Jan 4, 2011

The Importance of Language And Culture:


There are two forms of communications--verbal and non-verbal. Non-verbal can include art, sign language, facial expressions, graffiti, street signs and instrumental music. Verbal of course is restricted to sounds from our throats but these sounds from information. Specific sounds sends us encoded messages or signals which we call words. When a listener picks up the sounds the listener then begins to decode the messages from the sounds and formulates an image in the brain. When we write down these sounds, we again encode these messages. This is one of the reasons why most alphabets in the world are phonetic meaning are written through sounds. When grammatical rules, lexicons, specific terminology, codified voice patterns and associated behavior are also involved in these sounds, it becomes a language.


Now when in the process of human civilization, we have developed "societies". Societies are ever changing yet are shaped by events, histories, politics, economies, networks, values, ideas and religion. The values, ideas, ethics, morals, and world view that is formed and generally agreed upon is "culture". Culture in turn shape our behavior, our reactions, and our outlook on the world.

Cultures must be learned. They have to be transmitted, that is to say, be passed on from one person to another. Therefore, language is used to transmit cultural information. This is the primary reason why one needs to pay attention to the meaning of words, the origin of words, and one of the markers of a shared cultural heritage. Cultures simply can not exist without being passed on and passing on one's culture always involves language. Due to the closeness of language to culture, both influence each other into what information is passed on and affects other areas of life including art, politics, economics, technology and decision making. In addition, every experience and every concept that is seen, heard, thought about, felt, debated, or philosophized about has a word or a way of explaining that experience. Language determines how a person processes information and helps to formulate or sculpt their ideas because it carries culture. For example, Filipinos have words chronicling every stage of rice production and rice itself. In English, rice is simply called rice and some of the terms for the production of rice in Filipino are difficult to translate into English. From this example we can discern the importance of rice in Filipino culture just by the terminology and can then make certain conclusions.


The term "civilization" is often used interchangeably with the word "culture". Depending on the academic discipline, "civilization" can mean a culture which has developed cities, hierarchies, and institutions. That is the most common definition in liberal arts studies. In the 19th century, in particular, to be "civilized" therefore meant to be urban and any culture which was not urban was therefore neither civilized nor a civilization.

Others, notably Oswald Spengler, Bernard Lewis, and recently Samuel Huntington and Abdulkarim Souroush began to formulate the idea that civilizations (note the "s") are composed of cultural and religious groups that share similar inner ideas, languages, values, or geography. Hence you have the discussions about "the clash of civilizations". For example, Huntington postulates that there is a Western European civilization which would be composed of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, etc. In this case, although these countries are composed of various languages, they all supposedly share deep similar ideas about democracy, religion, and certain values. In addition, there is a common cultural element in most European countries--the colonization or legacy of Rome--that still shows in their institutions and world view.

However, this is a very simplistic and naive notion of cultures. Most cultures belong to more than one civilization because of historical, religious, linguistic and economic ties. Albania and Turkey for example are both Islamic and European but do not share linguistic ties with each other. Therefore although Turkey and Albania are both predominately Muslim and are geographically part of Europe, the way both societies process information and react would be very different because of how their cultures and their world views clearly seen in their respective language. They both would also have certain common traits because of the fact that both adhere to Islam but the way they would frame decision-making, understand concepts, and relate to each other, again would be through language.

Cultural Spheres of Influence versus Cultural Imperialism

In addition to civilizations, there are also cultural spheres of influence. This happens when another culture exerts influence over another culture which at times can cause conflict and at other times causes a blending of ideas. This happened with Indonesia which was under the cultural sphere of India for hundreds of years. Hinduism and Buddhism did not eradicate the indigenous cultures but blended elements together and formed a unique form of Hinduism. Cultural imperialism is when a sphere of influence deliberately tries to replace the existing culture, that is to say it is imposed. This imposition is traditionally either as a prelude to conquest, as a result of conquest, and/or as a means of maintaining social inequalities. The difference between cultural imperialism and cultural sphere is the element of imposition. When it is forced upon a population, it is a form of cultural imperialism. When it is freely adopted, then its a cultural sphere of influence. Religion can also be a form of either cultural sphere of influence or a form of cultural imperialism. The early history of Christianity in Latin America and the Philippines, for example, is a rather depressing story of cultural imperialism because conversions were often imposed on the indigenous peoples by Spain.

Language is Power

This is also one of the reasons why understanding language is important. As Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a Kenyan author said in his essay on "The Language of African Literature":
...The real aim of colonialism was to control the people's wealth...[but] economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people's culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to each other. For colonialism, this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people's culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the colonizer. The domination of a people's language by the language of the colonizing nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonizers... [emphasis mine]
In the Pacific, this meant: the replacement of place names with European ones (i.e. the Philippines, the Society Islands, Easter Island and New Zealand); creating geographical divisions where none traditionally existed (i.e. Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, South East Asia, etc);creating new terms of self-definition through pseudo-scientific terms (i.e. Orang Asli, Deutro-Malay, Proto-Malay, indio, etc); through blood quantum (i.e the case of Hawai'i) or through religious affiliation (i.e. bhumiputra); along with the devaluation of anything indigenous using the terms like "folk", "ethnic", "backward", "primitive", "inferior" and "native" in a derogatory light. This basically helped to create the impression that we, in the Pacific, should be ashamed of our roots and should look elsewhere (i.e. Europe, the US, Saudi Arabia, etc) for inspiration instead at looking at own selves and at each other. The fact that most people in the Pacific with advanced degrees are often more fluent in English or French than their mother languages and most education systems themselves do not teach anything about Austronesian languages shows the extent of the mental universe of the colonizers in the region.

Austronesian Perspective

In the case of Austronesian languages, nearly all Austronesian languages share the same matrix of cultural and technological ideas because all Austronesian languages share a common ancestral language--not to mention common DNA factors. All of our modern languages started as a dialect of that single ancestral language and that single language embedded its concepts and grammar into all of the modern Austronesian languages and therefore carries over even into our modern cultures. For example, the abstract concept of a spiritual energy or charisma inherited from ancestors and often termed mana or variations (pamana, aina, jiwa, etc). Then there are our cultural concepts such as the difficulty in saying "no". All of this can still be found in our modern languages because it has carried over. The major differences between Austronesian languages have occurred due to variations caused by: the fact that we are separated into islands; time; the adoption of foreign vocabularies (i.e. Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, etc) and religions (i.e. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc); and certain historical events such colonialism which has lead to changes in our societies. But again the core values, perception and traits are still there because all of our languages evolved from the same ancestral source or ancestral voice. Even the word "voice" itself--ex. leo (Hawaiian), reo (Maori), feo (Malagasy), etc--shows that connection. So it is possible based on the study of various Austronesian languages to formulate an Austronesian perspective or an"Austronesian civilization" if we uncover the concepts of the words and rediscover our own past.

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