Common section

Chapter 13

Culture: The Spice of Life and Place

In This Chapter

bulletCreating cultural diversity

bulletSpreading culture, stopping culture

bulletConsidering religion and language

bulletHeading toward a single global culture?

H ave you ever stepped on somebody while he was praying? I have. And I would have loved to crawl under a rock, except there weren’t any.

The incident happened in Dakar, Senegal. It was a Friday, and I was out walking around the streets of that West African capital, playing tourist. The Senegalese are overwhelmingly Islamic. Devout Muslims pray several times daily, and Friday prayers have special importance. So there I was, just your basic Presbyterian walking along Dakar’s version of Madison Avenue, when the call to midday prayer rang out. This is surely an exaggeration, but it seemed that in seconds traffic stopped and people poured out of buildings and filled the street. Many of them had prayer rugs. Others carried substitutes, such as newspapers or pieces of cardboard. Soon the street was covered by people performing their solemn religious duty.

For some reason, I felt it advisable to get to the other side of the street, and in the process I stepped on somebody. I apologized profusely but the offended party remained completely focused on his prayer.

Everybody possesses culture,a learned pattern of behavior that characterizes a group of people. In many respects, your culture defines your essence; and yet you tend not to think about it until perhaps, you find yourself in a geographic setting where your culture either doesn’t work, or marks you as being different from others. Suffice it to say, on that Friday noon I was suddenly and acutely aware of my culture.

Cultural geography is the field that seeks to describe and analyze the distribution of culture over Earth’s surface, and is the subject of this chapter. But what can one say about the geographies of so many culture groups and their cultural traits in one chapter? The answer is “very little.” Thus the emphasis of this chapter is on key concepts of cultural geography and how they affect the two major culture traits of religion and language.

Being Different 15,000 Times Over


Nobody knows exactly how many cultures exist on Earth today, but numbers like 15,000 tend to get thrown around. Whatever the true total, like birds, folk of a feather flock together. That is, people who are culturally similar tend to live in proximity to each other and in doing so, form culture areas— regions occupied by people who have something cultural in common. These may be quite large, like the Islamic culture region that extends from Dakar eastward across Northern Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula and Southwestern Asia. Culture areas may also be rather small, as in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which occupies no more than a square mile or two.

In the act of practicing their culture, humans often transform the natural landscape into a cultural landscape,as when people convert a grassland to a farm. Because culture is diverse, so, too, are the world’s cultural landscapes, which easily rival (and maybe surpass) purely natural landscapes in their richness and variety (Figure 13-1a and b). Culture therefore distinguishes people as well as physical regions. In a sense, culture is the spice of life as well as place, differentially “flavoring” people and the land they inhabit.

How did we get 15,000 cultures? Assuming human beings started out more or less the same way back when, then how did we end up so different? The answer is largely in three parts: the diversity of culture, effects of isolation, and adaptation to new surroundings.

Counting cultural diversity

Culture is extremely broad and complex, affording ample opportunity for people to be different from each other. Suppose you made a list of all the ways in which you are culturally different from people who live in Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Tahiti. You could well end up with at least a couple of dozen items in each case.

Comparison of those lists would reveal cultural universals,which are categories of traits that all cultures share, but whose specific manifestations vary from one culture to the next. Various cultural universals are given in Table 13-1. Language is an example. You speak at least one language. So do people in Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Tahiti. Indeed, every culture has one, so it can be considered a universal. All told, an estimated 6,500 languages are spoken today. Likewise, religion is a universal, and hundreds, if not thousands, of them can be found throughout the world. You can add to them dress, architecture, sport, and all of the other universals, each of which come in many specific varieties. If you count all of the ways different human groups have combined different manifestations of these universals, then you have the number of cultures on Earth. And apparently, that number is about 15,000.

