TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. September 2010

Sektion 2.2. Identity, Authenticity, Locality, Urbanity and Speech Community: A New Sociolinguistic Perspective | Identität, Authentizität, lokale- und städtische Veränderungen und Sprachgemeinschaften: Eine neue soziolinguistische Perspektive
Sektionsleiter | Section Chairs: Meryem Şen (Kocaeli University, Turkey), İmran Karabağ

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Linguistic Relativity: Lexical understanding across languages

Augustine Agwuele (Texas State University, USA) [BIO]




The study of this paper focuses on language use, in the sense of communicative competence (Hymes, 1972) and in the sense of “to what extent culturally specific pattern of use-both in beliefs and practice mediate (mine emphasis) the impact of language and thought” Lucy (1996: 37). By asking English-Yoruba bilinguals to express in Yoruba two English phrases: sexual identity and group identity; the aimed to understand the basis on which speakers and hearers arrive at the same understanding of these linguistic contents. The result shows even where concepts are attested across language and cultural boarders, communities differ in the value they attach to them; they also differ not only in the habitual associations, expectations but also in the way they use them to accomplish various purposes. Results also show that it is the society’s beliefs, their culture and socio-historical circumstances that map intentions and expected responses to lexical items. It channels the attention of participants to a way of being and of handling within the context of their discourse community. As such language use is a local. The place of phonetic code in this context is to cause hearers and speakers to converge in the way they perceive and respond to it. Finally, while monolingual Yoruba are completely familiar with the concept of identity, bilingual speakers, who were mostly accustomed to using the phrase in English, appeared unable to invoke the reminiscent features of the western notions of these concepts when expressing them in Yoruba.



Through enculturation we become functioning members of our society. We speak like people around us; we make the same basic assumptions about the world and we conduct our affairs in like fashion. Changing from one linguistic community to another implicates a change not only in culture but also in language and more importantly in sensitivity to and perception of the world around us. Such a crossing in language and culture will produce in the speaker a new form of habit in the association of sign and meaning. According to Sapir “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, … The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predisposes certain choices on interpretation (Sapir, 1956 [1929], 69). Since Whorf’s assertion “that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers, but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world” (1956. 221), the interrelatedness of language and culture and the reciprocal influences that they exert on one other have continued to pose, for the humanities, the challenging question of linguistic and cultural relativity. New-comers in a community are quick to note how members of that community are linked not only by language, accent, instinct and culture, i.e., shared values and assumptions but also by actions and expectations that arise due to them. Does the language that we speak force on us a certain view and interpretation of the world? Do differences between languages lead to differences in worldview, thinking and habitual responses? This paper presents the result of a simple survey conducted to further test the view that there is a linguistic constraint on thoughts and handling and argues for a certain cultural affordance for the using and parsing of the contents and views inherent in any linguistic sign. Essentially, this paper follows Sturrock (1986.22) to understand “how signs mean.”



The notion that language determines thought is drawn from Whorf’s assertion (1956. 221). Over the years Whorf’s claim has been variously explicated and reformulated (Lucy, 1992) as well as tested empirically.  In most cases, the test studies were designed around an aspect or feature of language that is taken as integral to thought (Boroditsky, 2001; Lucy & Gaskins, 2001; Sera, Berga & del Castillo, 1994); language use has not been as prominent, but see (Hymes 1972; Palmer, 1996; Slobin, 1996). According to Roman Jacobson “we speak in order to be heard; to be heard in order to be understood” (Jacobson, 1937). Normally speakers subconsciously adhere to the grammatical requirements of their language; they arrive at the expected interpretation and produce the expected response during communication. Deviations from this ‘ethnocentricism’ not only lead to misunderstanding and confusion, they sometimes are significant sources of amusement. For example, a student of German from Finland once asked in the class what he did wrong to have elicited laughter in a restaurant. He recounted that after his meal, the waitress while removing the plates asked him if she could get him anything else. He had responded; “Nein danke, ich bin befriedigt(1). [No, thank you, I am satisfied (gratified)]. He was shocked by the laughter that followed this response both from the waitress and other diners; he now asks the class why they were so rude to him. He was visibly hurt that his narrative also elicited laughter from the class. In spite of the efforts of many to explain the sexual reference implicated in the phrase, he remained convinced that he had used the phrase correctly. He pointed to Langenscheidt’s’ definition of Befriedigung as he continued to argue. Regardless of the grammatical accuracy in the ordering of lexical items, if speakers and hearers are unable to arrive at the same interpretation of an utterance, communication cannot be said to have been successful (linguistic vs. communicative competence). In view of this, lexical items could be said to orientate speakers and hearers to a common understanding, view and value of an utterance, and lead them to a uniform construction of meaning and a convergence in the way of being and doing things within their society. To belong to, and communicate effectively within, a community of practice (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992: 464) is to not only be linked grammatically but also socio-culturally, i.e., knowing what is contextually signified and indexed by collocations. Essentially, central to the content and the interpretation of any linguistic sign is the existing historical or cultural experience of the ‘discourse community’ (Kramsch, 1998; 6).

