Culture and Language in Society Essay
Culture and Language in Society
In a world that is rapidly moving toward a predominantly technological and uniformed system, language and culture are becoming increasingly crucial to defining an individual. For many people, culture still completely dictates their way of life, as is evident in many religions, such as Hinduism, where the line between religious traditions and everyday life is blurred. Just as Henry Trueba can be quoted in Afforming Diversity, Whatever knowledge we acquire, it is always acquired through language and culture, two interlocked symbolic systems considered essential for human interaction and survival.
Culture and language are so intricately intertwined that even trained scholars find it impossible to decide where language ends and begins, or which one of the two impacts the other the most (189). Without language, culture would be, as Trueba stated, virtually non-existent, as certain emotions can only be conveyed in certain languages. The same holds true for language, as it is often impossible to translate texts while retaining the same literary and emotional connotations the original version contained because certain words only exist in those languages.
Moreover, language, especially in literature, leaves much up to interpretation, and translations often omit any ambiguity that the author may have originally intended. When searching for English versions of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, several versions are available, each translated by different individuals. In each of these books, differences can be observed in the way the plot is described, though they seldom make any difference in the larger scheme. Even the spelling differs (e. g. “Dunya” and “Dounia”) simply because of the way the translator thought the word sounded phonetically.
By the same token, reading a Tang dynasty poem in Chinese differs greatly from the English translation. Though the English version manages to retain most of the poet’s original message, it lacks the fluidity and the poetic essence that can be found in the same poem in Chinese. As with all subjective issues, language is subject to interpretation, and to take away a literary work’s original language is to deduct from the piece as a whole. Knowledge, however, is not, as Trueba described, acquired solely through culture and language.
It is not necessary for language to exist in order for us to know that fire is hot, or that water is wet. Though we may not be able to place these feelings with these specific words, we know that they exist because our sense of touch tells us so. If I chose to call “fire” “water,” the flames would still burn my hand when I touched it even if I had attributed a word that would normally extinguish the flames to it. By doing so, I have not changed the entity I have renamed, but have simply categorized it under a different label.
A baby does not need to know the meaning of the word “hot” in order to know that a burning stove is extremely warm to the touch, or the meaning of the word “light” in order to know that it is brighter in the day than it is at not. After all, “a rose by any other name would be just as sweet” (Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet”). Ever since ancient days, culture and language have played integral roles in defining an individual and dictating one’s everyday life. The morals that we live by are directly related to our cultural values, which are evident in ancient texts, such as the Koran, Bible and Torah.
These books, however, have been translated so many times that their meaning has no doubt been at least slightly changed. In the Jewish culture, the Torah must be recited in Hebrew, the original language of the Jews. In this instance, Hebrew is much more than just a language; it also symbolizes the religious beliefs and customs of the Jewish people, and in this way, much of their traditional culture can be retained. Likewise, Catholics conduct Mass in Latin (though it is not as common anymore) and like in Judaism, much of the culture is maintained that way as well.
Language leads directly to culture and culture to language in a cyclical process so that the boundaries between the two become virtually nonexistent. By the same token, language (be it English, Russian, Greek or Japanese) would differ greatly from what we know today if culture were to cease to exist. Much of culture as we know it would be lost without language, as it would be next to impossible to carry on cultural traditions from generation to generation without a means of communication. Much of the vocabulary accumulated in languages is a direct result of cultural practices, traditions and innovations.
Each time a new revolution in society or technology takes place, a string of new words is developed. It is estimated that a few dozen new words are added to the English language alone each year. 1 Common words such as “television,” “Internet,” and “telephone” would have meant nothing two short centuries ago. The word “silhouette” only came into existence after the French Minister of Finance under Louis XV, Etienne de Silhouette, began decorating his office with cheap, black paper cutouts.
Back then, the word was associated with stinginess, as the people felt oppressed by the strict financial measures he set on the French in order to replenish the treasury, which had suffered as a result of wars with Britain and Prussia. 2 Today, however, the word is often used to described stylish, chic products, and can be found on cars like the Oldsmobile Silhouette, and shoes, such as Silhouette, a Dutch shoe store. As culture develops, language, too, must evolve to accommodate the new changes as people feel the need to identify objects and feelings with words.
A person’s way of utilizing language can also tell a lot about his/her cultural background. For someone raised in a normal urban environment, the word “Negro” will have a very meaning as opposed to the individual who had grown up in the Ku Klux Klan. For the urban New Yorker, “Negro” would be a derogatory and offensive term that should never be used. For the Klan member, however, the term would equate to “ignorant and degraded and altogether sold to the devil. ”
Likewise, the word “woman” could be considered a derogatory insult depending on the context it is used in. For many women in this modern era, if a man were to say “Hey woman, get over here and help me with this,” it would warrant the man getting a slap across the face, because it not only is insulting, but also reminds women of the days when they were considered inferior to men. This attitude exists particularly in Western culture where women are considered equal to men (even still, discrepancies exist, particularly in positions of power and politics).
In many Islamic countries, however, this kind of deprecating behavior towards women is acceptable to the point that a woman basically becomes her husband’s property. Calling someone “hey woman” would certainly not be regarded as derogatory or insulting by the majority of the people in these countries (e. g. Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan). For the women there, such behavior is acceptable because it is tolerated within their culture. The word itself is simply another label that describes who they are. In a culture that believes that women are inferior to men, sexism towards women in language would be common.
Three centuries ago, the same attitude would hold true in Western civilizations as few women could hope to rise above the system and hold a position other than that of a housewife. It had been a belief that too much learning for women would result in “evil. ” Thus, women often obtained an education only to the third grade level. Since society had deemed this acceptable and even necessary back then, calling someone “woman” would not be as offensive as it would be today. Though the word has remained unchanged, the connotation it carries differs greatly as a result in cultural changes.
The number of languages one knows also reflects on the level of cultural awareness one has. The more languages one knows, the more likely it is he/she will have a deeper sense of the various cultures that exist in the world. Being bilingual in Chinese and English, I am able to understand Chinese culture better than someone who does not know the language because my view of the Chinese culture and traditions is subject only to my own interpretation, rather than that of a tour guide, publisher, author or another individual.
As stated previously, it is impossible to translate everything word for word and thus certain phrases can only be communicated effectively in the original language, yet such expressions are often imperative to further understand a culture. For example, the words “Long live the people of the world” appear on the Tiananmen gate in Beijing. To translate it literally, however, the same phrase would be “May the people of the world live for 10,000 years. ” Though the general meaning is the same, slight differences still exist. Language and culture are inextricably linked in defining an individual, society and nation.
Without one, the other would cease to exist as we know it. Simply by listening to the language, or even a dialect, a person speaks, one can often tell a lot about their cultural background. Generally speaking, the Californian accent shows that the person is most likely laid back and easy going, while the Southern drawl may depict a person’s tendency to take things slowly. As it would be unlikely to find a member of the social elite speaking Ebonics (Black English), it would be safe to assume that the individual who speaks the dialect is from an urban environment, and is culturally aware of the urban scene.
Just as Trueba had states, there is no division at which language ends and culture begins, as they continue in a cycle with one completing the other. In order to understand ourselves better, we must first understand our heritage, which is composed largely of language and culture. To find a definite distinction between the two would be impossible and would call for a change to language and culture as we presently know it. http://www.hugedomains.com/domain_profile.cfm?d=tlsmarketing&e=com
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