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Edward Sapir (1921) Language, Race and Culture

Article “Language. An Introduction to the Study of Speech” is a significant part of Edward Sapir’s major work, the book Language. Although the book deals mainly with internal structure of the language, the discussed chapter “X. Language, Race and Culture” highlights the anthropological aspect - the correlation between such concepts as language, culture, and race. In this article, the author gives the explanation to the concepts of language-culture-race as central cones in terms of studying the humanity. He points out the fact that these three features do not exist in a parallel way, and therefore, their development goes on separately from one another.  Races can be transformed and mixed in different ways unlike languages. That is why sometimes, a language zone does not coincide with the race zone. The main object of discussion is the English language. With the help of this example, the author states that there is no great difference between the English, Scottish, and Irish nations, and this notion is explained rather through the local aspect than ethnic identification. Author provides more examples of the discrepancy between race and language that are mainly based on geographical criteria. Moreover, the author states that there is no connection between language and culture by providing the examples of the cultures of the USA and Great Britain as these cultures are served by the similar language. According to these evidences, the author claims that the notion of “nationality” is a notion that is an accumulation of such criteria as economic, geographic, and cultural aspects rather than language identity. Depending on the conditions of life, different groups may have different language systems corresponding to the social and cultural environment. There are no two languages that are so similar to represent the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are different, and they are not just the same world divided by kind of labels (i.e. languages). The article discusses the heuristic function of the language, its influence on the perception of reality and, consequently, on people’s experience: social language affects the way of understanding the reality of society. Therefore, Sapir’s language is a symbolic system that does not refer only to experience gained largely independently of the system and that, in some ways, defines people’s experience. Sapir follows to the movement, according to which different observers of the same world analyze it through incommensurable systems of concepts. The meaning of these concepts is not revealed in experience, but imposed upon it by influence of exerted language form on people’s orientation in the world.

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In my opinion, Sapir’s theory about the coherence between race and language is quite convincing as he appeals to the fact that it is possible to observe the existence of some languages beyond the spatial aspect of the particular race and vice versa. An example for it is the English language that serves as mother tongue for most Afro-Americans in the USA despite their race relevance towards the rest of the white population. The author considers one of the main reasons providing the discrepancy between race and language in the following way. He thinks that geographical position of the Germanic languages represents the assumption that they were produced from the adoption of some other Indo-European dialect by the Baltic people who possessed the language that was genetically different from the Indo-European group to which that the language of Anglo-Saxons belonged. An interesting issue stated by Sapir is about the distinction between the English, Scottish and Irish nations. The author denies the fact of their definition as three separate races explaining their diversity by local-sentimental approach. The most problematic point of Sapir’s theory is that it underestimates the impact of culture on the language and brings the complex and multifaceted relationship between these two systems in a very simplified scheme. Language is inextricably linked to culture; culture determines the content of language units, and they, in turn, determine the behavior of the carriers of a particular culture. In my opinion, language and culture are related as two interacting semiotic systems that occur at the intersection of linguistic culture - third semiotic system in which the signs of language act as signs of culture, gaining additional cultural meanings and entering into other relations with each other. The reason of such point of view is in Sapir’s vision of culture as a kind of social heritage - any socially inherited element of human life - both material and spiritual. This kind of definition is quite controversial as it includes the notion of the result without mentioning the notion of the process of forming culture. Although Sapir agrees with the kind of connection between culture and language, he admits this connection only on the lexical level as a necessary level to express the realities of the particular culture. Hence, he pointed out the importance of more detailed and deep analysis of language that has nothing in common with the analysis of its vocabulary.

Edward Sapir was a representative of the Linguistic Anthropology and a student of Franz Boas, which made a significant influence on his work. Boas professed equality for all languages in the world, and he was an implacable antiracist. This idea was continued by Edward Sapir in his theory about any absence of the connection between race and language. Similar to Boas, Sapir argues that there are no higher and lower races. The theory made a significant influence on shaping the current science outlook on the matter of world languages stratification. The impact on the world Linguistic Anthropology is his claim that culture is defined as the product of society’s thinking and conducting, and language is the way in which society is doing that. Therefore, it introduces the idea that only through the plan of the language content one can investigate the mindset of the nation and its way of perceiving the world.

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