Are the ways speakers think about the world, in the sense of what they imagine as the content and reference of lexical item, influenced by the language they speak? As suggested by the example of the Finnish student, association between lexical items and meaning occur within a society, a discourse community. It is easy to deduce that the young man’s utterance excited a different mental image(2) in the minds of native or more competent German speakers than the one he had in mind; it is also conceivable that other Finnish speakers, at the same level of competence in German, excluding particular cases of individual naïveté, may visualize alike the content of the phrase, as a result of the habits imposed by their own language. Thus, words not only appear to point to certain experiences of the community making it easy for members to talk about things but also guide them in attending to the conveyed messages. Although meaning can be variously expressed, it must be encoded only in a form or manner shared by other users of the language. Different from those aspects of experience that a language thrusts to our consciousness by making them grammatically obligatory (Slobin, 1996); the use of words reveals habitual associations, images or scenes that are played up in our thought patterns and responses. In ‘speaking, thinking and thinking for speaking’ (Slobin, 1996: 71) cross linguistic differences are expected in the realm of syntax and semantics. But it is not clear to what extent these differences are cognitively anchored and to what extent these differences constraint thoughts and behaviors. It is nevertheless clear that pieces of experience, from anthropological perspective culture, inevitably percolate into the general consciousness of the society and become obligatory in steering hearer interpretation of, and responses to, speech. Cross-cultural and linguistic comparisons could make possible the examination of the fulcrum for understanding phonetic signs within a discourse community and help uncover the basis and convention that allows the hearers and speakers to habitually map linguistic to the same concept or meaning.


Research Rational, Question & Method

Boroditsky et. al., (2001) examined the lexical representation of action events by English and Mandarin speakers in order to observe whether the way each group talk about action events lead to differences in the way they attend to, encode, and represent events. The first experiment tested only monolingual speakers of each language. The result showed that English speakers rated, as the same, events of the same tense regardless of the actors, while Mandarin speakers, due to the lack of tense in their language, favored similarity of actors. A follow up experiment asked whether Indonesian-English bilinguals think differently when speaking Indonesian than when speaking English. From the results of this follow up study, Borodistky and colleagues concluded that (1) bilinguals think differently when speaking different languages, and (2) learning a new language can change the way one thinks. However, these authors did not go on to show what aspect or content of the new language can cause changes in the way the learner thinks. This paper contends that it is not just increase in grammatical knowledge that refocuses learners awareness, but more significantly, it is the culture, (including the socio-political and cultural milieu of the community of practice(3)) which provides the context and reference for the association of words with shared meaning and is ultimately responsible for the in interpretation and inevitably, behaving and expected responses.

In order to examine this claim, 20 bilingual Yoruba-English speakers were sampled at an international conference on Africa. They were required to reproduce some English phrases in Yoruba. Two of the test phrases that will be discussed in this paper are: sexual identity and group identity.

