Why you cannot separate language from culture, The Short Story of Rice

Language is not just a system on how to order your words to create a meaningful sentence. For most of their history, humankind grew separately on all corners of the earth. Humankind bordered by mountains, sea, or forest developed a suitable way of life, based on their environment.

This difference in the environment has influenced the language. Even though there is precisely the same plant or animals in two different separated areas, there will be a different way how each community addresses it. For example, in Javanese, there are words for each stage of rice.

Padi, Gabah, Beras and Nasi

In English, you might call them rice plant, rice, grain, or cooked rice. So, how could this happen? The simple answer is Javanese society is using rice as their staple food. In comparison, the English are using wheat as their staple. So, Javanese vocabularies might not be familiar with wheat or bread, and English is not familiar with rice. All of this resulted as wheat is native plant species in Europe and rice is native plant species in Asia.

So, environment influence plant, plant influence food, and food influence culture. In Indonesia, as you can expect, there is much food based on rice. You can find rice cooked in banana leaf, fried rice, rice cake, and many other rice-based culinary products. The food is part of the culture as in the US. For example, baked Turkey is associated with Thanksgiving. In Indonesia, food can also be associated with a particular event. Rice cooked in diamond-shaped coconut leaves, or Ketupat is a must-eat for celebrating Eid Idul Fitri’s Islamic event in this country. You cannot even find this dish in the Middle East, where Islam is originated. Thus this is a product of cultural assimilation between Islamic and Indonesian culture.

Language is in culture, and culture is in the language (Witherspoon, 1980). The environment that you are living in now is the source of culture. How society processed and eating food creates a unique, distinctive culture. Rice is just a small example of how culture is originated based on the environment. Thus, when you learn a language, you also need to learn the culture.


Witherspoon, G. (1980). Language in culture and culture in language. International Journal of American Linguistics, 46(1), 1–13.



Language, Tech and Food.

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