Saturday, October 8, 2011

Language is culture

Recently I had the great pleasure to make the acquaintance of a Navajo fellow named Bernard. We spent about an hour and a half chatting together about a wide variety of topics. He ended up asking me more questions than the other way around, which I can tell you is quite a relief for an ethnographer!

We traded stories about our upbringing, our ex-spouses, and about our faith in the divinity of Earth. In particular, we talked about the five elements, four directions, their associated colors and magicks. It was shortly after this that he said the most insightful and interesting thing I had heard in a while: “Language is culture”. I hadn’t really thought about it like that before. Of the five partitions of the field of anthropology: Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, Physical Anthropology, Linguistics and Applied Anthropology, Linguistics is my weakest link.

I had discussed the idea with colleagues, usually at a bar during a conference, that if we all spoke the same language, perhaps many of our deeper issues about religion could be resolved. It is a minority position to be sure, but one that, for all its obvious flaws, is useful when studying ancient patterns of belief.

The Romans were perhaps the most adept at this practice. When they encountered the Deities of a new culture, rather than snuff them out and install their own, simply appended the corresponding Deity from their system onto the local Deities. As a result, there are a dizzying array of ‘Jupiter’s, all with slightly different twists on the idea of “King of the Gods”. Once this bit of information is internalized, much of the confusion surrounding the plethora of God-forms dissolves into a group of ubiquitous, and frankly, logical archetypes.

Encoded in language are cultural assumptions. Take for example, something so simple as the days of the week. In the US, we Capitalize them. The Italians do not. We begin on Sunday. Italians (and much of Europe for that matter) do not. Therefore, one can rather safely surmise that where Americans psychologically begin the week from a period of rest, the Italians end the week with rest. Rather than split the weekend into two distinct bits, it bifurcates the entire week. Look at the visual difference this makes:
I don’t know about you, but going to Las Vegas for the weekend looks A LOT better when it’s grouped together like that. The American calendar makes it feel to me like I don’t really have time to go gallivanting off to Partyville with work so closely bracketing my two days. Grouped together the Italian way, it makes me wonder why I don’t travel MORE on the weekends – look at all the TIME I have! And yes, it is difficult to find an American calendar that starts on Monday but, it has definitely been worth it as I am much more likely to relax over the weekend instead of indulging my work-a-holic side.

So what does this have to do with language? The American way of dealing with the weeks is rather schizophrenic, since it is technically both the weekend AND week beginning. In Italian, weekend preserves it’s literal meaning.

An even simpler example is that of the words “woman” and “man”. I have always been a terrible speller, having been ruined by the Virginia public education system’s experiment with phonetic reading books in the 70s. The most striking examples of this are the deeply entrenched and damned near impossible to root out of my brain spellings of the words shugar and wemon. “Wemon rhymes with Lemon”, my 1st grade teacher taught me, so I spelled it the same too! It wasn’t until my dad pointed out to me in high school what was really going on. He said, “That’s dumb. Don’t you know that women come from men? You’re just an addition, like the prefix on the word!”

It hit me like a ton of brick-feathers. Again, this seemingly inescapable patriarchal bible based bullshit. Here it was, staring me in the face; the Christian creation myth manifesting itself in my day-to-day language, in a manner so devastatingly simple as to be impossible to ignore. To my great relief, in Italian, woman is la donna. Man is l’uomo. They are completely different, as I tried to make them in my youth.

I use these examples to elucidate what my new friend Bernard had already internalized through experiencing English as a second language, and Navajo as his first. Because language represents the brick and mortar of how we construct the working paradigm of our existence, the language itself forces us into little boxes of limitation, much like the water a fish breathes.

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