated with regional identity and with other parts of the culture of the region. For example, Latgalian is traditionally used in the Catholic church, and Catholicism is an important part of the culture of Latgalia, while other regions in Latvia are predominantly protestant. A regional language is most often used alongside other languages, first of all the respective state language – the speakers are bilingual. Regional languages have much in common with minority languages, but there are also important differences. Speakers of a regional language are not a minority, but part of the majority. For example, speakers of Low German are as much Germans as speakers of High German dialects. It is however not straightforward if we should speak of something as a dialect, a regional language, or a minority language. People usually have different opinions about the status of a particular idiom and use different criteria in their argumentation. Quite often it is a topic of heated public discussion. This shows again how important the issue is.

Study question: Which local varieties in your country have been the subject of public discussion? What were the arguments for calling them a dialect or a (regional/minority) language?

New dialects and social variation

Traditional dialectology, which emerged as a field of linguistic studies in the 19th century, was most interested in rural dialects of a small area and their relationship to neighbouring and other dialects of the same language. For this kind of research, the ideal speaker was an elderly male person who had limited contact with the standard language and whose speech therefore was more traditional and showed “old-fashioned” features. British dialectologists characterized this ideal with the term NORM = non-mobile, older, rural male (Chambers & Trudgill 1980, cited in Barbour & Stevenson 1998: 110). For many non-linguists, too, the stereotype of a dialect speaker is an elder peasant. However, societies in Europe have changed a lot since the late 19th century and the NORM has become a curiosity. Modern dialectological research takes a broader view at dialects and their speakers. For example, linguists now investigate the use of local varieties by different groups within the community, that is, the correlation of dialect speech with social variables such as age, gender, or class. Such research has shown that the reality is often far from the stereotype “old male peasants in the countryside speak dialect, young female students in cities speak standard”. The situation is much more differentiated, and it may be quite different in different parts of Europe. For example, in the southern part of Germany there is often a continuum between “pure dialect” and “pure standard”, and the speech of different speakers can be placed at different parts of this continuum. It may also vary according to situation and interlocutor – for example, at home with my grandmother I speak a variety closer to the “pure dialect”, at school with my friends my variety is somewhere in the middle between dialect and standard, but in more formal situations I speak standard German with just a slight regional accent.

Study question: What is your stereotype of a speaker of a local dialect? Try to think of five possibly different persons you know who speak a dialect – do they conform to the stereotype? Are there differences in the way they speak the dialect?

While in most parts of Europe the “pure” rural dialects that were documented in the 19th century are coming out of use, new local varieties appear. As more and more people nowadays live in cities, urban dialects have gained importance for speakers as well as for linguists. An urban dialect often mixes characteristics of a geographical variety (the rural dialects of the surrounding region) and social varieties (the speech of certain groups of society). For example, the Helsinki urban dialect, called Helsingin slangi or Stadin slangi in Finnish, was originally created and used by young members of the working class. Later it spread among other parts of the society, and today slangi is popular in many different spheres. There is even a slangi version of the information platform of Helsinki City Transport. The urban dialect of Paris (argot parisien in French) had two roots: the speech of Parisian craftsmen and the secret language of crooks (so called thieves’ argot).

Example of an urban dialect: Stadin slangi

At the beginning of the 19th century, Helsinki was a small Swedish speaking town, but when it became the capital of Finland and massive industrialization started, many young Finnish speaking people moved to Helsinki to work there. In the 1880s, the population was mixed and the city was multilingual: Swedish, Finnish, Russian and German were in use. Helsinki slang was created by workers whose mother tongue was Finnish. The grammar of this variety was the same as in colloquial Finnish, but the vocabulary was formed mostly from Swedish words, with some Russian and a little German. In the 20th century, when it was used by more and different people, Helsinki slang changed. In its modern form it is more similar to colloquial Finnish. While the Swedish element is still strong, new vocabulary now often comes from English.