Table 13-1

Isolating people


Isolation is another reason why we have so many cultures. Communication generally breeds cultural homogeneity. In other words, the more people that share information and ideas, the more alike they tend to be. Geographic isolation, in contrast, breeds differences. Take a large number of people who have the same culture, divide them into, say, four groups that are isolated and completely out of touch with each other, and over time they are likely to go their separate ways, culturally speaking. Basically, as humans migrated eons ago from their common ancestral homeland, to ultimately occupy the world, that is what happened.

Table 13-2 shows the conjugation of the verb “to sing” in four languages. Visual comparison of the columns shows different spellings but also remarkable similarities.

Table 13-2

The explanation for the similarities in the spellings is that these modern languages have a common ancestral language that was spoken more than a thousand years ago in Central Europe.

But there came a time when members of this culture began to migrate, ultimately to occupy lands that would later become England, The Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany. And in the process, groups of significant size became isolated from each other more or less permanently. Patterns of speech were no longer shared. Pronunciations began to drift apart, which accounts for the differences in spellings. Migrants encountered “strange” plants, animals, and physical environmental conditions for which there were no words, so they invented new ones. Over time, therefore, the once-common language developed different dialects, which became different languages.

Adapting to new surroundings


Adaptation refers to cultural adjustments that occur after a people migrate to a region whose physical environment is different than where they used to live. A reference was made in the previous section to how a single language became several languages in part because of human adaptation to new environments. Here are examples of how adaptation has encouraged diversity in three other cultural universals:

bulletTraditional agricultural know-how may not work or is inefficient in the new setting. Immigrants borrow workable techniques from the local populace (if there is any), experiment with local plants for their food value, and otherwise adapt as best they can.

bulletTraditional modes of dress are either too light or too heavy for the new climatic venue. Adaptations may occur with respect to style, materials, and color.

bulletTraditional building materials may be absent in the new setting, resulting in adjustment in architecture. Also, climate may affect modification of housing with respect to thickness of walls, shapes of roofs, and openness to outside conditions.

In each case, adaptation that adds to the over all richness and variety of culture, increasing the ways in which people can be different.

Spreading the Word on Culture


Culture creation and modification are not things of the past. Thanks to cultural diffusion, which refers to the spread of culture, the geographies of particular traits as well as cultural complexes that characterize groups of people continue to develop and change.

For example, 50 years ago few Americans had heard of yogurt, tortillas, tofu, tandoori chicken, sushi, and couscous, let alone actually eaten them. All those foodstuffs existed back then, but their geographies were pretty much limited to their respective native areas — Asia Minor, Mexico, China, India, Japan, and North Africa.

Today it’s different, of course. Chances are you have heard of most or all of those foodstuffs and maybe even eaten them — perhaps because you have traveled to their native lands, but more likely because those foodstuffs have spread here and are widely available in stores and restaurants. As a result, the geography of these foodstuffs, all of which are culture traits, has changed dramatically thanks to cultural diffusion.

The same is true of other traits. You, for example, speak one or more languages and may practice a certain religion. Chances are good, however, that none of these traits originated right where you live, but rather, like those foodstuffs, diffused from somewhere else. The manner of their diffusion may have varied, but probably has something in common with one or more of the three generally recognized modes of diffusion (see Figure 13-2): relocation, contagious expansion, and hierarchical.

Relocating one’s culture

Relocation diffusion is synonymous with migration (Figure 13-2a). When people move, they take their “cultural baggage” with them. As a result, the geography of culture may change because migrants impart their particular cultural characteristics to an area where perhaps it was not previously present.

Virtually every large American city, for example, has distinctive ethnic neighborhoods that exist because of the relocation diffusion of peoples from a foreign land. Small towns may also exhibit the same effect, and so, too, rather rural parts of America. Chances are good that an example or two are near you wherever you live. Indeed, youmay be an example.