The primary interest in this exercise was not translation per se; rather, of consequent was whether in expressing these phrases in Yoruba subjects were able to generate a contextual interpretation that captures the American Western essence of the test phrases, so that when perceived by monolingual Yoruba and English speakers similar images, pictures and associations will be called up in their mind. For example, the Yoruba word for Christianity is igbagbo. In of itself igbagbo means ‘received faith/belief,’ signifying: hearing, accepting, and believing (i.e., the conversion experience); in this view, igbagbo could be used to designate not only Christianity but Islam and any other non-indigenous Yoruba religion.  However, using igbagbo to refer to any religion other than Christianity is to be literal minded and to reveal that the speaker is not a member of the Yoruba community of discourse and practice. Visually speaking, the word igbagbo calls up in the mind of Yoruba speakers the image of the Bible, Jesus Christ, church and Christmas and onigbagbo [a Christian] generates the image of a Bible believing, Jesus professing, and a Church going person who celebrates Christmas. These visual images or associations would not be peculiar to Yoruba hearers; they will also be found in the minds of any North American or Western European hearers of the phrases.

The Yoruba expression -igbagbo-, in spite of how imprecise one may argue it to be, adequately captures the intended meaning of the English notion of Christianity because it reflects the same fundamental images and associations in the minds of English and Yoruba speakers, and indeed in the mind of anyone who understands the meaning of the word. Irrespective of whatever combinations of speech sounds, words, or sentences that are used to represent the concept of Christianity, if the aforementioned visual imageries or associations do not occur in the minds of hearer, then such renditions are, in this case, ungrammatical, because it cannot be said that the participants are observing the same issue.  Thus, if a speaker should want to express Christianity in Yoruba, but succeeded in generating in the mind of hearers, the visual image of an entrails-reading and spirit conjuring diviner, then the speaker and hearers do not share one underlying reference and understanding. Any Yoruba response, whether it is a long-winding sentence, a narrative, an abstract term, or a circumscription is acceptable and judged grammatical, as long as it reflects the same frame of mind, in the sense of, popular imaginations or visualizations or habitual associations corresponding to those obtainable for common English speakers, is accepted as correct.



Underlying this approach is the view that members of the same socio-cultural, political and discursive community will evince similar images with respect to a lexical item compared to those of another community. The Sassurean sign sees the relationship between sign and meaning to be arbitrary, such that any relationship that is established between the two is conventional and not natural. When one crosses language boundaries, and by implication cultures, it will be possible for an individual to participate meaningfully in the other culture and acquire new dispositions (c\f Borodistky 2001). The question then is how easy or not is it for the individual to relay specific cultural perspectives encoded by a particular phrases from their new community into the language of their previous community? Bilingual Yoruba-English speakers fit this model. 20 subjects were polled. 10 of the respondents reside in Nigeria and 10 in the West (9 live in the USA, 1 in Europe). Of those polled, 17 are scholars of the liberal arts and are, by virtue of their scholarship, familiar with the test phrases; and for Diaspora Yoruba, they are also familiar with the common use of the phrases in the West. Essentially, this test appeals to the speakers’ native intuition, i.e., linguistic competence (Chomsky, 1965) and this is not  a function of intelligence or training.  The advantage of using bilingual subjects is that the data cannot be compromised by the language in which the instruction was framed. Choosing bilinguals who live in different cultures with differing socio-historical circumstances may reveal differences in their use of an extant tool of politicking, scholarly analysis and a category of practice as well as the significance of this tool to their own condition of existence.


Data and Result

The test phrases chosen for this exercise revolve around the notion of ‘identity’. The term ‘identity’ was chosen not only because of its increasing preponderance in African discourses, following its pervasive presence in Western scholarly publication, but because there appears to be a certain sense in which this concept no longer needs definition. The various manifestations of the term in the literature come across as truism the justification of which lies in merely been stated. There is no doubt that ‘identity’ is not only the key term in contemporary politics; it is a category of practice and of analysis (c\f Brubaker et al, 2000 4ff), as such it is an apt concept to test linguistic relativity. An unconstrained cross-cultural understanding of the term will reveal the same imagination, picture and associations in the mind of users regardless of their socio-cultural or linguistic background.

