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Language, thought, and culture

Culture Bound. Edited by Joyce Merrill Valdes.

Cambridge Language Teaching Library. –

Cambridge University Press, 1998. – pp. 3-6.

In 1911 when Franz Boas published his Handbook of American Indian
Languages, he could not possibly have imagined that one day an excerpt
from it would serve as an introductory article in a book that might be
used in a course on teaching culture in foreign- and second-language
classes; in fact, the teaching of foreign languages at that time was far
removed from his sphere. Yet his work inspired a generation of
anthropologists and sociologists before the applied linguists took up
the subject of the effect of culture on languages and vice versa, and
shaped it to their own use. The process of learning more about the
interrelationship between culture and language within the native
environment led the way to consideration of the effect of a second
culture on second language learning.

The extent to which language, culture, and thought have influenced
one another, and which is the dominant aspect of communication, have
been matters of controversy for three quarters of a century; the
influence of the work of Boas, Sapir, Whorf, Hoijer, et al. is seen in
the amount of both speculation and careful research that has ensued.
Stated perhaps simplistically, the current consensus is that the three
aspects are three parts of a whole, and cannot operate independently,
regardless of which one most influences the other two. To see them as
three points in a constantly flowing circular continuum is surely more
accurate than, say, to see them as an isosceles triangle, with one
dominant over the other two. It is conceivable that the lack of
acceptance of artificial languages such as Esperanto may be explained by
their isolation of language from culture. Thought, in any real sense, is
very difficult to express without an underlying value system understood
tacitly by both the sender and the receiver in a communication, whether
both, one, or neither speaks the language natively, no matter how
scientifically successful the language may be. While it is true that an
artificial language may be a politically wise choice for intercultural
communication because it is offensive to none, on the other hand it is a
poor choice for a more basic reason: No one can feel, or therefore think
deeply, in an artificial language.

The research that has been produced in this century has evolved the
theory that a native culture is as much of an interference for second
language learners as is native language. Likewise, just as similarities
and contrasts in the native and target languages have been found to be
useful tools in language study, so cultural similarities and contrasts,
once identified and understood, can be used to advantage. Devotion to a
language other than one’s own is quite common among those who venture
into other languages, most often with the connection in mind between the
language and the people who speak it. One says, «I love French – it’s so
musical and expressive,» and produces a mental image of a Frenchman or
woman speaking in pleasing notes with sparkling eyes and communicative
gestures. Another says, «I love German – it’s so precise, regular, and
dependable,» and the stereotype that peeks out from the mind of the
speakers is of a sturdy blond plodding down a straight path, keeping a
wary eye out for accusatives and datives. Such reactions to both
languages and people are subjective, impressionistic, and, fortunately,
variable. Yet it is very natural to associate a people — in appearance,
manners, and possibly thought patterns – with the language they speak.
The most successful language learners are able to take on the «mindset»
of the speakers of the second language, assuming the culture along with
the language (though not, of course, without reservations that are
consistent with their own mindsets). Yet most people are not aware of
themselves as cultural beings, products of their own environments,
whether or not they are aware of the cultural base for the behavior of
persons from other environments. After the learners are guided to a
recognition of the cultural base of their own attitudes and behavior,
they are ready to consider others in a more favorable light. Through
this process, what has seemed quaint, peculiar, or downright
reprehensible becomes more reasonable and acceptable. Once the second
language learner comes to understand the behavior of the speakers of the
target language, regardless of the original motivation for study, the
task of adding the language becomes far simpler, both through acceptance
of the speakers of the language and through increased knowledge of what
the language means, as well as what it says.

The research of Gardner and Lambert (e.g., 1972) and of Acton and
Walker de Felix (in this volume) determined that integrative motivation
(the intention of becoming a part of the target culture as well as
speaking the target language) resulted in more effective language
learning than did instrumental motivation (the intention of learning the
language to serve a purpose, such as getting a job, with no wish to mix
socially with speakers of the language). While subsequent research
(e.g., Brown 1980) casts some doubt on this theory, no one has
hypothesized that motivation per se is a negative attribute for second
language learning. A positive attitude is seen as a boon to any learning
situation, and comprehension of a people’s behavior patterns and their
underlying values clearly gives a more positive attitude to the person
who is trying to learn that language, as will be seen in the article by
Acton and Walker de Felix. Furthermore, language meaning is obscured
without some recognition of cultural values. Even the learner whose
motivation is so instrumental as to cover only the intention to read
technical texts in English, for example, is likely to fail to grasp the
significance of some explanations and directions if unaware of the
American/British value regarding time, especially in the technical
field: Things must be done in the least possible time, and ways to do
them must be set forth in the least possible space, in order to reduce
the reading time. Brevity + directness = efficiency. A learner from
another culture may be put off by the lack of eloquence and feel that
some important information has been omitted.