Coming down with culture

In contagious expansion diffusion,the geography of a trait expands because people who did not previously possess it, adopt it. Typically, this results from contact or direct exposure (hence, contagious) to the trait (Figure 13-2b). Thus, a farmer might “look over the fence” to see a neighbor growing some new kind of crop, and adopt it as well.

That is not a far-fetched scenario. Efforts to increase food production, for example, often are an exercise in cultural diffusion, as when an agronomistor crop scientist seeks to encourage local farmers to discontinue a traditional way of producing foodstuffs and do something different. But whether they live in Kenya or Kansas, farmers tend to stick with things that work and try something new only when the likelihood of success is high.

Demonstration is a proven way to promote diffusion of agricultural innovation. Neighboring farmers “look over the fence,” to see what’s happening in the demonstration area, and adopt it. Their farms, in turn, become objects of observation by other farmers who look over the fence, adopt what they see, and so forth.

OK, so you’re probably not a farmer. But at some point in your life, you probably adopted a certain cultural item because of direct exposure to advertising, or because you saw somebody doing something or wearing something that you found attractive, or because of something a friend said or did. If so, then you have experienced contagious expansion diffusion firsthand.

Applied Geography: Looking Swiss

Drive into New Glarus, Wisconsin and you might get the impression that a little piece of Switzerland has been transplanted in the American Midwest. That’s what the locals are hoping — and even more so that you will stop and spend some money. As in many other towns and venues in America, the people of New Glarus have taken to using their cultural heritage to promote tourism and the local economy.

In the 1840s immigrants from Canton Glarus, Switzerland settled the area, bringing their culture with them. The ensuing relocation diffusion of their German language, Catholic religion, dairying, and other attributes resulted in creation of a culture area in south-central Wisconsin that was distinct from neighboring lands peopled by immigrants from other European countries, as well as the local Native Americans. Other than dairying, however, little in the cultural landscape was particularly “Swiss-looking.” That started to change a few decades ago when townspeople began erecting buildings in traditional Swiss styles and altering existing facades to render the same visual effect. The presumption was that if you turned the town into a “little Switzerland,” then tourists would come and spend money. It worked like a charm.

You don’t have to go to New Glarus to appreciate the concept, however. Lots of other towns and neighborhoods have done the same, albeit in all likelihood through a different cultural heritage. Perhaps you can think of an example or two in your own area.

Doing what the big boys do

In hierarchical diffusion,a culture trait is born in a large city, becomes adopted by a portion of the populace, spreads to other large cities, and then “trickles down” to medium-sized cities, small cities, towns, and villages in that order (Figure 13-2c). Derogatory reference to this process is found in terms such as “country bumpkin” and “hicks from the sticks,” which typically are applied to rural or small town residents who are allegedly “behind the times” with respect to cultural trends.

Nowadays, cultural “fads” in particular tend to diffuse hierarchically. This is especially true of new clothing styles, body modifications (hair styling, tattoos, piercing, and the lot), and slang. Inhabitants of large cities generally are more dissimilar and accepting of personal differences than their counterparts in small settlements where, perhaps stereotypically, everybody knows everybody else’s business and pressure to conform is comparatively high. “Being different” by adopting a new fad that may seem outlandish to some is easier in big cities. If the fad is successful and catches on, then its visibility and acceptability are likely to increase, which in turn increases the likelihood that it will trickle down the hierarchy.

Calling a Halt: Barrier Effects


Barrier effects are things that stop or inhibit cultural diffusion. When culture traits spread, they typically do not “keep going and going and going” like that battery-powered bunny of TV commercial fame. Instead, traits tend to diffuse outward from their areas of origin, achieve a certain geographic breadth, encounter one or more barrier effects, and then stop spreading. Were there no barrier effects, then culture traits would, in fact, “keep going and going,” resulting in a rather uniform global culture. Thanks to barrier effects, therefore, Earth’s cultural geography is a mosaic of culture areas instead of a monochrome.

