Why We Should Abandon the Terms ‘Subculture,’ ‘Cult/Sect,’ and ‘Dialect’: On the Problematic Nature of Using the Terms ‘Subculture,’ ‘Cult/Sect,’ and ‘Dialect’

Written by Dyami Millarson

The words we use to describe culture, language, and religion have the power to shape how we view and value them. Terms such as subculture, sect/cult, and dialect carry negative connotations that reinforce discrimination and prejudice. To combat this, we can embrace familial terminology, which is for example embodied by the concept of culture families owing to the fact that it recognises that cultures are interconnected and that cultural differences should be celebrated rather than stigmatised. Likewise, by using the terminology of parent culture and child culture, we acknowledge the shared history and evolution of cultures, and we move away from the negative associations of subculture. Just as cultures are connected, so too are languages. The terminology of dialect and language is, however, being used to create hierarchies and devalue certain languages. By using the concept of parent language and child language, we can recognise that all languages have value and are the product of linguistic evolution. Embracing the concept of language families, while abolishing dialect, can also help us to better understand the roots and connections between languages, and appreciate the diversity of human expression. The language we use to describe religion can also be problematic, with terms such as sect or cult reinforcing negative associations and stigmatisation. By using the concept of parent religion and child religion, we can recognize the interconnectedness and evolution of religious beliefs and practices. The concept of religion families can also help us to appreciate the diversity of religious expression and challenge the idea that one religion is inherently superior to another. Embracing the concept of religion families can help foster religious tolerance and respect for diverse beliefs and practices.

Subculture, sect/cult, and dialect have long been used in cultural, linguistic, and religious studies to describe smaller, more specialised communities that fall under a some larger umbrella. However, these terms carry negative connotations that are problematic while they foster stigmatisation. Instead, using familial terms to describe these communities can help to erase those negative connotations and better represent the complex relationships between cultures, languages, and religions. By thinking of cultures derived from another as “child cultures” and the culture from which they are derived as the “parent culture,” we can more accurately describe the evolution of these communities. Furthermore, when two cultures are related in the sense that they are both derived from the same “parent culture,” they may be called “sibling cultures.” The same terminology may be applied to language and religion, with “parent language” and “child language” and “sibling language” used to describe the relationships in language families and “parent religion” and “child religion” used to describe the evolution of religions over time. This shift from subculture vs. culture, sect/cult vs. religion, and dialect vs. language to culture families, religion families, and language families is not just a matter of terminology but can have a significant impact on how we view and treat these communities. By moving away from inherently negative terms, we can foster greater understanding and respect for the diversity of human experience and create harmony between the world’s communities.

Let us now take a closer look at the concept of dialect, which I also discussed in my recent article on the inappropriateness and offensiveness of this term. The term “dialect” is often used to describe a language that is considered to be a variation or subset of another language. However, this term carries negative connotations while it is being used to assert dominance over languages; so in addition to the problematic terminology used in cultural and religious studies, the terminology used in linguistics is also problematic. For example, some argue that Afrikaans and Limburgish are dialects of Dutch. However, this assertion is not accurate, as it implies that these languages are inferior or subsidiary to Dutch. In reality, it is more accurate to say that Afrikaans and Limburgish belong to the Dutch language family — though one should be careful not to conclude that Afrikaans and Limburgish are distinct languages, because it is more accurate to say they are in themselves language families as well. By labeling them as dialects, we are perpetuating negative connotations and disregarding the unique features and characteristics of these languages. Furthermore, the term “dialect” can also be applied incorrectly to languages on the basis of perceived historical common origin. This can lead to further stigmatisation and marginalisation of languages, cultures, and religions, as they are all connected. In order to protect inherited linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity and promote linguistic, cultural, and religious understanding, it is important to use neutral and accurate terminology when discussing languages, cultures, and religions and their relationships. Instead of using the term “dialect,” for example we should use more accurate and neutral terminology, such as “language family,” or “sibling language,” or “parent language,” or “child language.” By doing so, we can move away from negative connotations and foster a greater appreciation for the unique features and diversity of languages, cultures, and religions and their complex familial relationships. Indeed, I see linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity as well as its history in terms of a complex web of familial relations, which deserve closer scrutiny.

