07 August 2006

Does language determine culture?

Does language determine culture?

I'm still trying to figure out whether this question is meant to provoke us or break new philosophical grounds. Usually we ask the question like this: does culture determine language? We'd all say 'yes' and then retire to the bar.

Departing from traditional philosophical argument I want to consider some issues which may or may not be related and probably not within the strict meaning of the question.

1> Is language an archaeological site of cultures past? And in a more pro-active way, is language the bridge between cultures past and cultures yet to come?

By archaeological ground I mean, do we find evidence of past cultures in today's language? In the same way we take archaeological sites to find evidence of past civilizations?

Take the expression: D-Day. We all know where this came from and the circumstances. Yet today it is very common to find this expression, or an adaptation of it, in the business press. Usually related to the launch of some new product.

The big question is where do we get such concepts such as: god, good, evil, miracles, justice and so on? What came first, the society in need of some fundamental explanations about life? Or the concepts which worked themselves into the psyche of culture and society?

2> How does language influence the information technology culture? Anyone who had to use a computer would know how demoralising language can be in the context of a personal computer. I'm thinking of those error messages computers throw at us. However, the point is that the language of clear instructions makes our techno-savvy life much easier. In some cases it could easily mean life or death.

But the real issue is this: what type of necessary and sufficient conditions does language play in human/machine interaction? We may be here looking at some form of simple speech recognition (''make me a cup of coffee'') to more complex activities such as rational judgements (maybe a sci-fi style court of law). The basis of the Turing test appeals to language, but what other factors do we need to look at in human language/machine interactions?

3> Where do we find culture? Are we prone to thinking that culture is some peculiar behaviour in groups of people confined to some geographical space in time? Is there a globalisation of culture? Language makes a global culture possible, but in what form?

One form of global communication is what I will call "brand communication." The marketing message of a brand could easily influences the global culture; and in some cases it is intended to do just that. If, for example, a brand is touted as a sign of personal independence, then surely those who try to live up to the brand's mission statement will be participating in a form of global culture. Itself probably a product of the brand owners anyway. Hence, even the culture of ownership itself depends on getting the language and the message right.

However, the communication mix for brand communication does not only depend on words, but, equally important, it relies on images. Could it be that a modern language must include images as well as traditional words to convey meaning? Maybe the return of the hieroglyphs with a vengeance?

4> We may argue whether politics should be included in a discussion on culture and language, but politics, out of necessity, influences culture. What we can do here is to explore the impact the language of politics has on culture.

Political propaganda may be regarded as one form of breeding ground for political language. Of course, the word 'propaganda' in English has negative implications, in some other languages it also has a neutral status. Incidentally, 'propaganda' is a good example of how words do not travel well between cultures and languages. It is, therefore, not surprising that sometimes we find political propaganda with nationalistic politics, usually of an extreme kind. And very often, language and culture are used as political tools to suppress enemies and dissidents. I think that here we have a good case that illustrates the deterministic connection between: language, politics and culture.

Political language is also developing as we read this. Take 9/11 or 11M in Spain. This must surely be one of the latest additions to the glossary of politics. No doubt, today this language belongs in the annals of infamy; however, what will the status of this language be in say five hundred years time? What will future archaeologists of politics and philosophy make of these words? Will 9/11 and 11M still have a meaning in 2504?

5> We cannot discuss language and culture and not mention literature, art, cinema, theatre and humour. Wanting to finish with a light hearted, but very sobering thought when mixing philosophical language and pub culture I want to draw your attention to the following incident*: Descartes is sitting in a bar, having a drink. The bartender asks him if he would like another. "I think not," he says and vanishes in a puff of logic.

Take care


* http://www.workjoke.com/projoke70.htm

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