By DR. T.F JEMIRIYE of the Department of Religious Studies, University Of Ado-Ekiti, Ado-Ekiti.


The spectrum of creature called mammal suckles its young. This singular act of suckling is a fundamental, yet highly pictorial example of interrelatedness of some kind. Man, or human as a broad generic term, is therefore a very sophisticated and complex animal especially in terms of interrelations.

The highest urge, drive, or quest of man is his search for the creator or God. This quest, that is beyond his conscious being, is a form of religion. Man’s attempt to relate his feelings, experiences and all to his fellow human led to formation of language. A compilation – really a compendium – of repeated urges, drives, quest or search in their total expression as language results in what is called culture.

Religion is cultural and has been explained within limits of languages. Religious understanding is a function of knowledge and experience of the individual or community concerned. Thus, religious experience cannot be explained outside the context of languages.

There is a close affinity between particular languages and particular religions. Greek language aids an understanding of the New Testament in particular and Christianity in general. Hebrew is also a key to the understanding of the Old Testament and Judeo-Christianity. Islam without Arabic is unthinkable. Yorùbá is needed for a clear understanding of Yorùbá Traditional Religion. In general, the requirement of proficiency in relevant languages for higher studies in religion shows the close affinity of language to religion.

Religion and language are distinguishing components of accepted behaviours of any group of people. Both are ways of life of people. Religion and language are vital components of culture of any particular place or people. In other words, religion, language and culture are too interrelated that one can not be easily separated from the other.

This chapter therefore gives comprehensive definition of the three point issues in the topic – Religion, Language and Culture. It takes a critical look at the relationship between languages, religions and culture as may be necessary for a better appreciation and understanding of Languages, Religions and Culture. The issue of a Holy Language as “the” language of God is examined. Religious understandings in some particular Religions are explained as imposition of a language, only as allowed by the initial cultural meaning of words. The issue of translation of religious concepts as projections of language or as projected by language is critically looked into. Examples of misrepresentations, misinterpretations and/or absolute imposition of strange religious concepts from one language culture to another are blamed on poor understanding of both language and religion and more on deficiencies of one language in relation to other especially in terms of some other human cultural values. The chapter concludes that if religious concepts are taught as in their prime and native setting, - Culture – the problems of misrepresentation and misinterpretation brought about by transfer of concept from one language to another hence, culture, will be minimized. The chapter thus interrelates religion, language and culture as intrinsically interwoven essentials in the development of humanity in general and in the comprehensive understanding of any of the issues of religion, language and culture.

It must be said that a chapter on the topic is less than a bird’s eye view on the quantum of available materials on any area of the topic. Thus the attempt here is highly limited by the required length of writing and the intended audience of the work. More works on each area of the topic may be consulted, as may be required, by challenged individual. The goal here is primarily to provide a little tertiary text that can contribute to available reading materials in the subject areas.


a. Religion:

There are many attempts at defining religion the world over. Attempts have been done from the angles of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, humanities, biological sciences and countless other fronts down the ages. Idowu in his preamble in the attempt to define religion wrote:

By now, everybody who is seriously engaged
in the study of religion has been convinced
that to attempt a definition of religion is an
almost impossible, if not altogether impossible,
task: and every serious scholar is on the verge
of giving up the task.1

Idowu went further by writing:

J.B. Pratt reports: Professor Leuba enumerates
forty-eight definitions of religion from as many
great men (and elsewhere adds two of his own,
apparently to fill out the even half-hundred).
But the striking thing about these definitions is that,
persuasive as many of them are, each learned doctor
seems quite unpersuaded by any but his own. And
when doctors disagree what are the rest of us going to do?2

Also, that no consensus of opinion exists among scholars as to what religion really is has been supported by Professor Erivwo who has aptly pointed out that:

Religion has so far defied any precise definition,
a defiance that is perhaps, accounted for by the
changing nature of the subject. It has not meant the
same thing to all men.3

Erivwo4 went further to show that more than fifty definitions of religion are already written by Idowu and the subject was not adequately defined. The attempt here is not to reproduce the many definitions of Idowu or Erivwo, but to summarize that religion to a large extent is the moment by moment consciousness of any person that is rooted in the belief in a supreme Being – God – resulting in the totality of that persons action, behaviour and utterances.