There are several terms used to refer to varieties used by certain groups of speakers within a speech community. Sociolect or social dialect is a broad technical term for such varieties in linguistics. Both linguists and laymen use the term slang to refer to varieties of colloquial speech. We have just seen that the urban dialect of Helsinki is called slang. Another example is teenager slang – varieties used by teenagers for chatting among friends, often associated with school. Sometimes teenagers of one school even have their own kind of slang which differs from that used in other schools. An important function of slang is to demonstrate and maintain in-group relationship: you can hear if someone belongs to your group or is an outsider. Sometimes slang is associated with a certain culture (often a so called “subculture”). A good example is hip hop culture which originates in cultural practices of Afro-American and Latino youth in New York suburbs and is associated with their slang. As hip hop culture became popular in other parts of the world, elements of this slang spread along with the customs, especially rap music. Varieties associated with a professional field (for example, medicine) or an activity (such as hunting or weaving) are called jargons or language for special purposes. A jargon is usually not thought of as non-standard language (while a slang typically is), and it may be used both in speaking and writing. For example, hunters’ jargon is used when people are hunting as well as in professional journals for hunters.

These explanations are only rough guidelines – there is no conformity in the use of such terms. Maybe this is inevitable, because the varieties themselves have many facets and can be classed in different ways. What has been defined as slang above is called dialect by some people, while others use “slang” to refer to a jargon and so on. Another term that is used in different meanings is argot. In his book on secret language, Blake defines argot as “a body of non-standard vocabulary used by a group bound by common interest, isolation, or their opposition to authority” (Blake 2011: 211). We may make a distinction between argot, slang, and jargon by considering the purpose of their use: the main function of slang is to show the speakers’ membership of a community while an argot is used in order not to be understood by outsiders. A jargon in turn mainly offers more differentiated means for communication within a certain field or about a topic.

Vocabulary for special purposes

Slang, argots and jargons differ from the standard variety mainly with respect to vocabulary. How do they build their vocabulary, where do new words come from? There are several techniques that can be found in languages all over the world.

First, the words may come from another language. As mentioned above, the Helsinki urban dialect took its vocabulary mainly from Swedish. Teenager slang nowadays uses many words from English. In medical or academic jargon we find words of Latin and Greek origin. The secret language of British Gypsies is (or was) Anglo-Romani, a language based on English but with many Romani words.

What is Anglo-Romani? An explanation by Prof. Yaron Matras from Manchester University:

“It is reported that the older generations used to use many more Romani words in everyday conversation, but that use of the Romani vocabulary has now declined. Speakers may insert a Romani word occasionally when welcoming Romani guests or when meeting with other family members. Sometimes the use of Romani is for humour, and sometimes British Romanies will use Romani words among themselves in public places in order to prevent Gaujos (non-Gypsies) from understanding what they are saying. Thus, someone might say: ‘the moosh is dikkin us!’ meaning ‘the man is watching us!’. Insertion of the odd Romani word into English conversation is often referred to by scholars as ‘Angloromani’.” (Yaron Matras: Romani in the UK, at:

Can you understand the following comment to Professor Matras’ article? Which words come from Romani, can you guess their meaning?
Bryn Heron, Northampton
My Puri dai and the Rom spoke the pure, inflected chib. Their grandchildren, me included, have only the pogerdi chib, now. I married away from the kawlo rattee, a gawji whom I love to this day. Apart from my grandparents, I have never heard the pure chib spoken. I agree with Jacqueline, though – if you want the pukkered chib, go to the kawlo ratte, not the Romanes Rai or Rawnee.

See also the Angloromani dictionary at:

Second, new words may be created by giving an existing word another meaning. In German hunters’ jargon Licht (standard German ‘light’) refers to the eyes of hoofed game, Mönch (‘monk’) is a stag without antlers, but Schalen (‘bowls’ or ‘shells’ in standard German) are the claws of ground game (examples from the German Wikipedia entry Jägersprache). Examples from British thieves’ argot include pig for ‘policeman’, fork ‘pickpocket’, school ‘prison’, and convent ‘brothel’ (Blake 2011: 214). The old (standard) and the new (special) meaning may be linked by metaphor – a similarity is seen between the two concepts. For example, a stag without antlers is seen as “bald” like a monk with a tonsure. Another technique is choosing a word with an opposite meaning or opposite associations (as in convent for ‘brothel’). This technique may be used just for being funny, but also in contexts where the speakers don’t want to be understood by outsiders. Saying the opposite of what you mean can also be an indicator of a special situation, something out of the ordinary. The Warlpiri people of Central Australia have a variety used in initiation rites called Jiriwirri or “upside-down language”. It consists of reversing the meaning of whole sentences. For example, when the young man says “I am short” it means “you are tall”.