Barriers may be absorbingor permeable,respectively stopping completely the spread of culture or selectively accommodating the spread of some culture traits, but not others. For millennia, the Atlantic Ocean was an absorbing barrier that stopped the westward expansion of European culture. More recently, societal decision making in Saudi Arabia has been a permeable barrier, allowing into that country western technology related to oil drilling, but holding at arm’s length other western cultural commodities such as bikinis and beer. As these examples indicate, barrier effects may originate from the physical or social environment.

Getting physical


Physical barriers are natural elements that now or in the past inhibit cultural diffusion. These have historically served to isolate people, either preventing or seriously limiting access to agents of culture change. The following sections cover the classic examples.


Oceans were formidable barriers to cultural diffusion for millennia. People didn’t know what lay across them, or how far away places were. Similarly, they did not possess the technology to accurately plot a course to a particular destination or to return home whether or not they had discovered anything. On top of that, and for the longest time, ships were fragile and at the whimsy of wind and storm. Thus, until modern shipbuilding and navigation came along, oceans tended to inhibit the spread of culture instead of promote it. To this day scattered Pacific Ocean Islands are homes to people whose cultures have been only modestly (if that) altered by contacts with the broader world. In these cases, the surrounding ocean continues to serve as a formidable physical barrier that has insulated the islands from forces of culture change.


Most of today’s forests are mere remnants of their former selves. Five hundred years ago, nearly all of what is now the United States east of the Mississippi River was continuous forest — as was most of the Far West and Northwest. The same was true of virtually all of Western and Central Europe, as well as virtually all of humid Africa, Asia, Central and South America. And I don’t mean the well-tended greenery you see today in many places. No sirree. I’m talking underbrush and thickets and dead limbs and all kinds of other stuff that limited visibility and mobility. It was ripe for disorientation and ambush. You could get lost in it.

And in a sense, that is what happened. Numerous peoples became separate, forest-dwelling societies whose woodsy surroundings provided isolation that contributed to development of distinctive cultures. Today numerous traditional societies inhabit regions of tropical rainforest, particularly in the Amazon Basin, but also in Central Africa and Southeastern Asia. Road building can be very difficult in these areas, and thus the forests, like the oceans in the case above, continue to isolate inhabitants from the outside world and promote cultural differences. In these environments, rivers — natural highways — have often served as avenues of diffusion.


Rugged terrain, and particularly mountains, has historically tended to make communications difficult, and thereby encourage cultural diversity. For example, an estimated 700 languages are spoken on the island of New Guinea, which is about the size of Texas and Arkansas combined and has a population of perhaps 7 million. It makes no sense that so many languages coexist in such a relatively small space until you consider the topography. New Guinea has an extremely mountainous spine that has been eroded over the years into numerous steeply sided valleys that have no roads and few tracks between them. Add the dense tropical forest, and the results are hundreds of relatively isolated pockets of people that have, at least with respect to language, gone their own ways.

Also, the “thin air” that comes with the high altitudes of mountainous terrain has proven to be an impediment to diffusion of culture. For example, many facets of traditional Native American culture are alive and well in the Central Andes, where millions of people still speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. Although these peoples came under Spanish rule, the Spaniards themselves generally avoided settling in the high Andes because they found adaptation to the “thin air” to be extremely difficult. Accordingly, native culture in that area did not give way to imported culture.


Outsiders generally were not adapted to desert conditions and therefore they found such regions inhospitable and avoided them. Accordingly, deserts have tended to isolate people and inhibit the spread of culture. For example, traditional culture groups continue to inhabit central desert areas of Africa, Australia, and Asia. The Bushmen of Namibia and aborigines of Australia are historic examples, although members of these groups have experienced significant change in recent decades. Nevertheless, the long persistence of their unique cultures testifies that deserts create a formidable physical barrier.