Idowu clearly expressed the closeness of religion and life when he wrote about the Yorùbá thus:

The keynote to their life is their religion. In all things
they are religious. Religion forms the foundation and
the all-governing principle of life for them. As far as
they are concerned, the full responsibility of all the
affairs of life belongs to the Deity; their own part in the
matter is to do as they are ordered through the priests and
diviners whom they believe to be the interpreters of the will
of the Deity.5

With the above, Idowu has clearly demonstrated the interrelatedness of religion and the life of the Yorùbá, thus the relatedness to Yorùbá language and Yorùbá culture. In other words Religion as expressed uses language and the resultant is the life of the people that ultimately condenses to form their culture.

One side-issue to consider here is whether the focus should be “religion” or “religions”. Can the African Religion (in Nigeria for example) be merged with the foreign ones like Christianity and Islam? For the purpose of this writing, all religious experience of mankind will be regarded as one in the sense that their effect on language and hence culture are closely similar. As Awolalu aptly puts it,

I deliberately speak of African Religion (and not
religions) even though Africa is a large continent
with multitudes of nations, complex cultures,
innumerable languages and myriads of dialects. In
spite of all these differences there are many basic
similarities in the religious systems of the Africans.6

Thus this chapter will be looking more at “Religion” even though examples for consideration will come from different forms of religions.

These have been quoted so as to show that the attempt to defining religion is no child’s play. That it is difficult should not scare any serious minded person away however7. The attempted definition here given is therefore a summation of various ideas as collected and restructured by this writer.

Religion is to some, a system of faith and worship with absolute rights, wrongs, no compromise and totality8. In another, Religion is pretence shrouded in deceit, ignorance, self desertion, avoidance, relegation and no authentic claims. It is an opium of the people, an infatuated fantasy9. In a more simple but general setting, Religion is the human quest for God. It is the search for, or response to God, god, Gods, gods, GOD or GODS by men. The content, form and practice of the quest (called religion) is designed, directed, delivered, diverted and derailed by man himself10. Religion includes reverence, piety, personal commitment and serving God, god, Gods, gods, GOD or GODS with worshipful devotion. It includes conduct in accord with divine commands. It is a system or systems of faith and worship in its many faces like the spiritual, organizational, financial and hierarchical11. It is the professional practice or conviction of the existence of supreme being or beings or of supernatural powers or influences controlling man’s humanity, nature or destiny. Religion is a cause, principle or system of tenets held with ardour, devotion, conscientiousness and faith11. It is a value of supreme importance in life, death and beyond12.

In examining attitude of people in rural environments, some can be described as ‘religionary’, that is their vocation is religion while others are ‘religioner’ or religionist. The religionist is earnestly devoted and attached to religion. In a sense the religionist could almost be regarded as a zealot or fanatic. In another sense the attitude of some of the people in the rural environment can be called “religiose” – as excessively, obtrusively or/and sentimentally religious13. These form what would be called part of their religious culture.

Religion has thus been defined comprehensively above as to cover possible spectrum of religious exposure and experiences that would be needed in assessing religion – especially in terms of language and culture. A careful study of the definition of religion above however shows that there is a pattern within the lots of definitions. An attempt at summing them up produces religion as meaning a three point issue or phenomenon A, B and C, where A is related to C through B. A is a person or being, B is a form of relation like belief, conduct, faith, trust etc. and C is a super being, God or god.

Defining Religion in configuration

Figure 1: Defining Religion in configuration

In other words Religion is A function B to C. The signs used are of no full geometric identity14.

b. Language:

Language could mean speech within a native culture. It could be a native or mother tongue of a people. Language could also be a much technical communication be it in waves or other forms of transmission. Computer language – be it fortran, cobolt or whatever – will be another dimension of the definition of language but it is in no doubt used as branch of learning. In the humanities, language will be more of style of speech or expression. The particular distinguishing form of speech in a form of speaking that differentiates it from others is the linguistic properties of that particular language. Languages are therefore classified as related or otherwise when they have similar or closely related linguistic patterns and such like.

Within Africa, there are many kinds - classifications - of people hence languages. Paul Thatcher agrees that majority of African belong to the division of mankind called Negro15, but he identifies others that include Caucasian group, Nilotic, the Pygmies, San, Khoikhoi and Bantu-speaking people16. This classification is really a crossing of language and culture. Seligman17 has a slightly different classification thus: Hamites, Semites, Negroes, Bushmen and Hottentots, sometimes known as Khoisan and Negrillos.

To Paul Thatcher, Linguistically, Africa is the most complex part of the world containing almost a thousand district languages18.