Jiriwirri (or Jiliwirri): saying the opposite from what you mean
(examples from Riemer 2010: 95, citing Hale 1971)

kari ka ngurungka karimi
Ordinary Warlpiri: ’Someone else is standing in the sky’
Jiliwirri: ‘I am sitting on the ground’

ngajurna rdangkarlpa
Ordinary Warlpiri: ‘I am short’
Jiliwirri: ‘You are tall’

Third, new words can be formed by word-formation (see Chapter 3 Language structure) – especially derivation and compounding. The techniques may be the same as in the standard variety, but in slangs and argots there are often some special means of derivation that mark words as belonging to this slang. Sometimes these involve “playing around” with the material of words. Two widespread techniques found in slang and secret languages, as well as in language games popular with children are (i) to insert additional vowels or syllables into a word, and (ii) to reverse the order of syllables or other parts of a word. These two techniques may also be combined. You can find examples from many languages of the world in the English Wikipedia entry Language games. An example for the first technique is Latvian pupinvaloda (“bean language”), where a syllable consisting of the consonant p and the previous vowel is inserted after each syllable of the word. Thus, pu-pin-va-lo-da becomes pu-pu-pi-pin-va-pa-lo-po-da-pa (of course, the fun is in speaking these words quickly). Varieties where the main technique is reversing parts of a word are English Back slang, French Verlans, and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian Šatrovački.

Examples for words created by reversing parts of the original word:

Back slang (examples from Blake 2011: 217): look > cool, market > tekram, yes > say, no good > on doog; hat > tach, home > eemosh; old > delo, knife > eefink, back slang > kecab genals
Verlans (from the French Wikipedia entry Verlans): argent > genhar ‘money’, cigarette > garetteci, copine > pineco ‘(girl) friend’, famille > mifa ‘family’, femme > meuf ‘woman’, comme ça > asmeuk ‘that way’
Šatrovački (from the English Wikipedia entry Šatrovački): pivo > vopi ‘beer’, kafa > fuka ‘coffee’, smrdi > dismr ‘it stinks!’, muž > žmu ‘husband’, pazi > zipa ‘pay attention!’

Two facts are worth noting here. First, although these are primarily or exclusively spoken varieties of a language, at least English Back slang and French Verlans rely on the spelling of a word, thus, written language. For example, if the English word knife [naif] were just spoken backwards, we would get fine [fain]. But the Back slang form of this word is eefink [i:fink] – the letter “e”, which is not pronounced in knife, is part of the Back slang form, where it is pronounced as it is in isolation. The French word femme is pronounced [fam], so if Verlans were based on pronunciation the outcome would be [maf]. Instead, it is [mœf] because that is how the letter “e” is pronounced when stressed. The other interesting fact is that this technique and varieties where it prevails are used by very different groups of speakers – from criminals to children.

Functions of special vocabulary and another look at “cultural” language

All the techniques for vocabulary formation discussed here can have at least three functions:

  • they can serve as a code to conceal the content of a communication from outsiders,
  • they can be a marker of identity, of belonging to a group (those who know the technique and are able to understand and create new words are “in”), and
  • they can be part of playing with language – something not only children enjoy.

A fourth function was touched upon with the example of Jiriwirri –

  • special words can be used to mark a situation or a conversation as extraordinary.

This function may be less important in Europe, but it is an important part, for example, of Australian aboriginal cultures. Several Australian languages have special varieties used in conversations between family members where a participant of the conversation is by social convention not allowed to speak in an ordinary way to another person. There are certain taboos, words that must be avoided in the presence of certain persons, and therefore a variety called avoidance language must be used. As the taboo often involves in-laws, avoidance languages are also called mother-in-law languages (the variety a man must use when speaking to his mother-in-law). In these avoidance languages we find the same techniques as described above: using words from another language, giving words another meaning, or forming new words by special rules.