The most obvious influence of language and culture on thought is
that of vocabulary. As Boas points out, words are suited to the
environment in which they are used. Linguistics students are always
amazed at the often-cited vast number of words for snow in Eskimo
languages (see Brown, in this volume), yet they fail to consider all the
words used for rain in warmer climates. In a glossary of Old English the
number of warlike words is conspicuous, but the tribes of Ancient
Britain were a warlike people, a fact that is naturally reflected in
their language and, hence, in their literature, which reflects their

Many influences of the structure of language have been noted (see
Henle 1958, ch. 1). Translations, particularly of literary works, point
up the differences. Literal translations are seen to be true to the form
of the original, while free translations depart from the text to find
expression that fits the tone and meaning in essence but not exactly in
language. A truly literal translation is virtually impossible from any
one language to any other, primarily because of vocabulary and
structures. For example, the degree of formality in which a work is
written can be translated into another language, but the cultural and
linguistic influence that resulted in that formality in the original
work is lost in the translation. The degree of formality of a language
surely affects thought, just as surely as it is affected by culture, and
just as surely as it affects culture.

The influence of language on thought and behavior can perhaps best
be seen in the world of advertising. The culture — beliefs, attitudes,
overt and covert aspirations, pragmatic designs and fantasies, actions
and reactions — is studied by advertisers around the world to find the
basis for the concepts and language that will inspire the people of any
given locale to buy a product of one manufacturer rather than that of
another. What sells in Chicago may also sell in Kyoto, but not through
the same advertising. The influences of the language of advertising are
revealed in Nilsen and Nilsen, Language Play (1978), in Bolinger,
Language -The Loaded Weapon (1980), in Brown (this volume), and in many
articles in the popular press. Again, however, the influences are
reciprocal. Although the linguistic influence of advertising on the
people is undeniable, the culture and thought of the people influence
advertising. Whether one begins or ends with language, thought, or
culture, the other two are woven in; the circular pattern holds, with
each influencing and being influenced by each of the others. They are
not all the same thing, but none can survive without the others. Second
language learners must not only be aware of this interdependence but
must be taught its nature, in order to convince them of the essentiality
of including culture in the study of a language which is not their own.
The articles offered in Part I provide the theory that underlies the
practice, each in its own way. Boas looks to primitive cultures to
illustrate his views on the mutual influences of language, thought, and
culture, Kaplan traces the history and development of writing and
indicates the cultural aspect of this component of language, Acton and
Walker de Felix consider acculturation from the point of view of various
researchers, and Brown gives an overview of the topic and clarifies its

Language and thought

Franz Boas

Culture Bound. Edited by Joyce Merrill Valdes.

Cambridge Language Teaching Library. –

Cambridge University Press, 1998. – pp. 7-9.

First of all, it may be well to discuss the relation between language
and thought. It has been claimed that the conciseness and clearness of
thought of a people depend to a great extent upon their language. The
ease with which in our modern European languages we express wide
abstract ideas by a single term, and the facility with which wide
generalizations are cast into the frame of a simple sentence, have been
claimed to be one of the fundamental conditions of the clearness of our
concepts, the logical force of our thought, and the precision with which
we eliminate in our thoughts irrelevant details. Apparently this view
has much in its favor. When we compare modern English with some of those
Indian languages which are most concrete in their formative expression,
the contrast is striking. When we say The eye is the organ of sight, the
Indian may not be able to form the expression the eye, but may have to
define that the eye of a person or of an animal is meant. Neither may
the Indian be able to generalize readily the abstract idea of an eye as
the representative of the whole class of objects, but may have to
specialize by an expression like this eye here. Neither may he be able
to express by a single term the idea of organ, but may have to specify
it by an expression like instrument of seeing, so that the whole
sentence might assume a form like An indefinite person’s eye is his
means of seeing. Still, it will be recognized that in this more specific
form the general idea may be well expressed. It seems very questionable
in how far the restriction of the use of certain grammatical forms can
really be conceived as a hindrance in the formulation of generalized
ideas. It seems much more likely that the lack of these forms is due to
the lack of their need. Primitive man, when conversing with his
fellowman, is not in the habit of discussing abstract ideas. His
interests center around the occupations of his daily life; and where
philosophic problems are touched upon, they appear either in relation to
definite individuals or in the more or less anthropomorphic forms of
religious beliefs. Discourses on qualities without connection with the
objects to which the qualities belong, or of activities or states
disconnected from the idea of the actor or the subject being in a
certain state, will hardly occur in primitive speech. Thus the Indian
will not speak of goodness as such, although he may very well speak of
the goodness of a person. He will not speak of a state of bliss apart
from the person who is in such a state. He will not refer to the power
of seeing without designating an individual who has such power. Thus it
happens that in languages in which the idea of possession is expressed
by elements subordinated to nouns, all abstract terms appear always with
possessive elements. It is, however, perfectly conceivable that an
Indian trained in philosophic thought would proceed to free the
underlying nominal forms from the possessive elements, and thus reach
abstract forms strictly corresponding to the abstract forms of our
modern languages. I have made this experiment, for instance, with the
Kwakiutl language of Vancouver Island, in which no abstract term ever
occurs without its possessive elements. After some discussion, I found
it perfectly easy to develop the idea of the abstract term in the mind
of the Indian, who will state that the word without a possessive pronoun
gives a sense, although it is not used idiomatically. I succeeded, for
instance, in this manner, in isolating the terms for love and pity,
which ordinarily occur only in possessive forms, like his love for him
or my pity for you. That this view is correct may also be observed in
languages in which possessive elements appear as independent forms, as,
for instance, in the Siouan languages. In these, pure abstract terms are
quite common.