The languages are often divided into:
(a) Niger-Congo (The Bantu languages, and most West African Languages).
(b) Afro-Asiatic (most North and North-east African languages)
(c) Macro Sudanic (mostly around the upper Nile)
(d) Central Saharan (Like Teda and Kanuri) and
(e) Khoisan (the ‘click’ Languages) 19

Seligman however gave the language distribution as Semitic, Hamitic, Hottentots, Bantu, Sudanic and Bushman with varying sub-divisions to each. 20

All these divisions are based on some form of expressed, concealed or even confused ideologies mostly from the Western world, foreign to Africa itself. It will suffice to say therefore that there is an inseparable link between language classification and culture which is recognisable all across Africa and even the world at large. In other word it could be safely said that there is inseparable union, and not just a relationship, between languages, religions and cultures. Non of the trio can be discussed without an allusion into the other two either directly or indirectly. The three are super-imposed sets one on another, with just little free spaces left for any particular one.

In a figure presentation, if the trio are represented by the three shapes A, a triangle, B, a circle and C a rectangle, then the relationship will be as shown:

Defining Religion in configuration

with most of the content of any of the trio falling within the common area to all.

Interaction between the Trio.

Because of the many languages in our world, there have always been clashes of language, religion and culture; and a conscious or unconscious imposition of foreign languages and cultures or other people. This came with colonization promotions. This has brought out the question and its accompany ill feelings, “is one language and/or culture really superior to the other?” It could even be asked, why the imposition of language in religion for centuries? Is there really a holy language of God?

It must be properly cleared that every culture has its own understanding and experience of God that fulfils the community’s needs and social requirements. Words in every culture, therefore, grew out of the needs and experiences of that particular community. What is not experienced can not be described; hence, there will be no word in the particular culture for the feeling that is not experienced in the culture.

This brings the reality of the problems in interpreting, translating and transliterating as illustrations of the interrelating of language and culture. It must be said that when a language one does not experience an event that is in another language two, then that particular experience can never be translated. Any attempt at interpretation of such will only be superficial, partial and untrue. It is therefore very important to know that interrelating language and culture are highest within particular languages and their cognate cultures and Religion. Therefore translations of religious concepts such as God, Man, Sin are only projections of language as they exist in their primary culture and not a fair transposition of what the concept may be in the first language or culture.

In this respect it should be clearly stated that it was a misconception that the idea of God could not be conceived in nay particular language, culture or by any community of people. Most of the early missionaries of foreign religions to Africa postulated the idea that some cultures could not perceive the concept of their foreign god, out of ego complex, gross naivety, and complete misunderstanding of both the culture and language of the Africans.

The issue of holy language of God is therefore a false and repressive theology used by proponents of such to deceive and really enslave the uninitiated in servitude. Such a theology makes a ridicule of God. God understands all of human, regardless of place, colour, language, culture or community. How God’s language changed from Latin to English in the Church of England is an interesting history. Henry VIII will be actively remembered.21 The truth is that cultures that founded particular religion have closest affinity to such religions in terms of word horizon, concepts and outlook. N other words, the idea of holy language or culture as outgrow of particularity of religion is unfair to the universality of God and to other people outside the “favoured” context.
Now to culture.

c. Culture

Culture is such a comprehensive word whose usage spans across many academic disciplines. The faculties range from basic and general sciences, to Education, the Social Sciences, Management Sciences, the Arts-Humanities and others. It is therefore worth while to trace the general scope of culture very briefly before zeroing in on the main area of interest of this chapter – the interrelating of religion, language and culture.

Culture within the sciences brings to mind the art or practice of growing, raising and manner or method of tillage22. In such, a setting, a sentence such as “we ought to blame the culture and not the soil” becomes very relevant and meaningful23. It is the cultivation rearing of a particular product or crop or stock for supply. In this zone, culture is the growing of living material, such as bacteria or tissues, in prepared nutrient media. It is any inoculated nutrient medium whether or not it contains living organisms24.

Culture in the Social Sciences, Management Sciences, Education and the Humanities are not only closely related but they overlap in matters of definition. Culture, within the conglomeration, includes the act of developing by education, discipline and social experience. It is the training or refining of the moral and intellectual faculties. Culture is the state of being developed in the sense of enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training. Culture, in this dimension, includes the intellectual and artistic content of civilization. It is the refinement in manners, taste and thought. It covers the acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational, technical or professional skill or knowledge25.