Instruction: Express or translate the following phrases in\to Yoruba

(a) Sexual identity    
1. [5] ako abi abo(4) = male or female [sex or gender]
2. [1] idamo-kurin = recognizing a male
3. [1.] idanimo takotabo = identification of a person as male or female
4. [1] idamo tabo tako = identification of male and female
5. [1] idanimo okunrin tabi abo = identification of a person as male or female
6. [1] idanimo okunrin /obinrin = identifying a person male/female
7. [1] eya ti o je gegebi okunrin tabi obinrin = your sex either as man or woman
8. [1] Bi a se le mo okunrin yato sobinrin = how we tell a man apart from a woman


The humanities distinguish sex from gender. Sex is used to refer to the biological difference between male and female; it is dependent on the X, Y chromosomes, whereas, gender is cultural construct, an emic perspective, through which morals, values and behaviors are assigned to individual based on their physical and biological appearances. The categories that each community creates around gender are socially meaningful to them. Yoruba people make this distinction contextually. The lexical terms i.e., obinrin\abo [female\feminine], okurin\ako [male\masculine] are used interchangeably for sex and gender. For example, the phrase ako’n babo is used only when inquiring the sex of a newly born child. It is not uncommon to get the response, (omo)ako ni or omo okunrin/obinrin ni o bi; “it’s a baby boy or girl.” Okunrin is also used in the sense of masculinity, okunrin ni “he is manly.” Additionally, it is used to describe an act of bravery, especially when an individual commits suicide rather than endure shame and ridicule e.g., o se okunrin [he was manly]. A negation of this phrase, when said to a male is an insult as it depicts the person as a weakling, for instance, o ki i se okunrin [you are not a man]. Different from responses #1-7, response #8 could be construed as relating more to gender than sex; but this equivocally. In sum, it is possible to make the argument that the Yoruba interpretations of the phrase distinguish between sex and gender, but the line of demarcation is not crisp. This is because within the worldview of the Yoruba, both conceptualizations, i.e. biological state and behavioral expectations attached to sex remain are essential and fundamental features. The sense of a discursive person is absent in all of the responses. There is no provision within the society for individuals, the ‘autonomous self” (Jenkins 1996. 31), to reflexively construct a personal narrative through which they could understand themselves as in control of their own lives and futures (c\f Giddens 1991); neither is a place for the dynamic notion of identity; identity remains consistent over time, whereas, people’s styles and responses to circumstances are considered as dependent on circumstances.

(b) Group identity    
1. [1] Àgbájọ = co-operation
2. [2] ajo = congregation also (non-institutional) group banking
3. [1] elegbe = affiliate
4. [2] kélégbé megbé = know you class or social status
5. [1] eya omo egbe = stock of members
6. [1] idanimo agbajo = identification of a person in a co-operative
7. [1] idanimo elegbe megbe = personal recognition through membership
8. [1] awon omo ibo  = Igbo people
9. [1] ara ile = kin-group
10. [2.] elegbejegbe = (graded) class
11. [2] egbe = group
12. [1] bi a se le mo eya = how to recognize stocks
13. [5] idamo egbe = recognition by group or class
14. [1] idanimo ti egbe = knowing a person by their group\class affiliation