“Mother-in-law languages” may strike us as exotic, but the wisdom behind this phenomenon is one shared by European cultures as well: social relations determine the way we use language, and certain situations require special ways of speaking. This may bring us to a new definition of a “cultural” (cultivated) person with respect to language: it is someone who uses different varieties according to the social rules of their culture(s). No variety is in itself “bad language” – it only becomes “bad” when used out of place.

Language is doing and culture is a verb

For both culture and language, various scholars have independently noted that these concepts are better understood as activities or processes, not as things – they are something we do or something that happens rather than something that exists or something that we possess. To illustrate this idea, we may try to use the names of these concepts as verbs instead of nouns. For example, we may say “we culture” instead of “we have (a) culture”, or “languaging is an important activity in human life” instead of “language is an important tool for humans”. The cultural anthropologist Brian Street used the statement “Culture is a verb” in the title of a paper about the problems of defining culture. Reasoning about the nature of language, Wilhelm von Humboldt argued already in 1836 that language is not a product or result of activities, but the activity itself, and a creative force.

This perspective leads us to new questions regarding the connection between culture and language, for example: How and in which situations do we do culture with language? Which linguistic activities are cultural practices? What forms do they have in different cultures?

We may distinguish everyday cultural practices and those performed only at special occasions. Another distinction is between practices shared by all members of a community and customs which are performed only by special members, because they require more training or talent (such as writing poems) or a special status (such as preaching). Examples for customs performed by ordinary members of a culture are: exchanging greetings, saying grace before a meal, thanking for a gift, writing text messages wishing a happy birthday, singing Christmas carols, sending cards at weddings, reading a newspaper at breakfast, reading bedtime stories to children, writing diaries or blogs…. Some of these customs are universal – greeting and thanking are found everywhere in the world – others are more culture specific. Some are oral practices (performed by speaking and listening), others are literary practices (using writing and reading).

Languaging happens everywhere... (seen in Berlin, photo Nicole Nau)

Languaging happens everywhere… (seen in Berlin, photo Nicole Nau)

When a practice is widespread among cultures, there are still differences in the way it is performed. We become aware of these differences when we learn another language and visit the place where it is spoken. For example, we recognize that it is not enough to learn the words for saying “hello” and “thank you” – we also have to learn the rules for their use. There may be different rules for when you have to say “thank you” and what the person who is thanked replies; different rules for who greets first when two people meet and which particular greeting is used in which situation (“hello” or “good afternoon, Sir”); different rules for whether you should send a card or rather express your congratulation in person, and so on. The more the culture where we are guests differs from our own, the more we recognize how much of our daily use of language is in fact cultural practices. A certain occasion, for example starting a meal or drinking wine at a party, may require just one or a few words in one culture, while in another culture much more has to be said or written.

People in the Caucasus are famous for performing elaborate toasts instead of just saying “cheers!”. Click here to watch an example of a toast performed in the endangered language Svan.

Genres (text types)

Language is a constant companion of our everyday life, and it is used for many more purposes than to convey information. Important social acts such as marrying or welcoming a child to a community are performed by speaking certain formulas. Many celebrations require elaborate speeches. Using language is often an important part of religious practices: saying prayers, performing rites, paying respect to God, speaking to the deceased. Each practice comes in a certain form that can be more or less fixed by tradition. For example, in many cultures the marriage vow has a fixed form. This is the English version of the Roman Catholic marriage vow:

I, ____, take you, ____, to be my (husband/wife). I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life. (source:

In this example each word is fixed, the vow has to be spoken in exactly this form. Other ceremonies only determine the structure of a text and require the presence of certain elements, but otherwise allow for variation. A speech given by a student at a graduation ceremony will include elements such as: greeting the guests (in a certain order, for example: director, teachers, parents, fellow students), recalling the past years (maybe including some anecdotes), thanking teachers and parents for the education, expressing wishes for the future.

The different forms of different linguistic practices (whether we think of them as cultural practices or not) are called genres or text types. The term genre is probably best known from literary studies, where it refers to types of literary works such as the drama, the novel, the poem. In linguistics it is used in a broader sense and may refer to more mundane texts as well, both written and spoken. For example, cooking recipes are a genre, as are greeting cards, forum discussions, or oral exams at school. A genre is characterized by its structure, the choice of words and constructions, the structure and length of sentences, and by certain features of pronunciation. It has been shaped by the situation in which the text is produced and by the function it has. The function of a cooking recipe is to instruct how to do something, therefore we find constructions such as imperatives (“take two eggs”). The function of radio news is to inform, therefore they are read in a neutral voice, while a story read to entertain listeners is delivered in a more vivid mode, and a sermon read during worship requires still another intonation. If you listen to the radio in a language you don’t understand, you often can guess which type of program you are listening to.