There is also evidence that other specializing elements, which are
so characteristic of many Indian languages, may be dispensed with when,
for one reason or another, it seems desirable to generalize a term. To
use the example of the Kwakiutl language, the idea of to be seated is
almost always expressed with an inseparable suffix expressing the place
in which a person is seated, as seated on the floor of the house, on the
ground, on the beach, on a pile of things, or on a round thing, etc.
When, however, for some reason, the idea of the state of sitting is to
be emphasized, a form may be used which expresses simply being in a
sitting posture. In this case, also, the device for generalized
expression is present, but the opportunity for its application arises
seldom, or perhaps never. I think what is true in these cases is true of
the structure of every single language. The fact that generalized forms
of expression are not used does not prove inability to form them, but it
merely proves that the mode of life of the people is such that they are
not required; that they would, however, develop just as soon as needed …

If we want to form a correct judgment of the influence that
language exerts over thought, we ought to bear in mind that our European
languages as found at the present time have been moulded to a great
extent by the abstract thought of philosophers. Terms like essence and
existence, many of which are now commonly used, are by origin artificial
devices for expressing the results of abstract thought. In this they
would resemble the artificial, unidiomatic abstract terms that may be
formed in primitive languages.

Thus it would seem that the obstacles to generalized thought
inherent in the form of a language are of minor importance only, and
that presumably the language alone would not prevent a people from
advancing to more generalized forms of thinking if the general state of
their culture should require expression of such thought; that under
these conditions the language would be moulded rather by the cultural
state. It does not seem likely, therefore, that there is any direct
relation between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak,
except in so far as the form of the language will be moulded by the
state of the culture, but not in so far as a certain state of culture is
conditioned by morphological traits of the language.

The relationship of language and culture

Kramsch C. Language and Culture. –

Oxford University Press, 1998. – pp. 3-14.

Language is the principal means whereby we conduct our social lives.
When it is used in contexts of communication, it is bound up with
culture in multiple and complex ways.

To begin with, the words people utter refer to common experience.
They express facts, ideas or events that are communicable because they
refer to a stock of knowledge about the world that other people share.
Words also reflect their authors’ attitudes and beliefs, their point of
view, that are also those of others. In both cases, language expresses
cultural reality.

But members of a community or social group do not only express
experience; they also create experience through language. They give
meaning to it through the medium they choose to communicate with one
another, for example, speaking on the telephone or face-to-face, writing
a letter or sending an e-mail message, reading the newspaper or
interpreting a graph or a chart. The way in which people use the spoken,
written, or visual medium itself creates meanings that are
understandable to the group they belong to, for example, through a
speaker’s tone of voice, accent, conversational style, gestures and
facial expressions. Through all its verbal and non-verbal aspects,
language embodies cultural reality.

Finally, language is a system of signs that is seen as having
itself a cultural value. Speakers identify themselves and others through
their use of language; they view their language as a symbol of their
social identity. The prohibition of its use is often perceived by its
speakers as a rejection of their social group and their culture. Thus we
can say that language symbolizes cultural reality.

We shall be dealing with these three aspects of language and
culture throughout this book. But first we need to clarify what we mean
by culture. We might do this by considering the following poem by Emily

Essential Oils — are wrung –

The Attar from the Rose

Be not expressed by Suns — alone –

It is the gift of Screws –

The General Rose — decay –

But this — in Lady’s Drawer

Make Summer — When the Lady lie

In Ceaseless Rosemary –

Nature, culture, language

One way of thinking about culture is to contrast it with nature. Nature
refers to what is born and grows organically (from the Latin nascere: to
be born); culture refers to what has been grown and groomed (from the
Latin colere: to cultivate). The word culture evokes the traditional
nature/nurture debate: Are human beings mainly what nature determines
them to be from birth or what culture enables them to become through
socialization and schooling?

Emily Dickinson’s poem expresses well, albeit in a stylized way,
the relationship of nature, culture, and language. A rose in a flower
bed, says the poem, a generic rose (The General Rose’), is a phenomenon
of nature. Beautiful, yes, but faceless and nameless among others of the
same species. Perishable. Forgettable. Nature alone cannot reveal nor
preserve the particular beauty of a particular rose at a chosen moment
in time. Powerless to prevent the biological ‘decay’ and the ultimate
death of roses and of ladies, nature can only make summer when the
season is right. Culture, by contrast, is not bound by biological time.
Like nature, it is a ‘gift’, but of a different kind. Through a
sophisticated technological procedure, developed especially to extract
the essence of roses, culture forces nature to reveal its ‘essential’
potentialities. The word ‘Screws’ suggests that this process is not
without labor. By crushing the petals, a great deal of the rose must be
lost in order to get at its essence. The technology of the screws
constrains the exuberance of nature, in the same manner as the
technology of the word, or printed syntax and vocabulary, selects among
the many potential meanings that a rose might have, only those that best
express its innermost truth—and leaves all others unsaid. Culture makes
the rose petals into a rare perfume, purchased at high cost, for the
particular, personal use of a particular lady. The lady may die, but the
fragrance of the rose’s essence (the Attar) can make her immortal, in
the same manner as the language of the poem immortalizes both the rose
and the lady, and brings both back to life in the imagination of its
readers. Indeed, ‘this’ very poem, left for future readers in the poet’s
drawer, can ‘Make Summer’ for readers even after the poet’s death. The
word and the technology of the word have immortalized nature.

