Friday, October 11, 2013

Language as a function of culture

(trimmed from an assigned essay for an MCTE program at FSU, ca. 2002, discussing whether "ebonics" was a language or a dialect...)

      At its most basic, language signifies “any sound utter’d by an animal, by which it expresses any of its passions, sensations, or affections. The amorous pigeon does not trust solely to his plaintive cooing in order to soften the rigour of his reluctant mate, but adds to it the most submissive and expressive gestures.”(Encyclopoedia Brittanica, 1771)
      The definition of two centuries past correlates well with the concepts with which we regard language among societies and civilizations today. Language both represents and reflects many aspects of a culture, and it can be seen as a sign of unity among members of a particular culture group. It can be analyzed—in terms of vocabulary and structure—for clues about the values and beliefs of a culture group. When communicated in writing, language can also become a visible marker that provides a way of tracing the history of a culture. Language also includes the non-spoken expression and gesture, with a wiggled eyebrow or smile adding depth of meaning beyond the uttered word.
      Language may represent a means of stereotyping one group or another. It may be used as a means to classify one’s educational background, or receptiveness to its enhancements.
      The wrong choice of words may come across as substandard or crude. When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought with them their French culture and Romance-based language to the Saxon throne. Words that were derived from the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon background became considered crude and have carried this stigma to the present day (many of the seven words George Carlin explained you “could not say on TV” descend from Anglican and Germanic, not Latin, roots; the same words in Latin or French are considered medical diagnoses).

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