We sometimes obsess over what we say, how we say what we say, and how we sound when we say it. Sometimes we use the phrase “use your words” to let people know (in a condescending way) that they should articulate what they’re trying to say in a more coherent way. What’s the big deal with what we say? Is it in how we say it? Or in when we say it? Or in which words we use? Or in our tone? Or is it in all of that?

It’s easy to take for granted that which allows us to communicate with each other, that which is so natural to us. We learn it as babies and don’t think much of it throughout the rest of our lives. Language becomes a way of life, yet the impact it has on culture may be underappreciated, and vice versa.

Language forms a huge part of our identity.  There are many things that make people who they are. There are many things that people identify themselves by too. Their culture, their ethnicity, their nationality, and their race make them who they are and are things that they identify themselves with. Some of us identify ourselves with our favourite sports team, which can be something to be proud of or to be ashamed of. Arsenal fans can probably relate to the latter. Language also identifies us, and we identify by it.

Language adds colour and character to things. It adds flavour to culture. It is orderly and rule-abiding, and yet it is so different in the way it does so around the world. This uniqueness is shown in wonderful and beautiful ways. The same language can be used in completely different ways by different people around the world. They speak it with their own local style. They have their own pronunciations, their own tone, their own inflexions. They have their own grammar and vocabularies of unique words for situations or things unique to them. Sometimes some words are used more than they normally would be by other speakers of the language, some are used less.

People can take a language and make it their own with idiosyncrasies (such as with ebonics) that can sometimes result in new languages (such as with pidgin). This sometimes gives rise to sub-cultures that become the envy of others and that are copied around the world. Think of how cool the Rastafarians are and how “Wagwan” has become a universal greeting around the world. Or how American and even British slang are popular around the English-speaking world. It’s one of the ways western culture has become ingrained in the developing world. Language and culture go hand-in-hand.

It is amazing how much language affects and is affected by culture. Take English as an example. English is the most widely spoken language on earth, but the differences in its dialects are as numerous as the people who speak them. Sure, we have British English and American English. But even the Brits and the Americans have different dialects of the language within their own countries.

We all know the standard British accent: the upper-class and posh-sounding Oxford accent we all wish we had. And to most of us, all Americans sound the same. But there are differences. For anyone who speaks and understands English in the “conventional” way, I challenge you to understand Scottish and Welsh accents. Actually, there may be no need to go that far. Don’t even leave the borders of London. Try out a Cockney accent for size and see if you can keep up.

Americans may be famous for speaking only one language and speaking it poorly, but there is also a wealth of diversity in English across America. People on the east coast speak differently from those on the west coast. The Jersey and various New York accents are prolific. The southern accent (from the south, obviously) is unmistakable. And there’s a myriad of other accents across the country to identify every region.

Differences in culture contribute to the differences in the language as well. Americans are known for being friendly and laid back. It shows in the way they speak, what with their preference for slang and simpler grammar and vocabulary. Meanwhile, the Brits, who are supposedly more proper (their accent really comes through for them) often use more complex grammar with a slightly wider vocabulary. They’re also supposedly more polite, so they are thus supposedly careful with their words and more professional than Americans would be.

Then there are places like Kenya, which are blessed with more languages than they know what to do with. Kenyans speak English like much of the rest of the world and it is taught in school from the very basic level all the way to advanced levels. And like other English speakers, Kenyans have their own way (or ways) of speaking the language.

Kenyan English (Kenglish) is influenced heavily by the local languages, particularly Swahili. You hear it in people’s pronunciation, in their grammar (or lack thereof), and even in their vocabulary. Ask a Kenyan to pronounce the following words: hut, hat, heart, hurt. It’s likely that they all sounded the same when they said them out loud. No? What about beach, beech, and bitch?

At the same time, different languages can be spoken in much the same way as each other. As the world has got smaller and English is learned and used more widely, English phrases have crept into other languages. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes those phrases existed before English came to muddy the languages up. Imagine having two completely different languages with similar expressions that have similar meanings. It’s fascinating, isn’t it?

Culture affects language in other ways too. There’s the way Kenyans ask questions as if they already know the answer to them. Or the questions they ask that have obvious answers. There’s the way Germans answer questions honestly and directly without missing a beat, without pausing to consider one’s feelings or reaction to their answer.

There’s the way people of Latin heritage speak loudly and with emotion, emphasizing their vowels and their gestures. There’s the way Asians speak with deference, being supremely respectful and observing protocol.

Those are all subliminal reflections of culture. The Kenyans often think out loud, the Germans are very direct, people of Latin heritage are often expressive, and Asians are often courteous and respectful.

A lot of us around the world speak the same language, just in different ways. In our own ways really. We also speak different languages but sometimes speak them in similar ways. It is fascinating how we do a lot of the same things differently, in the way we know how or in the way that best suits us.

It can be easy to discount language as just another part of our lives that we grow up with and use. It can seem trivial sometimes, but there’s a lot to it. There’s a reason people prefer to watch subbed over dubbed Anime, or why shows like Narcos and Lupin are so popular.

It isn’t just the story. The languages that are spoken and the cultures they represent have a lot to do with it as well.

Whatever language you speak, speak it with pride. Speak it well. Mind your language, dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Pay a little more attention to how your neighbour from Zimbabwe or your friend from Tanzania speaks. You might learn a lot more about them and their culture through that. While you’re at it, borrow from them what works to enhance your own language and culture. There’s always room to improve.