For me, the most interesting and profound lecture was the one about meaning, particularly how language is tied to the way we make sense of the world. Every time we communicate, our understanding of the situation and our understanding of the words we use influence each other and this influence can shape the way we think about our own or another culture.
In “The Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” Horace Miner shows that the words we use to describe a culture can powerfully influence how readers view it. Miner describes the Nacirema as using “magical charms” and going to see “medicine men.” These words are associated in American culture with irrational and archaic practices and therefore with people who are ignorant or gullible. Simply by using words that have these connotations, Miner convinces us that the Nacirema must be deluded, primitive or in some other way lacking in scientific knowledge, even though there is no evidence that this is true. This is very similar to Whorf’s story about the man who threw a cigarette butt into tub of gasoline vapors because he associated the idea of “empty” with “safe” and “inflammable.” In both cases the meanings that we associate with certain words warp our perception of reality to the point that our beliefs are contrary to the facts.
Language is also important in our production and reinforcement of cultural difference between groups. “Race and Human Diversity” shows that there are many different ways to categorize peopleand that different cultures use different methods. However, Americans continue to use skin color as the basis for race. This is partly because our understanding of race is underscored by the racial labels we have such as “black” or “white.” These names exclude the possibility that we could divide people up by any characteristic other than skin color because skin color is already inherent in the name. By highlighting the difference in skin color, our racial terms encourage us to focus only on that.
The symbiotic links between language and culture are also evidenced in the ways different societies perceive and talk about kinship. Kinship terms vary between cultures, but they do not vary arbitrarily. They are adapted to suit that society’s unique perception of what kinship is and what those relationships mean. For example, according to Rosman and Rubel in “Chapter 6: Ties that Connect: Marriage, Family, and Kinship,” in Na communities in China there is no word for father. This is because for the Na, a strongly matrilineal society, the father has no relationship with his children; the children are solely descended from the mother’s family. Therefore there is no need to have that kinship term, because the father is not considered kin. In this way the language both reflects the culture and reinforces the thought patterns that created it.