In each culture we find very many different genres, and it is probably impossible to make a full inventory of the genres used in one speech community. As cultural practices change, some are given up and some new ones are started, genres also change and new ones may be introduced. Take for example cooking recipes. The typical recipe is a short written text published in a cookbook (or a journal, or a web-site and so on). It is written in the absence of the reader and read in the absence of the writer. Though this text type is known from ancient India and China and is widespread in today’s Europe, it is evident that it is not universal. It is more natural to pass on knowledge about cooking by showing and explaining while preparing the meal than by writing a text. We also note that the word for recipe is often borrowed (compare in Europe alone: English recipe, French recette, Spanish receta, German Rezept, Russian recept, Swedish recept, Finnish resepti), which shows that the genre itself has spread from culture to culture, alongside the practice of sharing knowledge about meals in this form.

At the Sorosoro website on endangered languages you find two videos where speakers from Africa explain the preparation of a traditional meal. Compare the video (with the help of the subtitles) with the recipes given at the same site: How do these two forms of explanation differ? What do they have in common?

In many European countries cooking shows on television or videos on the Internet are popular today. How is the preparation of meals explained there – is it more similar to the Sorosoro videos or to the written recipes? (For English, you may try the videos on Jamie Oliver’s website at

Verbal art: Oral traditions

In each culture there are certain texts or text types that have a special status: they are held in special esteem because they are thought of as representing the culture more than other texts and as showing a more elaborate, artful use of language than texts for everyday functions such as cooking recipes. In European cultures this kind of language use is often associated with the word literature. The word literature is historically linked to the word letter (Latin littera) and thus to writing. This makes it awkward to use this word when speaking about oral texts and performances. Even if the existence of “oral literature” is acknowledged, written texts are thought of as primary and more important for the concept of literature. For example, the Polish Wikipedia entry on literature begins like this:

Literatura piękna – typ piśmiennictwa (także dzieł ustnych) …
‘Literature – a type of writing (also of oral works) …’

Writing is much younger and much less widespread among the cultures of the world than oral forms of verbal art, which is a more neutral term. A definition that reflects this relationship might start like this:

Verbal art – a type of language use (including written works) …

At the beginning of this chapter we referred to UNESCO’s definition of intangible cultural heritage, of which oral traditions are an essential part. The examples UNESCO gives of oral traditions are also examples of verbal art:

Oral traditions – verbal art
“The oral traditions and expressions domain encompasses an enormous variety of spoken forms including proverbs, riddles, tales, nursery rhymes, legends, myths, epic songs and poems, charms, prayers, chants, songs, dramatic performances and more. Oral traditions and expressions are used to pass on knowledge, cultural and social values and collective memory. They play a crucial part in keeping cultures alive.” UNESCO

Let’s take a closer look at one of these types (genres), the riddle, to understand what is special about oral traditions and verbal art.

Riddles and riddling

Riddles are one of the two shortest forms of verbal art (the other one is proverbs). They often consist in only one sentence. Riddles are found all over the world, though there are some cultures where they are not known or used rarely. Sometimes riddles of different parts of the world are very similar. Here are some examples (sources of the riddles are given in the reference section at the end of this chapter):

language riddle solution
Quechua Rinki rinki qatisunki. ‘You go and go and it follows you.’ Llantu
Mordvinian Molʲat, molʲ, latkat, latki. ‘When you move it moves, when you stop it stops.’ Sulʲej

It’s your… Shadow

language riddle solution
Tshanglakha (Bhutan) Lha khang karp chi nang gomchen serp chi yed mi ga chi mo?
‘Inside a white monastery there is a yellow monk.’
Gong do
Ibanag (Philippines) Pira y levu na / Vulauan y unag na.
‘What is golden that is surrounded with silver?’
Latgalian Puorsit myuru, atrassi sudabru, puorsit sudabru, atrassi zaltu.
‘Knock down the wall and you’ll find silver, knock down the silver and you’ll find gold.’
Turkish Altun apamaz, gümüş tapamaz, o gırılınca dünya yapamaz.
‘Gold cannot carry it away. Silver cannot find it. Once it is broken, the world cannot repair it.’
Photo Biswarup Ganguly (CC)