The poem itself bears testimony that nature and culture both need
each other. The poem wouldn’t have been written if there were no natural
roses; but it would not be understood if it didn’t share with its
readers some common assumptions and expectations about rose gardens,
technological achievements, historic associations regarding ladies,
roses, and perfumes, common memories of summers past, a shared longing
for immortality, a similar familiarity with the printed word, and with
the vernacular and poetic uses of the English language. Like the screws
of the rose press, these common collective expectations can be
liberating, as they endow a universal rose with a particular meaning by
imposing a structure, so to speak, on nature. But they can also be
constraining. Particular meanings are adopted by the speech community
and imposed in turn on its members, who find it then difficult, if not
impossible, to say or feel anything original about roses. For example,
once a bouquet of roses has become codified as a society’s way of
expressing love, it becomes controversial, if not risky, for lovers to
express their own particular love without resorting to the symbols that
their society imposes upon them, and to offer each other as a sign of
love, say, chrysanthemums instead—which in Germany, for example, are
reserved for the dead! Both oral cultures and literate cultures have
their own ways of emancipating and constraining their members. We shall
return to the differences between oral and literate cultures in
subsequent chapters.

The screws that language and culture impose on nature correspond to
various forms of socialization or acculturation. Etiquette, expressions
of politeness, social dos and don’ts shape people’s behavior through
child rearing, behavioral upbringing, schooling, professional training.
The use of written language is also shaped and socialized through
culture. Not only what it is proper to write to whom in what
circumstances, but also which text genres are appropriate (the
application form, the business letter, the political pamphlet), because
they are sanctioned by cultural conventions. These ways with language,
or norms of interaction and interpretation, form part of the invisible
ritual imposed by culture on language users. This is culture’s way of
bringing order and predictability into people’s use of language.

Communities of language users

Social conventions, norms of social appropriateness, are the product of
communities of language users. As in the Dickinson poem, poets and
readers, florists and lovers, horticulturists, rose press manufacturers,
perfume makers and users, create meanings through their words and
actions. Culture both liberates people from oblivion, anonymity, and the
randomness of nature, and constrains them by imposing on them a
structure and principles of selection. This double effect of culture on
the individual—both liberating and constraining—plays itself out on the
social, the historical and the metaphorical planes. Let us examine each
of these planes in turn.

People who identify themselves as members of a social group
(family, neighborhood, professional or ethnic affiliation, nation)
acquire common ways of viewing the world through their interactions with
other members of the same group. These views are reinforced through
institutions like the family, the school, the workplace, the church, the
government, and other sites of socialization throughout their lives.
Common attitudes, beliefs, and values are reflected in the way members
of the group use language—for example, what they choose to say or not to
say and how they say it. Thus, in addition to the notion of speech
community composed of people who use the same linguistic code, we can
speak of discourse communities to refer to the common ways in which
members of a social group use language to meet their social needs. Not
only the grammatical, lexical, and phonological features of their
language (for example, teenage talk, professional jargon, political
rhetoric) differentiate them from others, but also the topics they
choose to talk about, the way they present information, the style with
which they interact, in other words, their discourse accent. For
instance, Americans have been socialized into responding ‘Thank you’ to
any compliment, as if they were acknowledging a friendly gift: ‘I like
your sweater!’—’Oh, thank you!’ The French, who tend to perceive such a
compliment as an intrusion into their privacy, would rather downplay the
compliment and minimize its value: ‘Oh really? It’s already quite old!’
The reactions of both groups are based on the differing values given to
compliments in both cultures, and on the differing degrees of
embarrassment caused by personal comments. This is a view of culture
that focuses on the ways of thinking, behaving, and valuing currently
shared by members of the same discourse community.

But there is another way of viewing culture—one which takes a more
historical perspective. For the cultural ways which can be identified at
any one time have evolved and become solidified over time, which is why
they are so often taken for natural behavior. They have sedimented in
the memories of group members who have experienced them firsthand or
merely heard about them, and who have passed them on in speech and
writing from one generation to the next. For example, Emily Dickinson’s
allusion to life after death is grounded in the hope that future
generations of readers will be able to understand and appreciate the
social value of rose perfume and the funeral custom of surrounding the
dead with fragrant rosemary. The culture of everyday practices draws on
the culture of shared history and traditions. People identify themselves
as members of a society to the extent that they can have a place in that
society’s history and that they can identify with the way it remembers
its past, turns its attention to the present, and anticipates its
future. Culture consists of precisely that historical dimension in a
group’s identity. This diachronic view of culture focuses on the way in
which a social group represents itself and others through its material
productions over time—its technological achievements, its monuments, its
works of art, its popular culture.

Language and cultural identity

Kramsch C. Language and Culture. –

Oxford University Press, 1998. – pp. 65-77.