Tundra, which you can read about in Chapter 10, refers to very high latitude environments dominated by short grasses. The climate is sub-freezing for much of the year. Native peoples adapted to these harsh circumstances over the years and developed distinctive cultures. Like deserts, however, outsiders generally are not well-adapted to tundra, and therefore have found such regions inhospitable and avoided them. Thus, tundra has served as a physical barrier. Specifically, it has tended to isolate traditional peoples in northernmost North America and Europe from sources of culture change and in doing so encourage a world of cultural differences.

Socializing effects


Social barriers are human institutions that inhibit the spread of culture. These can be as formidable as physical barriers, and sometimes more so. The following sections discuss four of the more prominent examples of social barriers.


The simple inability to speak somebody else’s language limits opportunity for cultural interaction and sharing. Though media and multilingualism are bringing people closer together, the continued existence of several thousand languages remains a powerful barrier to cultural diffusion.


Differences in religious beliefs may mark certain people as being “other” and nullify propensity to interact with them and adopt their cultural attributes. Religion may also manifest prohibitions (such as bikinis and beer) that deter exchange of materials and ideas.

Race and ethnicity

Many people have a deep “consciousness of kind.” In some cases, that is code for racism and prejudice — a desire to be geographically separate from “them.” In others, it may simply be a deep-seated preference for interaction with one’s own kind. In any event, race and ethnicity tend to differentiate human groups — often very visually — and give rise to behaviors that limit interaction.

The geography of Gullah

Gullah is a dialect spoken by African Americans of the Sea Islands, which adjoin the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. Closely related to an ancestral language (or languages) that arrived with enslaved Africans, Gullah is spoken not by people who learned it to get in touch with their African roots, but instead by folks who never lost those roots in the first place.

The geography of Gullah is a classic example of physical barrier effects. After emancipation, most of the black population of the Sea Islands stayed there, and for decades the islands largely remained unconnected by bridges to the mainland. The result was limited physical interaction with outsiders and mainstream culture. Under those circumstances Gullah continued as a viable language.

But times are changing. The Sea Islands, with their seaside settings, have become prized real estate for vacation homes, retirement communities, and resorts. Bridges now connect the mainland to many of these islands. As newcomers come and development physically transforms the islands, so, too, will they bring culture change that will threaten the continued existence of Gullah.

Historic events

Sometimes historic events, such as conflict and war, mark a people as “the enemy” and create wounds that refuse to heal. Intense dislike — if not raw hatred — of one group for another can be a powerful barrier to human contacts that would normally promote cultural transfer.

Getting Religion: How It Moves and Grows

Now let’s see how the concepts mentioned up to this point come into play, beginning with religion. Looking at the geography of religion allows you to examine one of the more important culture traits and to make connections between cultural geography and contemporary matters. In Figure 13-3, a highly generalized map of the world’s principal religions reveals culture areas that vary greatly in size. Christianity and Islam, for example, exhibit multi-continental expanses. Judaism, in contrast, is dominant in Israel, a comparatively small culture area, and in even smaller scattered urban enclaves mainly in Europe.

Putting diffusion to work

With the exceptions of the traditional (or what some people might call “tribal”) religions, virtually all of the distributions shown in Figure 13-3 are results of cultural diffusion. In that regard, Buddhism and Christianity are interesting in that their present distributions have little in common geograph-ically with where they originated — Israel and the West Bank in the case of Christianity, and India in the case of Buddhism. The Jewish population of Israel largely consists of recently (post-World War II) relocated individuals and their descendants, while the other Jewish enclaves worldwide are to some extent latter day expressions of the ancient Diaspora (the dispersion of Jews after the Babylonian exile). In Africa, Europe and Southwest Asia, the Islamic realm is largely the result of relocation diffusion (migration and conquest) of people from Arabia coupled with conversion of peoples with whom they came into contact (contagious expansion diffusion). Another interesting geographic aspect of Islam is its dominance in Indonesia (which contains more Muslims than any other country on Earth), Malaysia, and the southern Philippines, which are products of ages-old trans-Indian Ocean trade between Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian lands (contagious expansion diffusion).