In a unique, but not a different sense from the above, culture is yet the total pattern of human behaviour and its products embodied in thought, speech, action and artefacts, dependent upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations through the use of tools, language and systems of abstract thought. Closely akin to this is that culture is the body of customary beliefs, social forms and material traits that constitute a district complex of tradition of a racial, religious or social group. Culture is therefore that complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, morals, law, customs, opinions, religion, superstition and art. Part of culture therefore is a complex of typical behaviour or standardized social characteristics peculiar to a specific group, occupation or profession, sex, age group or social class26. In this sense, expressions like, “class culture”, “youth culture” and “gender culture” become meaningful. The group consciousness of culture includes recurring assemblage like artefacts, house types, methods of burial and community ways of life, that differentiate a group of human or archaeological rite from another27.

Alan Bearls28, an anthropologist, asserted there would be disagreement about what was meant by the term culture29 but he went on to define culture thus:

Culture can mean “Social heredity” or the things men
learn when they are trained within a particular group
of people. Culture can also mean the kind of entity expressed
by such words as Eskimo, France, Navajo, Hindu, Zulu or Sainoa.29 (or Yorùbá, Ibo, Hausa, Tiv, Ekiti, Osun, Ga, Ewe, Egu and such like).30

Bearl's angle to the issue of culture is very important because it is missing in the previous definitions. It is importance because it brings in the real connection of culture to people and groups, hence to their language which is the focus of this chapter.

It should be noted that the issues of whether culture could be, and is really pure, polluted, accented or adulterated are possible points of consideration in culture. Cultural identity especially in relevance to people therefore includes morality, dress, language, home living, marriage, rites of passage, kingship and many others.

The special interest of this chapter is interrelating religion, language and culture. One can and should therefore ask which one really contains the other? Language is used in expressing religion and culture but language too is cultural. There is religious language, there is religious culture, there is language culture and there is culture of language. All these are shades of the interrelatedness of religion, language and culture. The discussion hitherto has been an attempt at the definition of the three main words in the topic – Religion, Language and Culture. Now the attention can go into examples of peculiarities of interrelatedness within Religion, Language and Culture.

Examples of Interrelating

There are peculiarities in Christian religion that are not really translatable in other languages and culture. Hebrew language is the original cultural home of Judaism, and Christianity. It is therefore not a surprise that there are many concepts that have their best meaning in the Hebrew language and culture. ???? ??? – meaning Malak Yahweh – often translated “Angel” is really not the same concept. Angel is a transliteration of and a??e??? – angelos in Greek and the concepts are just absent in many other cultures hence it is borrowed.

The word ‘Bible’ is from Greek. Bible is a transliteration from Biblion for ß?ß????. It is again not translated as the concept does not exist in many other languages and cultures; hence it is borrowed through transliteration.

The use of majestic – honorific – plural for singular object easily comes to mind in reference to relating between religion, language and culture. In Hebrew, Greek and Yorùbá languages, majestic or honourific plural is acceptable. In English language the concept is missing. The confusion in the presentation of the “Lord’s prayer” in many Yorùbá churches is therefore understandable. Should it be “Baba waa ti nbe ni orun, owo ni oruko re” or “… owo ni oruko yin”? While the Majestic plural is found in Greek, the fact that the translation to Yorùbá came via English and not from the original Greek and direct to Yorùbá created the confusion.

In Islam, Arabic is the language of the Koran. The text is therefore that of the Arabic culture. The mode of dressing now transported world wide for Islam is therefore more cultural than really religious. The propagation of Arabic language as the only language where the text and message of Islam is fullest is understandable, but it makes the others with their own concept of God in their native culture, aliens in the Arabic language.

In Yorùbá Traditional Religion the story of relatedness is the same for language and culture. In Odu Ifá, the richness of the Yorùbá culture and language are interwovenly demonstrated. The ese (verses) Ifá tell the history, life, cultural religion, and interrelatedness. Images and concepts of God are always described in anthropomorphic language regardless of the brand of religion.

Expressions like “Olowogbogboro ti nyo omo re lofin” – interpreted as “the one with the very long hand that rescues his children from the deep pit” and “Eleti gba’roye “interpreted as the one with ear for all details” are beautiful blends to the state of art language, religion and culture. Interestingly these descriptions will be used for Yorùbá Traditional God as well as for the Christian God.