In 1915, Edmond Laforest, a prominent Haitian writer, stood upon a
bridge, tied a French Larousse dictionary around his neck, and leapt to
his death. This symbolic, if fatal, grand gesture dramatizes the
relation of language and cultural identity. Henry Louis Gates, who
recounts this story, adds ‘While other black writers, before and after
Laforest, have been drowned artistically by the weight of various modern
languages, Laforest chose to make his death an emblem of this relation
of overwhelming indenture.’ (‘Race`, Writing, and Difference. University
of Chicago Press 1985, page 13). This event will help us bring together
several notions that have emerged in the previous chapters; the
motivated, non-arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign, the link between
a language and its legitimate discourse community, the symbolic capital
associated with the use of a particular language or of a literate form
of that language, in short the association of language with a person’s
sense of self. We explore in this chapter the complex relationship
between language and what is currently called ‘cultural identity’.

Cultural identity

It is widely believed that there is a natural connection between the
language spoken by members of a social group and that group’s identity.
By their accent, their vocabulary, their discourse patterns, speakers
identify themselves and are identified as members of this or that speech
and discourse community. From this membership, they draw personal
strength and pride, as well as a

sense of social importance and historical continuity from using the same
language as the group they belong to. But how to define which group one
belongs to? In isolated, homogeneous communities like the Trobrianders
studied by Malinowski, one may still define group membership according
to common cultural practices and daily face-to-face interactions, but in
modern, historically complex, open societies it is much more difficult
to define the boundaries of any particular social group and the
linguistic and cultural identities of its members.

Take ethnicity for example. In their 1981 survey conducted among
the highly mixed population of Belize (formerly British Honduras), Le
Page and Tabouret-Keller found out that different people ascribed
themselves to different ethnicities as either ‘Spanish’, ‘Creole’,
‘Maya’ or ‘Belizcan’, according to which ethnic criterion they focused
on – physical features (hair and skin), general appearance, genetic
descent, provenance, or nationality. Rarely was language used as an
ethnically defining criterion. Interestingly, it was only under the
threat of a Guatemalan takeover as soon as British rule would cease,
that the sense of a Belizean national identity slowly started emerging
from among the multiple ethnic ascriptions that people still give
themselves to this day.

Group identity based on race would seem easier to define, and yet
there are almost as many genetic differences, say, between members of
the same White, or Black race as there are between the classically
described human races, not to speak of the difficulty in some cases of
ascertaining with 100 per cent exactitude a person’s racial lineage. For
example, in 1983 the South African Government changed the racial
classification of 690 people: two-thirds of these, who had been
Coloreds, became Whites, 71 who had been Blacks became Coloreds, and 11
Whites were redistributed among other racial groups! And, of course,
there is no necessary correlation between a given racial characteristic
and the use of a given language or variety of language.

Regional identity is equally contestable. As reported in the London
Times of February 1984, when a Soviet book, Populations of the World,
claimed that the population of France consisted of ‘French, Alsatians,
Flemings, Bretons, Basques, Catalans, Corsicans, Jews, Armenians,
Gypsies and «others'», Georges Marchais, the French Communist leader,
violently disagreed: ‘For us’, he said, ‘every man and woman of French
nationality is French. France is not a multinational state: it is one
nation, the product of a long history ….’

One would think that national identity is a clear-cut either/or
affair (either you are or you are not a citizen), but it is one thing,
for example, to have a Turkish passport, another thing to ascribe to
yourself a Turkish national identity if you were born, raised and
educated, say, in Germany, are a native speaker of German, and happen to
have Turkish parents.

Despite the entrenched belief in the one language = one culture
equation, individuals assume several collective identities that are
likely not only to change over time in dialogue with others, but are
liable to be in conflict with one another. For example, an immigrant’s
sense of self, that was linked in his country of origin perhaps to his
social class, his political views, or his economic status, becomes, in
the new country, overwhelmingly linked to his national citizenship or
his religion, for this is the identity that is imposed on him by others,
who see in him now, for example, only a Turk or a Muslim. His own sense
of self, or cultural identity, changes accordingly. Out of nostalgia for
the ‘old country’, he may tend to become more Turkish than the Turks and
entertain what Benedict Anderson has called ‘long distance nationalism’.
The Turkish he speaks may become with the passing of years somewhat
different from the Turkish spoken today in the streets of Ankara; the
community he used to belong to is now more an ‘imagined community’ than
the actual present-day Turkey.

Cultural stereotypes

The problem lies in equating the racial, ethnic, national identity
imposed on an individual by the state’s bureaucratic system, and that
individual’s self-ascription. Group identity is not a natural fact, but
a cultural perception, to use the metaphor with which we started this
book. Our perception of someone’s social identity is very much
culturally determined. What we perceive about a person’s culture and
language is what we have been conditioned by our own culture to see, and
the stereotypical models already built around our own. Group identity is
a question of focusing and diffusion of ethnic, racial, national
concepts or stereotypes. Let us take an example. Le Page and
Tabouret-Keller recount the case of a man in Singapore who claimed that
he would never have any difficulty in telling the difference between an
Indian and a Chinese.

But how would he instantly know that the dark-skinned non-Malay
person he saw en the street was an Indian (and not, say, a Pakistani),
and that the light-skinned non-European was a Chinese (and not, say, a
Korean), unless he differentiated the two according to the official
Singaporean ‘ethnic’ categories: Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others? In
another context with different racial classifications he might have
interpreted differently the visual clues presented to him by people on
the street. His impression was focused by the classificatory concepts
prevalent in his society, a behavior that Benjamin Whorf would have
predicted. In turn this focus may prompt him, by a phenomenon of
diffusion, to identify all other ‘Chinese’ along the same ethnic
categories, according to the stereotype ‘All Chinese look alike to me’.