So while it may seem harmless to use terms like subculture, sect/cult, and dialect, we should become aware of the fact that the negative connotations that these terms carry can perpetuate discrimination and prejudice against the communities they describe. As a result, it is important to recognise the power dynamics at play in the use of these terms and the need for protection of stigmatised and marginalised communities. For instance, we do not call Hinduism an Indo-European cult/sect just because it shares a common origin with Indo-European religion. Similarly, we do not call Hindi an Indo-European dialect. Such use of the terminology is absurd and can be seen as an attempt to subjugate or dominate a religion and language. However, many communities do not have the power to protect themselves from such attacks — not to mention that everyone responds differently to insults, and many membere of communities, as I have witnessed in my fieldwork, may just internalise the verbal abuse. Scholars and scientists have a moral obligation to make an effort to protect such communities from attacks that endanger them, instead of enabling those attacks on those communities. The use of negative terminology reinforces negative stereotypes and fosters stigmatisation. Those who enable these attacks by perpetuating negative terminology share the same guilt as the perpetrators. Likewise, in law, both instigators and perpetrators are considered to bear responsibility for their actions. It is important to recognise the power dynamics at play in language, culture and religion, which have spiled over into linguistic, cultural, and religious studies, and strive for a more neutral and respectful approach to cultural, linguistic, and religious studies. We can do this by using familiar terms that erase negative connotations and emphasise the familial relationships between cultures, languages, and religions. In other words, it is time to rethink the language we use to describe communities and move away from subculture, sect/cult, and dialect in favor of familial terms that better represent the complexity and evolution of cultures, languages, and religions.

Let me sum up the essential points as follows:

  • The terms “subculture,” “cult,” “sect,” and “dialect” carry negative connotations, which makes them problematic to use.
  • The use of familial terms, such as “parent culture,” “child culture,” “parent language,” “child language,” “parent religion,” and “child religion,” in cultural, linguistic, and religious studies is a more meaningful and less discriminatory alternative to the aforementioned problematic terms.
  • For instance, declaring some language a dialect is a way of asserting dominance, and incorrectly applying the term to languages on the basis of perceived historical common origin is also problematic.
  • Scholars and scientists should refrain from perpetuating negativity by using problematic terms, but instead should make an effort to protect vulnerable communities from discrimination.
  • We should abandon the terms “subculture,” “cult,” “sect,” and “dialect” in favor of familial terms in cultural, linguistic, and religious studies, to promote more meaningful and less discriminatory discourse, and to protect vulnerable communities from stigmatisation.


  1. None of these words will be problematic in 5-10 years as they naturally will fall out of the language base due to an already rapidly decreasing vocabulary.


    • Thank you for sharing your perspective. While it is true that some words may fall out of common usage over time, it is important to note that the rate at which vocabulary is changing — or even decreasing — is not necessarily as rapid as you suggest, and has remained and will remain relatively stable throughout the centuries, leaving plenty of time to compensate for the loss of certain words and expressions. At the same time, language continues to evolve, and some words and expressions may even experience a resurgence in usage as cultural and societal changes occur. After all, terms like cult, sect and dialect are a sort of ‘revivals’ from Latin and Greek despite them not being semantically the same as in amcient times; subculture is truly a neologism, though. It is always important, nonetheless, to stay mindful of the words we use and the impact they may have on others.


  2. Fascinating read, thank you for posting. Awareness of your implicit and explicit word choices definitely lends to clear, effective writing.
    Mind you, there is no force – short of a more apt term – that will stop me from referring to Heaven’s Gate as a cult. The term is certainly over-applied. It feels really fitting for demonstrably dangerous groups or individuals passing off control-frameworks as religion. Probably because of that negative connotation to the word. Groups like Heavens Gate and The Family are the horses you are hitching your meaning to when you use the word cult. There are a number of people who do this purposely. Lately, some have called for reserving the term cult just for these dangerous groups though.
    Language is always quite interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree that language is a fascinating topic, and because we are the masters of language, we bear a responsibility for the words we choose, recognising that the words we choose can have a powerful impact on our message as well as the world around us. While it can be difficult to shift our understanding of a word, it is important to recognise that the meaning of words can evolve over time and across different contexts. In the case of “cult,” it is important to consider the potential harm caused by overgeneralising and stigmatising certain groups. Reserving the term for demonstrably dangerous organisations may be a step in the right direction, because the term is clearly insulting and offensive. However, this tolerance for insulting language may also be a slippery slope, and therefore may actually result in innocent and harmless communities being targeted as well, which is what often ends up happening with these sort of concepts: they give a free pass for abuse, which is, in fact, a real danger too. “Dangerous religion” is a more fitting concept, while it recognises religions can be dangerous, yet religions can also be good — which is way more informative than the cult/religion dichotomy, which seems to deny the basic fact that “dangerous cults” are religions too. Likewise, humans can be dangerous and they can be good; a dangerous human is not a non-human. By dehumanising the dangerous humans, we may fail to understand human nature; it is better to accept that we are all humans, and to use that for analysing why some humans do bad things while other humans do good things, which is more informative. This insight applies to the cult/religion discussions well: Heaven’s Gate is not fundamentally different from religions, but it just has very dark elements, and we can better understand those dark elements if we identify it properly as a religion instead of dereligionising it and only insulting it, which may actually mystify the phenomenon instead of helping us understand.

      Liked by 1 person

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