The responses evince three images or visualizations of the phrase ‘group identity’ among the respondents. The first one is group affiliation or membership. By this is meant membership in various self help unions, home town development associations and clubs i.e., rotary club. These forms of association provide for the Yoruba an extended communal system and network of individuals that act as support group psychologically and financially. Responses #1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 13 and 14 speak to this. The second understanding is found in responses #4, 9, 13, and 14; these responses index seniority-the rank or position of an individual within the community. Usually, this is dependent on age, sex, ascribed status and personal achievement (Bascom, 1951: 491;  Lyold, 1974). The Yoruba people are status conscious; they live in a very stratified society and conduct their life formally. It is expected that each recognizes seniority and conduct themselves in the order customarily prescribed for social discourses, i.e., venerating seniority. From a functional perspective, stratification is entrenched in Yoruba worldview because their chosen means for organizing themselves politically and socially; as such it finds an outlet in their language use. The third view expressed in the responses ties with the leitmotif of the two preceding understandings of group identity; this is the distinction that group affiliation based, on ethnicity, allows the Yoruba to draw between them and other ethnic groups in Nigeria. Specific to this is response #8. Thus, we have group identification, in this case ethnicity versus group or social classification and definition of the Other. This response appeals to popular Yoruba stereotypes of the Igbo with respect to their propensity to forming cultural unions or co-operatives wherever they may find themselves. Group identity in the West is not a based primarily on ethnicity or seniority, neither is it a function of membership in a club. Although group identification and belonginess are the relevant features of ‘group identity’, the relationship among members is also important; this notion of doing things together is lacking in the responses. Group identity appears to reflect customary features for attaining ‘seniority’ and maintaining ethnicity; one can describe this as membership of a category or its organization.


Discussion and Implication

It should be noted that the aim of this exercise was to obtain equivalent abstract Yoruba terms for the test phrases; rather it was to see if the bilingual speakers were able to express in their native language concepts familiar to them both in their daily interactions and in their professional sphere, by reflecting similar images. The results have revealed a tilted reconstruction of the phrases. None of the resultant interpretations bear directly on the Western perspectives, understandings and usages of these terms. Prevalent in the Western conceptualization of the notion of identity is constructivism which stipulates that identity is constructed, fluid and multiple (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000, 4); it is “understood as the evanescent product of multiple and competing discourses, ‘identity’ is invoked to highlight the unstable, multiple, fluctuating, and fragmented nature of the contemporary self” (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000, 8). Also identity is seen as co-constructed in discourses, where discourses, following Foucault (1972: 49) are “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.” In this wise, identity is a significant means of locating and representing the self in time. This scholarly, and now observably everyday sense of the term, certainly is not shared by a spatially and culturally separated Yoruba nation as shown by the responses to the 2 test phrases. A review of the responses shows the following:  

  1. The respondents all project a uniform view of the test phrases\concepts. The underling images that could be deduced from the responses could not be said to be similar to those found in the literature in the West nor do they parallel does commonly held by North-Americans people. Identity is a contemporary instrument of politics in West, for Yoruba people, it is ethnicity.  Fundamentally, the respondents do not see identity as variable or as a discursive act that emanates from reflexivity; rather, identity is considered to a large extent as fixed and non negotiable. For example, your sex determines your gender, and your birth your status, seniority and social position.
  2. Common to the subjects is the literal approach in interpreting the phrases to Yoruba. The subjects mostly combined the two constituents of the phrases e.g.; social identity came out as idamo + egbe [identity + social] and idamo + egbe [identity + group]. It is clear that the meaning of the test phrases cannot be directly derived by summing together its parts, which was what the Yoruba renditions produced. The analogous Yoruba phrases are not naturally occurring phrases; in fact, none of the subjects, when asked, was able to use any of their own resultant phrases in a sentence. As a follow up, 3 native speakers were individually requested to use the resultant phrases in sentences and they were also unable to do so. They however, reported that they could understand what the phrases are trying to do. The absence of the Yoruba phrases in conversational and scholarly Yoruba texts shows that participants merely translated the words literarily but not their essence. Neither in the ‘the main messages of the phrases (primary discourse) nor in the underlying social and cultural phenomenon about the society that could be said to be highlighted by the use of these terms do we find an adequate Yoruba restatement of the notions of sexual and group identity. As a result, it is fair to state that Yoruba and English hearers, as far as these phrases are concerned, are not equal observers of the same events.       During the course of obtaining these responses; it was observed that all the participants will mix the test phrases with Yoruba when they speak. Thus, code switching must have been the mechanism for have made it possible to speak about identity without thinking in Yoruba.