It has to be noted that societies impose racial and ethnic
categories only on certain groups: Whites do not generally identify
themselves by the color of their skin, but by their provenance or
nationality. They would find it ludicrous to draw their sense of
cultural identity from their membership in the White race. Hence the
rather startled reaction of two Danish women in the United States to a
young African-American boy, who, overhearing their conversation in
Danish, asked them ‘What’s your culture?’. Seeing how perplexed they
were, he explained with a smile ‘See, I’m Black. That’s my culture.
What’s yours?’. Laughingly they answered that they spoke Danish and came
from Denmark. Interestingly, the boy did not use language as a criterion
of group identity, but the Danes did.

European identities have traditionally been built much more around
language and national citizenship, and around folk models of ‘one nation
= one language’, than around ethnicity or race. But even in Europe the
matter is not so simple. For example, Alsatians who speak German, French
and Germanic Platt may alternatively consider themselves as primarily
Alsatians, or French, or German, depending on how they position
themselves vis-a-vis the history of their region and their family
biography. A youngster born and raised in France of Algerian parents
may, even though he speaks only French, call himself Algerian in France,
but when abroad he might prefer to be seen as French, depending on which
group he wishes to be identified with at the time.

Examples from other parts of the world show how complex the
language-cultural identity relationship really is. The Chinese, for
example, identify themselves ethnically as Chinese even though they
speak languages or dialects which are mutually unintelligible. Despite
the fact that a large number of Chinese don’t know how to read and
write, it is the Chinese character-writing system and the art of
calligraphy that are the major factors of an overall Chinese group

A further example of the difficulty of equating one language with
one ethnic group is given by the case of the Sikhs in Britain.
Threatened to lose public recognition of their cultural and religious
distinctiveness, for example, the wearing of the Sikh turban in schools,
Sikh religious leaders have tried to bolster the group’s identity by
promoting the teaching of Punjabi, endogamy, and patterns of behavior
felt to be central to Sikhism, including hair styles and the wearing of
turbans. However, seen objectively, neither the Punjabi language nor the
wearing of turbans is peculiar to Sikhism either in India or Pakistan or

Many cultures have survived even though their language has
virtually disappeared (for instance the Yiddish of Jewish culture, the
Gullah of American Black culture, the Indian languages of East Indian
culture in the Caribbean); others have survived because they were part
of an oral tradition kept up within an isolated community (for example,
Acadian French in Louisiana), or because their members learned the
dominant language, a fact that ironically enabled them to keep their
own. Thus in New Mexico, a certain Padre Martinez of Taos led the
cultural resistance of Mexican Spanish speakers against the American
occupation by encouraging them to learn English as a survival tool so
that they could keep their Hispanic culture and the Spanish language

Language crossing as act of identity

One way of surviving culturally in immigration settings is to exploit,
rather than stifle, the endless variety of meanings afforded by
participation in several discourse communities at once. More and more
people are living, speaking and interacting in in-between spaces, across
multiple languages or varieties of the same language: Latinos in Los
Angeles, Pakistanis in London, Arabs in Paris, but also Black Americans
in New York or Atlanta, choose one way of talking over, another
depending on the topic, the interlocutor and the situational context.
Such language crossings, frequent in inter-ethnic communication, include
the switching of codes, i.e. the insertion of elements from one language
into another, be they isolated words, whole sentences, or prosodic
features of speech. Language crossing enables speakers to change footing
within the same conversation, but also to show solidarity or distance
towards the discourse communities whose languages they are using, and
whom they perceive their interlocutor as belonging. By crossing
languages, speakers perform cultural acts of identity. Thus, for
example, two bilingual 12-year olds from Mexico in a US American school.
M is telling F what she does when she comes back from school. M and F
usually speak their common language, Spanish.

M: Mira, me pongo a hacer tarea, despues me pongo leer un libro,
despues me pongo a hacer matematica, despues de hacer matematica me
pongo a practicar en el piano, despues de terminarse en el piano=

F: =you got a

M: I have a piano in my house, don’t you guys know it?… No me
digas que no sabia … yo lo dije a Gabriel y a Fernando … todo el

| M: Look, I do homework, then I read a book, then I do science, I do
math, after doing math I practice the piano, after I finished with the
piano =

F: = you got a piano?

M: I have a piano in my house, don’t you guys know it? … Don’t tell me
that you didn’t know … I told Gabriel and Fernando … everybody]

(Unpublished data from Claire Kramsch)

The fact of owning a piano marks M as belonging to a different social
culture than F who shows his surprise—and his distance—by using the
dominant Anglo-American language. M acknowledges her membership in that
culture by responding in English, but immediately switches back to
Spanish to show her solidarity with her Latino peers in the classroom,
who come from more modest backgrounds.

Refusing to adopt the same language when you are seen as belonging
to the same culture can be perceived as an affront that requires some
face work repair, as in the following radio interview between two Black
American disk jockeys (DJ1, DJ2) and a Black American singer (SG):

DJ1: So whatz up wit da album shottie?

SG: What’s up with the album shottie

DJ2: Oh, excu:::se me. How are things progressing with yourupcoming


Come on, girl! you know what I’m sayin’. You KNOW you know da
terminology! Don’t front!