Photo Biswarup Ganguly (CC)

But riddles may also be specific to a certain culture so that one needs cultural knowledge to solve them. Look at the following examples that again have a similar answer:

language riddle solution
Manx Myr yeeagh mee harrish boalley chashtal my ayrey honnick mee yn marroo curlesh ny bioee ersooyl.
‘As I looked over my father’s castle wall I saw the dead carrying the living away.’
Latgalian Dzeivs byudams, zaļu krūni nas, numiers, duorga dveseleit.
‘While it is alive it carries a green crown, when it is dead it carries a dear soul.’

The answer is “ship” (Manx) or “boat” (Latgalian). What you have to know is that ships and boats are made of wood. If your idea of a ship is a big white ship made of metal, you don’t understand the riddle. In addition, you have to think of trees as something living and consequently of their wood as something dead, and you have to see a tree and wood as being essentially the same thing.

Riddles can have at least three different functions. First, they encode a small piece of knowledge, an observation made about something that seems worth sharing. Giving children riddles is a way of passing on this knowledge. This is the educating function of riddles. For example, the following riddle:

language riddle solution
Mordvinian tʲelʲnʲa ašo, kizna sʲormav. ‘In winter white, in summer checkered.’ Numolo

encodes the information that the animal in question (have you guessed it?) has a different fur in summer and in winter. The educating function of riddles is not so much to teach something new, but to strengthen knowledge, including cultural knowledge, by saying what is known in a new, interesting way.

Photo: Steve Sayles (CC, flickr)

Photo: Steve Sayles (CC, flickr)

Second, riddles have what may be called a poetic function. As pieces of verbal art, riddles are a way to express an observation or an idea in a poetic way, using techniques such as metaphor, parallelism, word play, rhythm, or rhyme. The latter also help to memorize the riddle. Metaphors are an invitation to look at something familiar in a new way, by comparing it to something else. In traditional riddles typical semantic fields for comparison are natural phenomena, body parts, and objects of everyday use. Here are two riddles where body parts are compared to parts of landscape:

language riddle solution
Tshanglakha Tsho nyig tshing rum la rum la dag pa phu thur gi tok pa hang kharbey?
‘Two seas are about to merge but blocked by a mountain. What is it?’
Ming nyig tshing cham ka nawong.
Tshanglakha Dar phu chig gi nang dren po per gang yed pa sholong?
‘A handful of guests present in a cave. What is it?’

Sometimes a riddle sounds like a little poem:

language riddle, solution translation
English White bird featherless
Flew from Paradise,
Perched upon the castle wall;
Up came Lord John landless,
Took it up handless,
And rode away horseless
To the King’s white hall.
Quechua (Peru) Tras tras chakicha,
Frazada qepicha.
‘Trot trot little feet
carrying blanket.’
Sami Loddi girdá
ja varra goaiku soajáin.
‘A bird flies
and blood drips
from its wingtips’

In the Quechua example we find a play with sounds and rhythm: the words tras tras have no meaning, they just imitate the sound of trotting (and in this way give a sound image of the concept that is to be guessed), and the word frazada ‘blanket’ is a loan from Spanish that was chosen because its sound shape fits better to tras tras than the corresponding Quechua word.

The Sami example is especially intriguing. Harald Gaski, who published this riddle, writes thus about it: “As with poetry generally you can think of several interpretive possibilities”. Here is his suggested solution:

“We must think of an evening hour with the sun setting and a boat being rowed on the water. When we observe the boat from land it looks like a bird flying (typically Sami to see the beautiful and poetic in all motion!) and every time the rower takes a new stroke, water drips from the tips of the oars, which against the light looks like drops of blood.” (Harald Gaski)

Third, riddles have an entertaining function: they are used to make fun, to show one’s wit, or to tease someone. The second Sami riddle that Harald Gaski mentions at his site is a good example of a funny riddle:

language riddle translation
Sami Olmmoš huiká guovtti vári gaskkas
ii ge oaččo veahki.
‘A person shouts between two mountains
but doesn’t get help.’