Getting effects into action

To a certain degree, barrier effects are also evident on the map. The Himalayan Mountains, a formidable physical barrier, mark the boundary between parts of the Hindu and Buddhist realms. In West Africa, the interface between the Islamic and “traditional religion” realms coincide with the tropical forest fringe. A similar effect is seen in the Amazon, where tropical forests have isolated practitioners of traditional religions from agents of culture change.

Creating local character

In exercising their faiths, humans often impart religious character to the lands they occupy. The nature of these impacts vary from creating cultural landscapes to making psychological attachments to place, and from performing acts of solemnity to committing acts of bloodshed. Here are four ways adherents imbue locations with religious characteristics.

Places of worship

Practitioners of some religions build houses of worship that are magnificent works of architecture and, quite literally, outstanding components of the cultural landscape. Until fairly recent times, the spires of churches, towers of mosques, and domes of temples, dominated skylines. Indeed, in many smaller towns and some cities worldwide, they still do.

While the essence of place is usually captured in things that are seen, it may also be echoed in things that are heard. Thus, some cultural geographers speak of “the audible landscape.” That may sound a bit cryptic, but if you have ever heard church bells reverberate through a valley, or heard the Islamic call to prayer ring out from aminaret, then you have experienced the power of sound as a cultural geographic characteristic.

Sacred sites

Most religions recognize sites that have special significance in the minds of believers. These may serve as destinations of pilgrimage (such as Mecca and Lourdes), places of great historical religious significance (the Wailing Wall), or places where a solemn ritual is to be performed (Benares or the Via Dolorosa). The bond between religion and sacred site may be so strong as to create an uncompromising sense of proprietorship and right to rule in the sacred area, perhaps coupled by exclusion of non-believers.

Friction and flash points

Religions define behaviors that are pleasing and displeasing to God. Unfortunately, behavior (such as the proper way to call and worship God) that is practiced by members of some faiths may be displeasing or patently offensive to members of other faiths, leading to friction, if not outright bloodshed. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to observe contemporary conflicts that coincide geographically with the overlap or interface of different religious groups. Examples include:

bulletNorthern Ireland (Protestant — Roman Catholic)

bulletKashmir (Hinduism — Islam)

bulletSouthern Philippines (Christianity — Islam)

bulletIsrael (Islam — Judaism)

bulletFormer Yugoslavia (Christianity — Islam)

Forbidden and favored foodstuffs

Religious dictates have changed the agricultural landscape of many areas by discouraging production of some foodstuffs and encouraged others. These have had a significant impact on the geographies of agriculture, animal husbandry, and cuisine. Among the better known prohibitions are the Judaic and Islamic proscriptions against pork (pigs being viewed as unclean), the Hindu proscription against beef (the killing of cows being forbidden ), and the Islamic proscription against consumption of alcoholic beverages. In some cases, in contrast, religious favor has encouraged diffusion of foodstuffs. Here are two examples:

bulletTumeric: This is a rather tasteless spice, grown throughout much of Southeastern Asia, whose principal purpose is to add a golden color to other foodstuffs. Its diffusion has been linked to the spread of Buddhism, in which gold is a symbol of enlightenment (hence the classic gold-domed Buddhist temples). The spice’s purpose, therefore, is to bestow a desired aura on food.

bulletGrapes: The diffusion of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, in many parts of the world was complemented by the spread of viniculture(grape growing) to meet sacramental needs. In time, of course, grape production expanded to meet consumption needs of a more pedestrian sort. But religious diffusion provided the impetus for agricultural diffusion. Interestingly, the religious connection is particularly visible in Germany in the guise of the famous “Blue Nun” label, and the popular white wine liebfraumilch, meaning literally “milk of the blessed Lady,” Mary.