DJ1: Yeah, an’ if ya don’t know, now ya know


DJ1: Or at leas ack like ya know!

SG: I know, I know, I’m jus’ messin’ wit y’all.

(Unpublished data from Claire Kramsch)

Language crossing can be used also for more complex stances by speakers
who wish to display multiple cultural memberships and play off one
against the other. Not infrequently speakers who belong to several
cultures insert the intonation of one language into the prosody of
another, or use phrases from one language as citational inserts into the
other to distance themselves from alternative identities or to mock
several cultural identities by stylizing, parodying, or stereotyping
them all if it suits their social purposes of the moment. Thus, for
example, the following stylization of Asian English or Creole English by
Pakistani youngsters, native speakers of English, as a strategy to
resist the authority of their Anglo teacher (BR) in a British school.

When speaking of cultural identity, then, we have to distinguish between
the limited range of categories used by societies to classify their
populations, and the identities that individuals ascribe to themselves
under various circumstances and in the presence of various
interlocutors. While the former are based on simplified and often quite
stereotypical representations, the latter may vary with the social
context. The ascription of cultural identity is particularly sensitive
to the perception and acceptance of an individual by others, but also to
the perception that others have of themselves, and to the distribution
of legitimate roles and rights that both parties hold within the
discourse community. Cultural identity, as the example of Edmond
Laforest shows, is a question of both indenture to a language spoken or
imposed by others, and personal, emotional investment in that language
through the apprenticeship that went into acquiring it. The dialectic of
the individual and the group can acquire dramatic proportions when
nationalistic language policies come into play.

Linguistic nationism

The association of one language variety with the membership in one
national community has been referred to as linguistic nationism. For
example, during the French Revolution, the concept of a national
language linked to a national culture was intended to systematically
replace the variety of regional dialects and local practices. Between
1790 and 1792. a questionnaire was sent by 1’Abbe Gregoire to lawyers,
clergymen, and politicians in the French provinces under the pretext of
documenting and cataloguing the linguistic and ethnographic uses of the
thirty local ‘patois’ spoken in France at the time. In fact, through
this survey, the Jacobins established a blueprint for the subsequent
systematic eradication of these patois. Historians have debated whether
the conscious governmental policy of annihilation of local dialects in
France at the time was done for the sake of national or ideological
unity, or in order to establish the dominance of bourgeois Parisian
culture over the uncouth peasant culture, or in order to break the
strong cultural monopoly of the Catholic Church who catechized its
faithful in the local vernaculars. Linguistic wars are always also
political and cultural wars. Efforts by present-day France to cultivate
a network of French speakers around the world, and link it to a
francophone identity, or francophonie, must be seen as a way of
countering the overwhelming spread of English by offering speakers a
supranational cultural identity that is exclusively linguistic. French
as an international language remains monitored by the Academic
Francaise, a French national institution that is seen as the guarantor
of cultural purity—in the same manner as English as an international
language is monitored in scientific circles by Anglo-American journals
who serve as the gate-keepers of a certain intellectual style of
scientific research.

As we saw in Chapter 1, it has been argued that the modern nation
is an imagined community that originated in eighteenth century bourgeois
imagination, and has relied heavily on print capitalism for its
expression and dissemination. The modern nation is imagined as limited
by finite, if elastic boundaries; it is imagined as a sovereign state,
but also as a fraternal community of comrades, ready to take arms to
defend their territorial integrity or their economic interests. This
prototype of the modern nation as a cultural entity is, of course, a
Utopia. It has been mirrored by a similar view of language as shared
patrimony, a self-contained, autonomous, and homogeneous linguistic
system based on a homogeneous social world—in other words, a linguistic
Utopia. Such imaginings are tenacious and contribute to what we call an
individual’s national ‘identity’.

When new nation-states emerge, such as more recently Belize, the
mere category of national identity may, as a side effect, put a stress
on other categories such as Spanishness or Mayaness, that in turn may
acquire renewed importance, since the Spanish population and the Maya
population do not coincide with the borders of Belize, but go beyond
them to form new supranational alliances. This is what has happened in
Europe with the Basque and Catalan identities that cross, linguistically
and culturally, the national borders of France and Spain, and thus
replace the nation by the region, and the national language by the
regional language as units of cultural identification.

Nation-states respond to such separatist tendencies by refocusing
national identity either around a national language or around the
concept of multiculturalism. Current efforts by the US English Movement
in the United States to amend the Constitution by declaring English the
official national language have to be seen as the attempt to ensure not
only mutual linguistic intelligibility, but cultural homogeneity as
well. In periods of social fragmentation and multiple identities, each
clamoring to be recognized, language takes on not only an indexical, but
a symbolic value, according to the motto ‘Let me hear you speak and I
will tell you who you are loyal to`. The link between the US English
legislation and anti-immigration legislation has been frequently pointed
out by critics.

Besides being used as a means of excluding outsiders, the use of
one, and only one, language is often perceived as a sign of political
allegiance. The remark ‘I had ten years of French and I still can’t …’
may be the expression not so much of bilingual failure as of monolingual
pride. People who, by choice or by necessity, have traditionally been
bi- or multilingual, like migrants and cosmopolitans, have often been
held in suspicion by those who ascribe to themselves a monovocal,
stable, national identity.

