Introduction to Geographic Science

1.4 Culture

The term culture is often challenging to differentiate from the term ethnicity. In this textbook, ethnicity indicates traits people are born with, including genetic backgrounds, physical features, or birthplaces. People have little choice in matters of ethnicity. The term culture indicates what people learn after they are born, including language, religion, and customs or traditions. Individuals can change matters of culture by individual choice after they are born. These two terms help us identify human patterns and understand a country’s driving forces.

The terms culture and ethnicity might also be confused by ethnic cleansing, which refers to the forced removal of people from their homeland by a stronger force of different people. Ethnic cleansing might indeed indicate two distinct ethnic groups: one driving the other out of their homeland and taking it over. On the other hand, ethnic cleansing might also be technically cultural cleansing if both the aggressor and the group drove out are of the same ethnic stock but hold different cultural values, such as religion or language. The term ethnic cleansing has been used to describe either case. Genocide is the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.

Languages of the World

Language is the communication mode of human culture, and it represents the complete diversity of thought, literature, and the arts. All the billions of people on the planet speak at least one language. While it is estimated that roughly 7,111 languages are spoken around the world as of 2019. There are even communities in various parts of the world where people can communicate by whistling messages to each other or by using clicking sounds.

Ethnologue estimates that there are roughly 7.111 languages spoken around the world today. About a dozen are spoken by more than one hundred million people each. These are the world’s main languages used in the most populous countries. However, the vast majority of the world’s languages are spoken by a relatively small number of people. Many languages have no written form and are spoken by declining numbers of people. Language experts estimate that roughly one-third or more of the world’s languages are endangered (languages with less than 1,000 speakers remaining) as a result of globalization. While just 23 languages account for more than half of the world’s population. New languages form when populations live in isolation, and in the current era, as the world’s populations are increasingly interacting with each other, languages are being abandoned, and their speakers are switching to more useful tongues.

There are nine dominant language families in the world. Each of the languages within a language family shares a common ancestral language. As populations migrated away from the ancestral homeland, their language evolved and separated into many new languages. The three largest language groups of the Indo-European family used in Europe are the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic groups. Other Indo-European languages include Hindi (spoken in India) and Persian (spoken in Iran).

Language Characteristics

The official language is the language that is on record by a country to be used for all its official government purposes. For example, in India, the official language is Hindi, though the lingua franca is English, and several local languages may be spoken.

An accent is the pronunciation of words within a language that is different from that used by a different group of the same language. For example, people in Mississippi pronounce words differently from North Dakota, but the differences are less severe than dialects.

A pidgin is a simplified language used to communicate between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. For example, Residents of New Guinea mix English words with their language to create a new language that can bridge speakers of different local language groups. Though the words are in English, the grammar and sentence structure are mixed up according to local vocabulary. There are many English-based pidgin languages around the world.

Creole languages arise from contact between two other languages and has features of both. However, Creole is a pidgin that becomes a primary language spoken by people at home. Creole languages are often developed in colonial settings as a dialect of the colonial language (usually French or English). For example, in the former French colony of Haiti, a French-based creole language was developed that is spoken by people at home, while French is typically used for professional purposes.

A dead language is one that is no longer used for local communication. For example, Latin is no longer used by local people to communicate but is still used by the Roman Catholic Church in some of its services.

Dialects are a regional variety of a language that uses different grammar or pronunciation. Examples include American English versus British English. Linguists suggest that there are three main dialects of the English language in the United States: a Southern dialect, a Midland dialect, and a Northern dialect. Television and public media communication have brought a focus on more uniform speech patterns that have diminished the differences between these three dialects.

An isolated language is one not connected to any other language on Earth. For example, Basque is not connected to any other language and is only spoken in the region of the Pyrenees between Spain and France.

A lingua franca is a second language used commercially for others outside a language group but not in personal life. For example, Swahili is used by millions in Africa for doing business with people outside their group but is not used to communicate within local communities.

Slang is the local use of informal words or phrases that are not part of the official language. For example, many musicians use slang in their lyrics.

Religions of the World

Religious geography is the study of the distribution of religions and their relationship to their place of origin. Religious geographers recognize three main types of religions: universal (or universalizing), ethnic (or cultural), and tribal (or traditional) religions. Universal religions include Christianity, Islam, and various forms of Buddhism. These religions attempt to gain worldwide acceptance and appeal to all types of people, actively looking for new members or converts. Ethnic religions appeal to a single ethnic group or culture. These religions do not actively seek out converts. Broader ethnic religions include Judaism, Shintoism, Hinduism, and Chinese religions that embrace Confucianism and Taoism. Finally, traditional religions involve the belief in some form of supernatural power that people can appeal to for help, including ancestor worship and the belief in spirits that live in various aspects of nature, such as trees, mountaintops, and streams (this is often called animism). Subsaharan Africa is home to many traditional religions.

Although the world’s primary religions are listed here, many other religions are practiced worldwide, as well as many variations of the religions outlined here. The top five religions by population are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Because the official doctrine of Communism is nonreligious or atheist, there are many more followers of Buddhism in China than demographic listings indicate. The percentage of the world’s population that follows Buddhism is probably much higher than the 6 percent often listed for this religion.

Christianity and Islam originated out of Judaism in the eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula. Both are monotheistic religions that look to the Jewish patriarch Abraham as a founding personage. Christianity, based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, who lived in Palestine in the first century CE, spread rapidly through the Roman Empire. Islam is based on the teachings of Muhammad, a seventh-century religious and political figure who lived on the Arabian Peninsula. Islam spread rapidly across North Africa, east across southern Asia, and north to Europe in the centuries after Muhammad’s death.

Buddhism is a religion or way of life, based on the teachings and life of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in India/Nepal around the fifth century BCE. There are three main branches of Buddhism: southern or Theravada Buddhism, eastern or Mahayana Buddhism, and northern or Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism.

Hinduism, a religious tradition that originated on the Indian subcontinent, is one of the oldest major religions still practiced globally, and it may date back to as far as 2000 BCE or earlier. Unlike other world religions, Hinduism has no single founder and is a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions. Hinduism has a large body of scripture, including the Vedas, the Upanishads, and epic tales such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Sikhism, a religion founded in the Punjab region of southern Asia, is a monotheistic religion centered on justice and faith. High importance is placed on the principle of equality between all people. The writings of former gurus are the basis for the religion.

Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, whose traditions and ethics are embodied in the Jewish religious texts, the Tanakh and the Talmud. According to Jewish tradition, Judaism began with the covenant between God and Abraham around 2000 BCE.

Shintoism is a dominant ethnic religion of Japan focused on the worship of kami, which are spirits of places, things, and processes.

Confucianism and Taoism are ethnic Chinese religions based on morality and the teachings of religious scholars such as Confucius.

Religion, Birth Rates, and Global Population

In this TED Talk by Hans Rosling, the popular statistician wanted to know the connection between world religions and global population growth.


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Introduction to World Regional Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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