Social Science - Other

Language and Culture – Culture

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The question, "which came first, language or culture" assumes there is a meaningful division between culture and language, and there is not such a clear division. Likewise, there is not such a nice distinction between "communication" and "language".

Sometimes it is useful to break things up to understand them, but when we define "culture" and "language" in a way that makes them seem like separate things, we exclude most of what we really want to know about, which is how they work in our lives. Instead, let's ask, "what is the relationship between language and culture", though of course it is difficult to "debate" this question.

By "language" we mean "symbols that imply*". For example, we could argue that a picture of a chair is not language, but a pictograph meaning "chair" is, even if it might look a little like a chair looks. Words are symbols in any form, but Wittgenstein, later in his life, said essentially "the meaning of a word is in the way people use it." In other words, "cool" can have many meanings, depending on context. By "context" we mean "culture"! Is there a "language of roses"? There is, in that a gift of a red rose implies something different from a yellow rose, depending on the circumstances, all of which are determined by culture.

By "culture" we literally mean how people live. More broadly, culture refers to the acts of a being which are not directly innate. More simply "what people and animals learn from their kind". If we look for the simplest examples of culture, we go to less vocal animals like crows or monkeys. These animals learn tricks from each other. So, for example, it is pretty much innate for a crow to peck at something, but less innate for a crow to bring a clam from a beach to a busy intersection, drop it, wait on the stop light for a car to run over the clam, then yummy it down. It is a simple but important kind of technology the crow uses, and when mama crow teaches her babies and they teach theirs, and if crows from out of town don't know how to do it, you have a very simple culture.

However, crows also "talk". By "talk" we mean communicate with words, "a symbol that implies", and they might well differ from group to group of crows. What do the crow sounds mean? They mean what they mean in use, according to Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein said something else that is important to the discussion of culture and language: "If a lion could speak, it could tell you nothing about being a lion*." There are many interpretations of this quotation, but the one I believe is most in keeping with Wittgenstein's understanding of language as fluid and dynamic but context bound is this: The act of speaking as we speak is so foreign to the lion that if it could do it, it could no longer understand "lion-ness". There are many wonderful insights to that, but we are going to focus on this corollary: to be human is to use language.

We use language endlessly. There is a "theory" that fire made language possible (putting culture before language) because cooking food makes it softer, which allowed smaller jaws, more flexible lips and tongues, and all the things which allow modern humans to say words that early humans would have had a hard time with, like "supercalifragilisticexpialadotious". While it is no doubt true that over time technology and language-use changed our physical features, I suspect that by the time great great(X100) grandma was keeping fire to cook, somebody knew how to say "watch it, that's hot". Language, for a long time now, has been more important towards getting food and mates than a two inch thick jaw, for a lot of us anyway. We even use language in our heads to talk ourselves up or down or to worry things out or to "practice" dealing with a social situation. We humans talk talk talk.

But, we always do it in the context of culture.

Culture can be seen as everything about how we do what we do. If that seems too broad a definition to be useful, let's pause and think about it.

Culture is technology, like dropping a clam on the street, but it is also something much more important. Culture holds the code for the value of things, and especially, people. Culture is "world-view". It provides the rationale for all our customs, all our laws, and it governs our interaction down to the interactions we have in our own minds. Culture defines the meaning of our selves to ourselves. It defines what it means to be "man" or "girl" or what it means to be "rich" or "loved". It defines the boundaries between us, when for example a wealthy man hires a poor man to clean, or when the poor man pulls the wealthy man into an alley. When you approach a person on the street you rely on culture to tell you whether to look at them, or look away; to greet them, or wait for them to greet you; to be at ease, or keep your mouth shut. If, for a moment, culture were stripped from your mind, you would be at a loss for what to do in any social situation and worse, you would have no way to index yourself to the world, which for a very social creature like us, is utter madness.

Because of this primacy of culture, I have placed this commentary on the "culture" side of the discussion.

Where does culture spring from? From individual people acting moment to moment, to achieve the needs of life: physical needs like food, water and shelter; emotional needs like affiliation and worship; and reproductive needs, a mate or mates. Clearly, the culture we live in effects the choices we have as individuals, but our individual actions sustain and change the culture. Cultures make abrupt changes when the lives of those who inhabit it change. Still, cultures are often resilient, and though the symbols of our grandmothers don't mean quite the same thing to us as to them, we maintain those symbols and so the culture, in some slightly different form, continues.

Culture isn't simply big hats or special music, it is all the means of life, we simply focus on the artifacts of culture which are often important to that culture's social cohesiveness. It is interesting to study what happens when large numbers of people move from one culture to another, as my Italian ancestors did in coming to America. Italians of that era (1930s) and their descendents maintain symbols of the Italy they left, which are no longer important in modern Italy. These vestiges of the "old country" continue a culture which branched off in the original land after WWII. Is it still Italian culture? Like language, the cultural meaning of something is its meaning in use.

Art, music, literature, all these human things in all our different cultural manifestations access primarily a handful of extremely essential things: life, death, and reproduction. Why does a person want to be king or empress? Social currency. What is social currency? It is the ability to access those necessary things for life: money, status, a suitable mate, and all this for off-spring, too. Culture provides the means, and describes the authority, by which all social exchanges take place. There are cultures that are celibate, but they are generally part of a larger social endeavor, like a religion.

Languages might seem very different, but in truth they are very similar, even though concepts exist in some languages which don't in others (because of culture!). If we considered the "universe of all possible languages", all known languages, even those using ticks and clicks and those with male and female specific languages, likely fill only a small portion of that universe. Languages can be very different*lan, but they still use similar kinds of rules, even languages like mathematics, even the language of roses.

Likewise with cultures; the universe of all possible cultures is likely relatively empty, with most cultures clustered in an area where cultures are more likely to persist. If people don't reproduce, neither does the culture.

As circumstances change, cultures change, and, like the other symbols of the culture, the words in the language don't mean what they used to, even though they're the same words (which is why etymology, the study of language change, is so historically cultural.) All cultures, particularly those that survive, provide a framework for people to get the things they need. The actions we take are reflections of the physical realities we deal with.

For humans, language and culture are facets of a single expression of surviving in the social world, and in the physical world.

So, it is language, or culture, that turns a piece of rag paper into a fifty dollar dinner for two? See how connected language and culture are?

*A "symbol" is a thing that means another thing. A word is a symbol, so is a Christmas tree, so is a raised middle finger. I realize that defining a "symbol" as a thing that means another thing, and so by definition all symbols "imply". Start a debate over the meaning of "symbol" and I'll chip in.

*I have most often seen this as "If a lion could talk you could not understand it" but it was taught to me to mean "it could tell you nothing about being a lion." The difference is not trivial, but either way it represents the significance to understanding of a way of being.

*The way we describe the criteria, definitions or boundary descriptions of our study determines what we see. If we take five dissimilar languages we can find ways where they are very different. However, if we simply look for the rules of the language, we see that there are necessarily similar structures in all languages, and that there certainly could be languages with different rules, but there aren't.

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