Getting in a Word about Language

Language is arguably the most important of the cultural universals that were identified earlier. This is not to question the significance of religion or other traits; but language is essential to communicating and sharing many aspects of culture. The standard first step in analyzing the geography of languages is to produce a map of them. Unfortunately, on a page of this size, I can’t possibly give you a map that shows the geography of the estimated 6,500 languages that are spoken today, nor even a map showing the dominant language in different parts of the world. Simply too many are out there. But I can, at least, show the geography of English usage worldwide (Figure 13-4).

What Figure 13-4 shows are large-scale English language culture areas around the world. In Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, English is spoken by the overwhelming majority of the population. In other countries, English is spoken only by a minority, even though it may be an “official language.” The “big picture” map aside, consideration of language — like religion — affords opportunity to observe and apply diverse concepts of cultural geography.

Diffusing languages

The map of English is in large measure a product of cultural diffusion from Britain through its former colonies. The initial stage was largely limited to relocation diffusion (described earlier in this chapter). That is, large numbers of immigrants and officials moved from Britain to the colonies and, of course, took their language with them. Once there, they intermingled to different degrees with native peoples and non-English speaking immigrants, many of whom acquired English by contagious diffusion— contact with English speakers.


English now enjoys the status of official language— the one in which government business is transacted and printed, as well as the language of publicly financed education — in virtually all of Britain’s former colonies. In many cases it is also the vernacular language— the one that is spoken by the people of a particular locality. But official and vernacular languages are not always the same in a given area or region. English, for example, is the official language of the United States and most Americans speak it, but literally millions of people living in ethnic neighborhoods, Indian reservations, and other enclaves across the land speak a different vernacular language. Look again at Figure 13-5 and you may get the impression that everybody in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand speaks English. Not so. People in parts of each country speak a different vernacular language.

Many countries that are former colonies have adopted the language of the colonizer as their official (or co-official) tongue even though, in many cases, only a minority of the populace speaks it. Examples include English in Ghana and Kenya; French in Senegal and Madagascar; and Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique. Typically, European languages are given official status in the former colonial realm for two reasons:

bulletThe country contains numerous ethnic groups, some of which have a history of friction. Elevating one local language to official status could lead to jealousy and unrest on the part of other groups. Use of a European tongue favors no one and, in effect, puts everybody at an equal disadvantage.

bulletUse of a European tongue stands to promote international trade and commerce more than would a local language, which may be spoken nowhere else on Earth.

Nevertheless, many (even most, in some cases) of the native peoples in these countries continue to speak their own tongue as the vernacular language. In most cases, use of the official language(s) is concentrated in the cities and larger towns, while the vernacular persists in the smaller towns, villages, and rural areas. To the extent that everyday use of the official language is gradually “trickling down” from urban to rural areas, its spread exemplifies the process of hierarchical diffusion.

Checking the physical effects

Language and physical geography may interact in various ways. The two most significant ways are through environmental terminology and linguistic refuges.

Environmental terminology

Languages tend to develop robust vocabularies that pertain to locally observed environmental conditions, and weak vocabularies that pertain to unfamiliar settings. English, for example, is weak in native terminology that pertains to deserts, the sub-arctic, very mountainous areas, and other characteristics that are not common to England. Thus, English has adopted environmental terminology from other languages to describe things that English cannot, or at least not very well. Accordingly, standard English dictionaries now include terms such as arroyo(from Spanish) to describe intermittent streams in desert environments, taiga(from Russian) to describe high-latitude coniferous forest, and fiord(from Norway) to describe steep-sided, glacially carved inlets of the sea.

Linguistic refuges

A linguistic refugeis an area where a language is insulated against outside change by virtue of remoteness, or the remains of a locale where a once widespread language continues to be spoken. Acting as physical barriers, aspects of the physical environment have served to isolate speakers of various languages and thus preserve their native tongues from outside agents of change. Heavily forested and extremely mountainous areas, as noted earlier in this chapter, have historically served that purpose.

