1.4 Cultural Geography

Culture and Ethnicity

The term culture is often difficult to differentiate from the term ethnicity. 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.

This video defines ethnicity a little differently and talks about race:

Race & Ethnicity: Crash Course Sociology #34

Let’s look at an article that also defines both terms: https://pediaa.com/difference-between-ethnicity-and-culture/

As you can see, opinions vary on just how to define ethnicity and culture! For the purpose of this book, we’ll go with the first definitions in the text (vs. the video).

Languages of the World

Language families

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 Ethnologue, a publication pertaining to the world’s languages, estimates that there were 6,909 living languages in the world as of 2009, the exact number may never be determined. Other data sets count languages differently, but most agree that there are more than 6,000. 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.

Of the more than 6,000 languages, 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. In fact, many languages have no written form and are spoken by declining numbers of people. Language experts estimate that up to half the world’s living languages could be lost by the end of the twenty-first century as a result of globalization.

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.

World Area






# of Languages






TED-Ed: How languages evolve – Alex Gendler

Take the language video quiz!

The following terms are used to describe language characteristics:

  • accent. 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 people in North Dakota, but the differences are less severe than dialects.
  • creole. Similar to pidgin, a creole language arises 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.
  • dead language. 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.
  • dialect. A dialect is 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 has brought a focus on more uniform speech patterns that have diminished the differences between these three dialects.
  • isolated language. 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.
  • lingua franca. A lingua franca is a second language used for commercial purposes with others outside a language group but not used in personal lives. For example, Swahili is used by millions in Africa for doing business with people outside their own group but is not used to communicate within local communities.
  • official language. 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 in many places the lingua franca is English and several local languages may be spoken.
  • pidgin. A pidgin is a simplified, created 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 own 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 is mixed up according to local vocabulary. There are many English-based pidgin languages around the world.
Langfocus: What are Creoles and Pidgins? And What`s the Difference?

Religions of the World

Major religions pie chart

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, and they actively look 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.

The distribution of the major religions of the world
The distribution of the major religions of the world
  • 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 what is now 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 in the world, 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. You’ll get to read a terrific version of the Ramayana in week 23 of Guest Hollow’s Geography & Cultures Curriculum!
  • 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 major 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.

Key Takeaways:

✎ Ethnicity are the traits someone is born with.
✎ Culture is what people learn after they are born.
✎ There are over 6000 languages, many of which will be lost due to globalization.
✎ There are thousands of religions or variants of them in the world. Religious geographers recognize three main types of religions: universal, ethnic, and traditional. The four main religions of the world are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Next: 1.5 Global Economics

We want to know what you thought of what you just read and watched! Leave us a comment! Please also let us know if a link or video isn’t working. 🙂

Image and additional information credits:

Major language families of the world – public domain
Source for language table:
Source: M. Paul Lewis, ed., Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 16th ed. (Dallas: SIL International, 2009), accessed September 13, 2011, http://www.ethnologue.com. (Copied from World Geography: People, Places, and Globalization.)
Major religions pie chart
By Xyxyo – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41287427
Religions of the world
By Usergreatpower (talk) – the English language Wikipedia (log)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7362356

2 thoughts on “1.4 Cultural Geography

  1. I’m concerned that the definition of ethnicity is different between the text and the video Race vs. Ethnicity. The video defines ethnicity as a socially constructed category based on cultural traits. People of the same ethnicity have shared cultural heritage such as language and traditions. But the text says that language and tradition are the traits of a culture and NOT an ethnicity.

    • Thanks so much for your comment! I’ve added a bit of clarification (and an additional linked article). That way students can understand that these terms are sometimes defined a bit differently. 🙂

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