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Does Language Shape our Cultural Understandings?

One very powerful tool used by human beings is our capacity for language. Language is a complex set of symbols which allow us to communicate verbally, nonverbally, and in written form. Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Standard German, and Wu Chinese comprise about 40 percent of the spoken languages in the world. How you view the world around you, your social construction of reality, and your world-taken-for-granted all stem in part from the language you learn to speak. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis claims that when we learn a language, we also learn a framework for understanding and interpreting our social reality and environment. That means that your rules of conjugation, sentence structure, math, etc. shape your thought patterns. For example, in English (a language which descended from German) we describe our physical condition using the “to be” verb of “I am.”

We say “I am: cold, hot, hungry, tired, 22 years old, or fat.” In many Latin-derived languages such as Spanish and French, they describe their physical condition using the “to have” verb. “I have: cold, hot, hunger, fatigue, 22 years, or extra weight.” Given the enormous pressure felt by women to be thin and to conform to unrealistic beauty standards, the “To have” verb is much more palatable. Since the language is the vehicle that facilitates socialization of the culture, it becomes a crucial factor in either the survival or eventual death of a culture—if the language disappears, so does the culture (Google search “Dalmatian language” for an example).

In Quebec, Canada the French language was suppressed after Napoleon agreed to the Louisiana Purchase. The British systematically deported the Arcadian French speakers to Baton Rouge, Louisiana (they later became known as the “Cajuns”). The French speakers who remained in Quebec found themselves oppressed by the dominant English speaking rulers. For decades the French struggled to keep their language alive—and thereby keep their cultural traditions alive. In the 1960’s social conditions lead to the formation of a political terrorist group which used terror to advance the cause of the French language and culture in Quebec.

The Quebec Sovereignty Movement (French: Mouvement souverainiste du Québec) was in full swing and efforts were being made to formally create an independent nation state in Quebec. A series of legislative pieces and referendum ballots on the succession of Quebec (and therefore sovereignty of Quebec) ultimately lead to a 1995 vote in which only 50.56% voted "No" and a close 49.44% voted "YES" out of 94% of the 5 million registered voters voting ( see Wiki at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_sovereignty_movement ).

What was the big deal? The big deal was that if a political body wants to eliminate a sub-culture, it can effectively do so by eliminating the language spoken by members of the sub-culture. Likewise members of the sub-culture can unite their efforts in preserving their heritage as the French speakers did in Quebec.



You see, in each society you have the Main Stream Culture, or the culture shared by the dominant groups, coinciding with the culture shared in the main social institutions(government, education, religion, family, technology, media, and the economy). Then within a larger society there are always sub- and counter-cultures. A Subculture is one in which groups which have different folkways, mores, and norms, exist within but are not completely a part of the larger society. Whereas a Counterculture occurs when a group's values, norms, and beliefs are in conflict or opposition to those of the larger society and mainstream culture.

The Amish are an example of a sub-culture while the Branch Davidians are an example of a counter-culture. Counter-cultural groups often come into conflict with authority and typically one dominates the other. But, sometimes, authority is misused against sub-cultural groups. This was the case in Japan with the Ainu people.

On the Japanese island of Hokkaido a group of indigenous people named the Ainu once flourished in their traditional culture (Ainu people called themselves “Utari” which means comrade since Ainu has negative connotations for them; see also Navajo and Diné for similar cultural rejection of dominant group imposed negative labels). The Ainu are a historical component of the early history of Japan, but few live the traditional cultural, tribal, and religious traditions of this formally noble civilization.

What diffused this culture? Japan forced all its citizens claiming to be Japanese to attend public schools. Tremendous pressure came to bear on the Ainu people and many continue to hide their ethnicity to this day because of fear of racism. Even though some Ainu lived in Russia, the average Japanese Ainu seeks invisibility among other Japanese citizens (see http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2244.html or http://www.japanforum.com/ ).

It is very common for sub-cultural and main stream cultural groups to co-exists. Often their cultural traits and traditions spread back and forth between one another. Cultural Diffusionis when certain aspects of one culture are spread to another culture. An example in the US is the consumption of salsa. According to Wolfe and Ferland (2000), salsa was rarely consumed in the US, but in the mid 1990’s salsa consumption surpassed ketchup consumption and remains in the lead today with over $1 billion in annual sales (see http://www.agecon.uga.edu/~caed/SalsaIndustry.pdf ). Salsa is a food traditional to the Spanish and Portuguese speaking nations of the Americas. It’s move northward coincided with shifts in immigration patterns including more Mexican, Central, and South American immigrants to the US.

Interestingly ketchup is still consumed as much as it was in the past. Salsa was added to the American diet, rather than adopted as a replacement to ketchup. Food is only one area where cultural diffusion can be readily observed. Clothing, music, television shows, movies, cars, technologies and many other aspects of cultures spread throughout the world today, diffusing cultures to a great extent. Cultural Leveling is the process in which cultures of the world become similar. As yet, we do not have a world-wide mainstream culture; however, there are those who’ve argued that oil is one aspect of our daily lives that is leveled throughout much of the world.


Date: 2015-01-12; view: 714


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