The traditional Welsh and Irish languages, for example, at one time appeared to be on the brink of extinction, relegated to remote peninsulas, islands, and valleys in their homelands following the onslaught of English. However, nationalist aspirations and heritage awareness have led to campaigns to resuscitate these languages and promote their everyday use. Central to these efforts have been human resources — native language speakers — many of whom hail from villages and farms in linguistic refuge areas.

Playing the landscape naming game

Language may provide cultural character to the physical environment as well as to people. For example, what do New Jersey, Lake Okeechobee, Baton Rouge, and El Paso have in common? The answer is they are all toponymsor place names. People the world over have a habit of naming landscape features, be they mountains, hills, rivers, lakes, bays, seas, deserts, forests, cities, towns, streets . . . the list goes on and on. Toponymy,the study of place names, may provide diverse geographical insights. As per the four locales mentioned, toponyms may tell us something about where the settlers came from, who used to live here, and what language the settlers spoke. Toponyms may also tell us something about past religious distributions. Catholic settlers in North America, for example, had a propensity to bestow religious names on their settlements more so than Protestants, no doubt in part to solicit the protective favor of the Almighty in an often-difficult frontier setting. Thus, towns named for saints abound, especially in Quebec and California (San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Jose, San Francisco, and so on).

Place names may also provide philosophical insights. For example, about two centuries ago American culture was affected by the Classic Revival,which involved a new reverence of ancient Greece and Rome. One manifestation is the existence in Upstate New York of literally dozens of cities and towns that were named or renamed in accordance with the classical theme. Examples include Syracuse, Rome, Utica, Ithaca, and Romulus.

One of the most maddening things about toponyms is that they can be literally changed overnight, immediately rendering millions of maps and atlases out-of-date. The change of Burma to Myanmar and Zaire to Congo are fairly recent examples. Prior to its dissolution, the USSR contained an estimated 20,000 places named for Stalin — mountains, cities, alleys, you name it (literally). When Stalin’s legacy suddenly fell out of favor, so did toponyms in his honor. Few remain.

Creating a Single Global Culture

Is the number of cultures on Earth today increasing or decreasing? Will the cultural mosaic of your grandchildren’s world have more pieces or fewer pieces? That is, will the world map contain more culture areas or fewer culture areas than exist today? The search for answers reveals powerful opposing sets of social forces.

Promoting cultural divergence


Cultural divergence is the concept and process of culture creation. I have shown how this works by virtue of isolation, adaptation, and barrier effects, as well as by the just-mentioned processes of nationalistic aspirations and heritage preservation. Because of modern means of communication, the first three of these are not nearly as powerful as they once were, though they are still players in culture creation. At the same time, cultural fads and technology changes are occurring with much greater frequency than ever before, and help to create peoples who are culturally different from neighboring groups. Consider also the human spirit that rejects a world in which everyone looks and acts the same. Cultural divergence may have slowed, therefore, but no evidence suggests that a world of 15,000 culture areas will reduce to a single culture area any time soon.

Promoting cultural convergence


It seems pretty clear, however, that in the present day and age more cultures are dying out than getting born. As many as a thousand languages are likely to disappear in your lifetime because they are not being spoken by the next generation who are instead learning and speaking another language. This is an example of cultural convergence,the concept and process of culture destruction and attendant “convergence,” or coming together of the world’s people in the cultural sense.

This is largely happening because communication is overwhelming the traditional factors that isolated people and encouraged cultural differentiation. The key players in this trend are improved transportation (especially the advent of road-building in remote areas); expansion of television, movies, and the Internet; increased literacy and access to printed media; rising tourism due to increased disposable income and leisure time; rising foreign trade; the growing number of multi-national corporations; and desire for economic development.

In the future, culture will continue to be the spice of life and place, even if the range of flavors is significantly less than we have today.

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