(Hint: the two mountains are a body part and the shouting a certain sound that sometimes escapes from there.)

Up to now we spoke of riddles as a genre, a type of text. If we recall that culture is doing we easily see that the text is only part of the game. Another part is the rules of playing it. A riddle needs to be performed to be a riddle – or, better, to become an instance of riddling. Performance is essential to oral traditions, to those instances of verbal art that do not depend on writing. Furthermore, riddling is a practice that requires interaction. You may write a poem all alone and keep it in your drawer, but the wittiest riddle is not really a riddle when it is not given to another person to guess. It takes at least two to riddle! This is especially true for the educating and the entertaining function of riddles (riddling). In cultures where the art of riddling is alive, it is often performed in certain settings: there is a time and place for it. For example, in rural European cultures before the industrial revolution riddling was a typical activity when people came together to do evening work. The setting is yet another part of the oral tradition.

As oral traditions are performed in certain settings and with certain functions, they are vulnerable to changes within a community. When the setting does notexist anymore (as in the above example – European peasants do not come together in this way anymore) or the function is taken over by other practices (for example, children receive their wisdom from books instead of being given riddles by adults), the cultural practice gets lost. The genre, the text, may survive – riddles are written down and collected in books, but this is not the same as riddling.

When an oral tradition is lost because a community becomes more and more literate and written literature takes up the greatest and most esteemed part of verbal art, two things often happen. For one, the text of the oral tradition becomes a (written) literary genre. In Europe we find literary riddles already in Latin. A literary riddle exists as a text that is not part of a game, a performance. Another difference to the oral tradition of riddling is that a literary riddle often has a known author. As part of an oral tradition a riddle typically belongs to everyone who can play it, it is not important who was the first to think of it (except for situations where the game includes inventing new riddles). Second, as an oral cultural practice riddling becomes a children’s game. Children naturally depend less on the written word, as they are only in the process of getting literate. Many European children like to riddle, while adults rarely do it – they think it is childish. However, in societies where the practice of riddling is fully alive, it is practised by all ages. There may be special riddles for children, while others are exclusively for adults.

Oral traditions and endangered languages

What was said above about riddles could be said about other oral traditions as well. Regarding the fate of oral traditions in literate societies, another good example is the folk tale. Many people in Europe today think that folk tales (fairy tales) are for children. They are told or, more often, read, to children, not to adults. This is the result of a development that started when the cultural practice of telling tales to different listeners was given up and partly replaced by reading, or later by watching television. Where the practice is still alive, there are often skilled and trained story-tellers to whom adults like to listen. On the other hand, the fairy tale has become a literary genre and as such is cultivated by known authors. The traditional folk tale is embedded in a practice carried out in a certain setting and with certain functions – entertaining, educating, passing on cultural knowledge. This tradition has been lost in many industrialized societies.

Task: Watch videos of traditional African stories at the Soroso site. Which of the videos were produced trying to show the traditional setting of this practice? What characterizes this setting?

You may say: well, in old times people were telling each other tales, today we have books and films. It is only natural that cultural practices change over time. Is that a bad thing?

It isn’t a bad thing, if people are happy with it and don’t miss anything, which is often the case when the change is gradual. Those interested in the texts – riddles, fairy tales, songs etc. – may enjoy them in their written form, as films or music recordings, without the former practices. If you speak a “big” language with a long history of documenting cultural practices, such as English, German, or Polish, you won’t feel that you lost something because people don’t tell riddles and tales anymore (or maybe you do?). However, for smaller and endangered languages the situation is different. Here, the cultural change that comes with industrialization and globalization often is sudden, within a few generations. There is no time and no possibility to record old tales and songs. Customs, genres and texts are lost without a trace. New customs (reading books, watching films, performing pop music) are often adopted together with a new language – English or another “big” language that is important in the region. In such a situation it more than often happens that people feel they are losing (or already have lost) something very important: a part of their identity. Keeping oral traditions alive is a way to maintain a language. And keeping a language alive is a way to maintain cultural diversity. This idea is strongly supported by UNESCO, and we will close this chapter with another quotation from their text about intangible cultural heritage:

“Different languages shape how stories, poems and songs are told, as well as affecting their content. The death of a language inevitably leads to the permanent loss of oral traditions and expressions. However, it is these oral expressions themselves and their performance in public that best help to safeguard a language rather than dictionaries, grammars and databases. Languages live in songs and stories, riddles and rhymes and so the protection of languages and the transmission of oral traditions and expressions are very closely linked.” (UNESCO)

But the last word in this chapter shall be given to the speaker of an endangered language, Miyako, the singer Isamu Shimoji:

“Me, I sing songs in the Miyako language. I record them on CDs which are then sold in the whole country. I do this because I want the language to last for the future generations. Actually I don’t have the feeling that it’s my duty or anything. What I mean is just that there is a world that can only be described with the Miyako language. A world which no Japanese words could express, a world which cannot be translated into Japanese. This is a kind of culture that lives within a language. And so I sing with the intention to convey this world in my songs.” (Isamu Shimoji, translated by Aleksandra Jarosz)

Listen to Isamu Shimoji sing in Miyako here!


Let’s Revise! – Chapter 6

Go to the Let’s Revise section to see what you can learn from this chapter or test how much you have already learnt!

References and further reading/listening

General references

  • Barbour, Stephen & Patrick Stevenson. 1998. Variation im Deutschen. Soziolinguistische Perspektiven. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
    [English original: Barbour, Stephen & Patrick Stevenson. 1990. Variation in German: A critical approach to German sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.]
  • Biber, Douglas & Susan Conrad. 2009. Register, genre, and style. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Blake, Barry J. 2011. Secret language: codes, tricks, spies, thieves, and symbols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hale, K. L. 1971. A note on a Walpiri tradition of antonymy. In: Steinberg, D. and Jakobovits, L. (eds.) Semantics. An interdisciplinary reader in philosophy, linguistics and psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 472–482.
  • Riemer, Nick. 2010. Introducing semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For teachers: Lesson outlines for teaching about oral traditions


Read and hear more about local dialects, listen to examples and find links to dialect related sites:

  • British dialects:
  • English dialects (American, British, Irish):
  • English dialects and English spoken by different speakers, including immigrants: IDEA International Dialects of English Archive:


  • Eine Deutschlandreise fürs Ohr (Deutsche Welle): dw/article/0,,4230751,00.html



Sources of the riddles in the section on verbal art

  • Ibanag:
  • Latgalian: Łotysze Inflant Polskich, a w szczególności z gminy Wielońskiej powiatu Rzeżyckiego. Obraz etnograficzny przez Stefanię Ulanowską. Część II. Zbiór Wiadomości do Antropologii Krajowej, Tom XVI, Dz. II, 104-218. Kraków 1892.
  • Manx: William Cashen’s Manx Folklore. Edited by Stephen Miller. Electronic edition. Onchan, Isle of Man: Chiollagh Books 2005.
  • Mordvinian: Mészáros, Edit. 2000. Az erza-mordvin nyelv alapjai. Budapest: Budapesti Finnugor Füzetek 14.
  • Quechua: Isbell, Bilie Jean & Fredy Amilcar Roncalla Fernandez. 1977. The ontogenesis of metaphor: riddle games among Quechua speakers seen as cognitive discovery procedures. Journal of Latin American Lore 3:1, 19-49.
  • Sami: Gaski, Harald: Folk wisdom and orally transmitted knowledge – Everyday poetry In adages, rhyme and riddles.
  • Tshanglakha: Dorji, Tshering. 2007. Khar: The oral tradition of game of riddles in Tshanglakha speaking community of Eastern Bhutan. Journal of Bhutan Studies 17, 55-82. Available at:
  • Turkish: Başgöz, İlhan & Andreas Tietze. 1973. Bilmece: A corpus of Turkish riddles. Berkeley: University of California Press. Cited after: Jennes, Andrew E. 2011. What is the difference between an undergrate thesis and a riddle? Parsing the linguistic and cultural structures of folk riddling. Thesis, Swarthmore College.

Solutions to riddles (if not given in the text): Tshanglakha: 1. eyes and nose, 2. teeth in the mouth; English: snow; Quechua: sheep.
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