For group identity, the customary model of societal organization is stratification tempered by kinship affiliation. Age, status and belongingness are vital to the Yoruba world. These provide the prisms through which Yoruba people view the place of the individual within the community. Individualism is frowned at, while community is exalted; indeed, the Yoruba person exists to the extent that they are validated by their community and kin-group which has a ‘corporate character’ (Schwab, 1955: 352). Again, Yoruba understanding of this phrase is inextricably tied to their culture; their way of seeing the world is rarefied in their language (lexical items) such that when used, individual consciousness of traditional expectations is excited. The Western concept of identity as a means of locating the self in time is foreign to Yoruba; also the various adjectives such as gender or ethnic when used in conjunction with identity become meaningless too.

  1. Although it was hypothesized that Diaspora Yoruba should diverge from their continental counterparts in their responses as a result of differences in the socio-historical and political circumstances of their places of residence; this was not the case.  There was no divergence in the responses of the two groups. One possible reason for this could be when respondents cross back into their native language, they also cross into a different culture- Yoruba culture and word-view, and consequently operate within the socio-historical provisions of this culture. Since the Yoruba society did not share the same socio-cultural and historical events and experience that informed their use of these phrases, it must have been difficult for respondents to map the western essence of these phrases to Yoruba worldviews. Historically, the Yoruba people have been known to agitate for the equality of the sexes, but they are largely intolerant of sexual orientation that deviates from heterosexual practices as well as gender issues that challenges the traditionally instituted norms. These phrases do not have the same significance or purpose in the daily existence of the continental Yoruba, due to different social and cultural orientations. To this extent, the differences in underlying worldview and in the images associated with the notion of sexual identity are occasioned by the different socio-historical circumstances that informed the use of English and Yoruba.



Lexical items orientate the user and the hearer to common understanding of general values, and lead them to a construction of meaning and a way of being and doing things within the society. However, this is largely a function of culture.  ‘Culture’ is “both the means and values which arise among distinctive social groups and classes, on the basis of their given historical conditions and relationship, through which they ‘handle’ and respond to the conditions of existence” (Hall, Quoted in McQuail 1994:100). Thus, when individuals cross language and culture, they learn to subscribe to the prevalent interpretations, norms and to react normatively. Language use becomes the means of configuring the mind as it invoked the worldviews and expected responses indexed by the words. It is fair thus to conclude that perceiving the world at least with reference to the intended and highlighted ‘realities’ of a lexical item depend on culture and the stereotypes that a discourse community has constructed around it. Essentially, this same lexical item generates different mental images, as a result, speakers are directed to attend to different things by the contents of their lexical items.  Language, in our case lexicon, indexes social realities (Sapir 1929\1956); and differently for people of differing social realties. Essentially, ‘reality’ may be cognized across cultures, but the worldview, consciousness and disposition that are attached to the cognized reality will differ across socio-cultural communities. As the result has shown, the use of language, inconceptualization of events or objects, will casue hearers from differing discourse communities to deviate in their reception of and attending to an utterance due to the relativity of their culture and more so if they lack the same socio-cultural history.


Works Cited



1 I am satisfied (gratified).Underlying the popular understanding of this term in German is masturbation; Selbstbfriedigung; to gratify oneself sexually. Normally, the verb adjective satt or the verb zufrieden is expected.
2  Fore grounded here are the imagery or visual images that are ordinarily or habitually associated by normal language users with a phrase.
3 Community of practice is used here to refer to a group of individuals who interact regularly, and have developed unique ways of doing things together, Lave and Wenger (1991).
4  These are the number of responses. In square brackets are the number of people who gave the listed response, for example, four people provided response #7.

2.2. Identity, Authenticity, Locality, Urbanity and Speech Community: A New Sociolinguistic Perspective | Identität, Authentizität, lokale- und städtische Veränderungen und Sprachgemeinschaften: Eine neue soziolinguistische Perspektive

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS   Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Autor: Titel – In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

Webmeister: Gerald Mach     last change: 2010-09-07