Another set of examples of the interrelation of religion, language and culture are aptly illustrated in some misreading, hence misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Biblical texts from the Yorùbá background. The passage “Ewa is odo mi gbogbo eyin ti nsise ti a si di eru wiwo le lori …” (Matthew 11:28) has been read for many decades in Yorùbá community with a cultural error. The “nsise” has often been read as “people that are wretched, miserable, unhappy and worthless” because this met an easy cultural situation among the low level audience of the lowly Yorùbá. Unfortunately, the word is “labour” in English and e???? in Greek meaning “those whose work is hard”. Similarly, the passage

“Poolu gbe ibe pe…” Acts 18:18
“Alagba ju kan si wa ….” Acts 18:24

has been read in Yorùbá to mean “Poolu took or stole pawpaw, Big brother (Elder) throw one to us” because this would look were common scenario in the Yorùbá setting. But the real meaning is “Paul lived there for a long while, …” “There was an elder of the Jews! While these errors have been correct in some later editions of the Yorùbá text, it remains that the example shows the interrelatedness of religion, language and culture.

Another example is the expression “The camel to pass through the eye of the needle.” In Israel of Jesus days, the needle gate is a back door. The gate was used once the big broad gate was closed. Today many take the needle to mean the sewing needle! In parts of the world where camel’s are not known, the cultural undercoat of this text becomes an impossibility, hence always interpreted in a greater mystery of faith.

While thinking about the language for God, the kingship within the community has always influenced the concept of God. Again among the Yorùbá, the idea of “Aterere kari aiye” the one that spread across the world” and “Kabiyesi” – Ka bi o ko si – “there is no one who can question you,” is akin to the powers arrogated to kings like Alafin and Ooni.

Words, like ‘Pèlé’ with no cultural equivalence in English language (as it is the exact opposite to sorry in terms of concern) and “tutu” for “cold” or “wet” can give a wrong signal in the course of transporting concept from religion to culture via language. These concepts can only be explained at there very best.

In English ‘You” is a direct language but it connotes “rudeness” if so translated to many cultures in Africa because of the use of honorific or Majestic plural. “Nwon nbo” for a father (they are coming for a single father) shows the tie of culture and language. It could be said that within cultures where people live together in close fellowship, common concern of a unique type is always felt. The concern is always seen in the community’s words. Such is the case with “pèlé”. Where the concern is missing there will not be such a word in existence.


This chapter has shown that Language, Religion and Culture are closely interrelated. Really religion is based within culture and the vehicle of expression is language. Language is based on experience and what is never experienced can never be expressed in language. Every religious experience will therefore bring a religious language hence a religious culture. The culture within which a religion is raised always colours the language and concept of the religion. The trio are really inseparable.

Endnotes and References

1. E. Bolaji Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition, SCM Press Ltd., London, 1976, p. 69.
2. Ibid.
3. Samuel Erivwo,
4. Ibid.
5. E. Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, Ibadan, Longmans, 1962, p. 5.
6. J. Omosade Awolalu, Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, London, Longmans, 1979, p.
7. A. Popoola & Co. (ed.), Ondo state in Perspective, Ondo State Government, 1996, pp. 110-117. Text of a lecture delivered at Cultural Centre, Akure, on 24th January 1996 by T.F. Jemiriye on “Religions and Development in Ondo State”, p. 110.
8. C.G. Berry, Religions of the World, Barnes and Noble Inc., N.Y. 1964, Idowu, B. African Traditional Religion: A Definition, SCM Press Ltd., London, 1976 and Awolalu J.O. Yorùbá Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, Longman, London, 1979 are some of the many books that have relevant sections on definition of religion.
9. Ibid.
10. A. Popoola & Co. (Eds.), Op. cit. p. 110.
11. Ibid.
12. P.B. Grove, (Ed), Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, G & C Merriam Company, Springfield, U.S.A. 1971, Vol. II, p. 1918b.
13. E. Dada. Adelowo, Homo Religious: A Man Who holds his own in all circumstances, Text of the Second Inaugural Lecture, Ondo State University, Centre for Research and Development, Ado-Èkìtì, Nigeria. 1995, p. 3.
14. This is Jemiriye’s definition that attempts to simplify the many long-winded expressions called definition of religion.
15. P. Thatcher, Student’s Notes on the History of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, Longmans, 1981, p. 6.
16. Ibid.
17. G.G. Seligman, Races of Africa, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, London, p. 5.
18. Paul Thatcher, Op. cit.
19. Ibid.
20. G.G. Seligman, Op. cit.
21. W. Walker, A History of the Christian Church, T & T Clark Ltd., Edinburgh, 1970, pp. 358 – 362.
22. P.G. Grove, (Ed.) Op. cit.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Alan Bearls,
29. Ibid.
30. Words in brackets are added by this writer.

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