Cultural Transmission: Examples in Language

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Dad talking to daughter
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In linguistics, cultural transmission is the process whereby a language is passed on from one generation to the next in a community. Also known as cultural learning and socio/cultural transmission.

Cultural transmission is generally regarded as one of the key characteristics distinguishing human language from animal communication. However, as Willem Zuidema points out, cultural transmission "is not unique to language or humans—we also observe it in e.g., music and bird song—but rare among primates and a key qualitative feature of language" ("Language in Nature" in The Language Phenomenon, 2013).

Linguist Tao Gong has identified three primary forms of cultural transmission:

  1. Horizontal transmission, communications among individuals of the same generation;
  2. Vertical transmission, in which a member of one generation talks to a biologically-related member of a later generation;
  3. Oblique transmission, in which any member of one generation talks to any non-biologically-related member of a later generation.

("Exploring the Roles of Major Forms of Cultural Transmission in Language Evolution" in The Evolution of Language, 2010).

Examples and Observations

"While we may inherit physical features such as brown eyes and dark hair from our parents, we do not inherit their language. We acquire a language in a culture with other speakers and not from parental genes. . . .

"The general pattern in animal communication is that creatures are born with a set of specific signals that are produced instinctively.

There is some evidence from studies of birds as they develop their songs that instinct has to combine with learning (or exposure) in order for the right song to be produced. If those birds spend their first seven weeks without hearing other birds, they will instinctively produce songs or calls, but those songs will be abnormal in some way.

Human infants, growing up in isolation, produce no 'instinctive' language. Cultural transmission of a specific language is crucial in the human acquisition process." (George Yule, The Study of Language, 4th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2010)

"The evidence that human beings do indeed have species-unique modes of cultural transmission is overwhelming. Most importantly, the cultural traditions and artifacts of human beings accumulate modification over time in a way that those of other animal species do not—so-called cumulative cultural evolution." (Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press, 1999)

"A basic dichotomy in language evolution is between the biological evolution of the language capacity and the historical evolution of individual languages, mediated by cultural transmission (learning)."
(James R. Hurford, "The Language Mosaic and Its Evolution." Language Evolution, ed. by Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby. Oxford University Press, 2003)

Language As a Means of Cultural Transmission

"One of the most important functions of language is its role in the construction of reality. Language is not simply a tool for communication, it is also a guide to what [Edward] Sapir terms social reality.

Language has a semantic system, or a meaning potential which enables the transmission of cultural values (Halliday 1978: 109). Therefore, while the child is learning language, other significant learning is taking place through the medium of language. The child is simultaneously learning the meanings associated with the culture, realized linguistically by the lexico-grammatical system of the language (Halliday 1978: 23)." (Linda Thompson, "Learning Language: Learning Culture in Singapore." Language, Education and Discourse: Functional Approaches, ed. by Joseph A. Foley. Continuum, 2004)

The Language-Learning Disposition

"Languages—Chinese, English, Maori, and so forth—differ because they have different histories, with a variety of factors such as population movements, social stratification, and the presence or absence of writing affecting these histories in subtle ways.

However, these mind-external, place-and-time specific factors interact in every generation with the language faculty found in every human. It is this interaction that determines the relative stability and the slow transformation of languages and puts limits on their variability. . . . Generally, whereas day-to-day cultural changes in language use may introduce new idiosyncrasies and difficulties such as hard-to-pronounce borrowed words, the language-learning disposition operating at the generational timescale pulls the mental representations of these inputs toward more regular and easily remembered forms. . . .

"The case of language learning . . . illustrates how the existence of a genetically inherited disposition is a factor in the stabilization of cultural forms not by directly generating these forms but by causing learners to pay special attention to certain types of stimuli and to use—and sometimes distort—the evidence provided by these stimuli in specific ways. This, of course, leaves room for much cultural variability."
(Maurice Bloch, Essays on Cultural Transmission. Berg, 2005)

Social Symbol Grounding

"Social symbol grounding refers to the process of developing a shared lexicon of perceptually-grounded symbols in a population of cognitive agents. . . . In slow, evolutionary terms, it refers to the gradual emergence of language. Our ancestors started from a pre-linguistic, animal-like society with no explicit symbolic and communicative means. During evolution, this led to the collective development of shared languages used to talk about entities in the physical, internal and social world.

In ontogenetic terms, social symbol grounding refers to the process of language acquisition and cultural transmission. In early age, children acquire the language of the groups they belong to via imitation of their parents and peers. This leads to the gradual discovery and construction of linguistic knowledge (Tomasello 2003). During adulthood this process continues through the general mechanisms of cultural transmission."
(Angelo Cangelosi, "The Grounding and Sharing of Symbols." Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds, ed. by Itiel E. Dror and Stevan R. Harnad. John Benjamins, 2008)