Symbols and Language in Human Culture

To the human mind, symbols are cultural representations of reality. Every culture has its own set of symbols associated with different experiences and perceptions. Thus, as a representation, a symbol's meaning is neither instinctive nor automatic. The culture's members must interpret and over time reinterpret the symbol.

Symbols occur in different forms: verbal or nonverbal, written or unwritten. They can be anything that conveys a meaning, such as words on the page, drawings, pictures, and gestures. Clothing, homes, cars, and other consumer items are symbols that imply a certain level of social status.

Perhaps the most powerful of all human symbols is language—a system of verbal and sometimes written representations that are culturally specific and convey meaning about the world. In the 1930s, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that languages influence perceptions. While this Sapir‐Whorf hypothesis—also called the linguistic relativity hypothesis—is controversial, it legitimately suggests that a person will more likely perceive differences when he or she possesses words or concepts to describe the differences.

Language is an important source of continuity and identity in a culture. Some groups, such as the French‐speaking residents of Quebec in Canada, refuse to speak English, which is Canada's primary language, for fear of losing their cultural identity although both English and French are Canada's official languages. In the United States, immigrants provide much resistance to making English the official national language.