Standard language, cultural totem

The way this national identity is expressed is through an artificially
created standard language, fashioned from a multiplicity of dialects.
When one variety of a language is selected as an indicator of difference
between insiders and outsiders, it can be shielded from variations
through official grammars and dictionaries and can be taught through the
national educational system. For example, in the times of the Ancient
Greeks, any person whose language was not Greek was called a
‘barbarian’, i.e. an alien from an inferior culture. Hence the term
barbarism to denote any use of language that offends contemporary
standards of correctness or purity. In some countries that have a
National Academy for the preservation of the national linguistic
treasure against external imports and internal degradation, misuses of
the standard language by its speakers are perceived not only as
linguistic mishaps, but as aesthetic and moral offences as well (hence
derogatory verbs like ‘butchering’ or ‘slaughtering’ a language).

Note that standard language is always a written form of the
language, preserved, as we saw in the last chapter, through a distinct
print culture serving a variety of political, economic, and ideological
interests. But it is well known that even though educated people will
display strong views about what ‘good’ language use is supposed to be
like, when they speak they often themselves commit precisely those
barbarisms they so strongly condemn. The desire to halt the march of
time and keep language pure of any cultural contamination is constantly
thwarted by the co-construction of culture in every dialogic encounter.

Language acquires a symbolic value beyond its pragmatic use and
becomes a totem of a cultural group, whenever one dialect variety is
imposed on others in the exercise of national or colonial power
(France), or when one language is imposed over others through the
deliberate, centralized pressure of a melting pot ideology (English over
French in Louisiana, English over Spanish in New Mexico), or when one
language supplants others through centralized deliberate planning or
diffuse societal forces (the spread of English as an international
language). The totemization of the dominant language leads to the
stigmatization of the dominated languages.

Members of a group who feel that their cultural and political
identity is threatened are likely to attach particular importance to the
maintenance or resurrection of ‘their language’ (for example, Quebec,
Belgium, Wales among many others). The particularly poignant death of
Edmond Laforest is a reminder of the deeply personal association of
language with one’s self-ascribed cultural identity, especially when the
recognition of that linguistic identity is denied. Laforest’s despair
was compounded by the intrans-igently literate view that the majority of
educated French (or those who want to be seen as educated) hold toward
their national language. By having learned and adopted the literate
idiom of the colonial occupant, the Haitian poet may have felt he had
betrayed not only his Haitian Creole identity, but also the rich oral
tradition of his ancestors.

Linguistic and cultural imperialism

Laforest’s death in 1915 acquired a new meaning when recounted in 1985,
at a time when linguistic rights were starting to be viewed as basic
human rights. The case for linguistic rights has been made particularly
strongly with regard to the hegemonic spread of English around the
world. Beyond the symbolic link frequently established between language
and territorial or cultural identity, there is also another link that
has more to do with the promulgation of global ideologies through the
worldwide expansion of one language, also called linguicism. Linguicism
has been defined as ‘ideologies, structures, and practices which are
used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of
power and resources (both material and immaterial) between groups which
are defined on the basis of language’, as Phillipson says in his book
Linguistic Imperialism (Oxford University Press 1991, page 47), in which
English linguistic imperialism is seen as a type of linguicism.

From our discussion so far, one can see where the self-ascription
to a given group on the basis of language might be the response to
rather than the cause of the lack of material and spiritual power. It is
when people feel economically and ideologically disempowered that
language may become an issue and a major symbol of cultural integrity.
However, in a world of signs where every meaning can proliferate ad
infinitum, it becomes very difficult to distinguish what is the effect
and what is the cause of linguistic imperialism. The spread of English
is undeniable, and it is viewed by those who suffer from it as a totem
for a certain Anglo-American ‘culture’ or way of life, but it is not
clear whether the appropriate response in the long run is to make
English and other languages into cultural icons, or to rely on the
remarkable ability that speakers have to create multiple cultural
realities in any language.

This is not to say that linguistic pluralism is not a desirable
good in itself. The Babel threat is not the splintering off in mutually
unintelligible languages, but the monopoly of one language over others.
As in Babel’s days, the complacent belief that people are working for a
common cause just because they speak a common language is a dangerous
illusion. Being human means working through the shoals of mutual
misunderstandings across incommensurable languages. That is why
linguistic rights, like anti-trust laws, have to be upheld, not because
of the one-to-one relationship between culture and language, but because
each language provides a uniquely communal, and uniquely individual,
means by which human beings apprehend the world and one another.


Although there is no one-to-one relationship between anyone’s language
and his or her cultural identity, language is the most sensitive
indicator of the relationship between an individual and a given social
group. Any harmony or disharmony between the two is registered on this
most sensitive of the Richter scales. Language is an integral part of
ourselves—it permeates our very thinking and way of viewing the world.
It is also the arena where political and cultural allegiances and
loyalties are fought out. However, if language indexes our relation to
the world, it is not itself this relation.

Because of the inevitable and necessary indeterminacy of signs,
the same use of a given language can index both indenture and
investment, both servitude and emancipation, both powerlessness and
empowerment. Paradoxically, the only way to preserve the room for
maneuver vital to any human communication is not by making sure that
everyone speaks the same language, but by making sure that the
linguistic semiotic capital of humankind remains as rich and as
diversified as possible.

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