This essay is aimed to discuss the influence that a language has on the culture of one country or community in particular. Language is a common tool used to communicate all kinds of information although this is not its primary use.
First of all, one must begin by defining what exactly is culture. According to the Oxford Dictionary online culture means ”the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society”. Taking into account this, it could be deduced that these common facts may be transmitted by a common language. Following this, it could be asked then what exactly is a language: ”a system of communication used by a particular country or community” according to the same source. This definition remarks that a language is a good vehicle to transfer culture generation from generation. The title of this essay could be, however, argued because of its importance: there are more factors that unify a culture and a some may be more important than the language.
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Building a new state is the final phase to reaffirm the national culture of one community. In order to achieve this vital point, a common language is the last impulse to form a new country. For instance, in the eighteenth century, the country that is today known as Finland, was not an independent country, it was part of Sweden. Even when the country began, the official language was another one, Russian. Nonetheless Anderson (1983) claims:
”But an ‘awakening’ interest in Finnish and the Finnish past, first expressed through texts written in Latin and Swedish in the later eighteenth century, […] was increasingly manifested in the vernacular. The study of folklore and the rediscovery and piercing together of popular epic poetry went together with the publication of grammars and dictionaries, and led to the appearance of periodicals which served to standardize Finnish literary language, on behalf of which stronger political demands could be advanced.”
Other countries such as Norway, Romania and Hungary followed the Finnish example and started to create their new country based on their own languages. Establishing an official grammar of one language and writing highbrow literature help to succeed in this project.
These revolutions and new found independence throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century had the bourgeois class at the centre. They were the leaders of all these linguistic-nationalistic movements that affected Europe. Language and culture were the principle factors they claimed made an independent country: ”Language-of-state it might be, but it could not, in the nineteenth century, be the language of business, of the sciences, of the press, or of literature, especially in a world in which these languages continuously interpenetrated one another.” (Anderson, 1983). The ruling class in these countries had been imposing its language for decades, but in the nineteenth century, the new bourgeois class claimed its supremacy by their vernacular languages as a symbol of their own culture and nation.
In addition, linguistic reasons may be added to this discussion. Linguistic relativity, popularly known as Sapirââ‚¬”Whorf hypothesis is a linguistic theory which states that ”human languages determine the structure of the real world as perceived by human beings, rather than vice versa, and that this structure is different and incommensurable from one language to another.” (Collins Dictionary). According to that, if a language restricts the vision of the world that all its speakers, the culture of that community is, then, restricted by their language. According to Franz Boas (1911):
”It does not seem likely […] 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 the culture is conditioned by the morphological traits of the language.”
Moreover, any language has two basic forms: oral and written. In everyday life, oral language is the medium of communication and therefore traditions and values (culture) from one particular country are transmitted generation from generation thanks to it. The question in this point is whether there are still some parts of national cultures that remain despite their antiquity. They have survived since someone, at some point of the history, wrote about them and in the language of that country: ” […] the independence movements in the Americas became, as soon as they were printed about, ‘concepts,’ ‘models’, and indeed ‘blueprints.’ ” (Anderson, 1983).
As a last point for language as the most important unifying factor in culture, Nelson Brooks’s words (1973) must be mentioned:
”Language makes culture possible. Born with the capacity for language, the infant is able to learn it only through contact with those who already know it; it soon becomes and remains an inseparable part of the self. A person’s place in his culture depends in great part upon his knowledge of and his use of language.”
A good example of the importance of a language in one particular culture is the case of Gaelic language and the Gaelic culture. Gaelic language is the key factor to help preserve Gaelic culture (Sparling cited by Fulford, 2003). She believes that if Gaelic speakers still maintain their language as being alive, they will revive their culture. Otherwise, Gaelic culture will disappear as many other cultures throughout history. Nevertheless, in this particular case, some Gaelic speakers are questioning the real importance of Gaelic language and its professional and international projection.
On the other hand, some raisons against ‘language as the most important factor unifying a culture’ are expounded by many authors. They argued that a language is not as important since some national movements which are currently happening present other factors such as history or religion.
Religion is one of the main raisons for starting a war or, in this case, for unifying a culture. In general, it is fact that religion unifies people since it gives them a way to life, a doctrine through which they can model their lifes. In this sense, people would feel closer to other people that follow their life path than others even if they do not share the same language. As Smith indicates: ” Religious communities are often closely related to ethnic identities” (1991). A good example that shows how important religious matters are in unifying a culture is the case of Irish people due to the fact that one of the main reasons to claim their independence from Great Britain was that they were Catholic instead of Anglicans. In this particular case, it could be argued that Irish independence movement claimed Gaelic language as one of their symbols although despite this fact both British or Irish speak nowadays the same language: English.
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Similarly in other words, there is no such a common definition for the word ‘culture’. At the beginning of this paper, a general definition of culture has been given but two principal senses may be found: Western conception and ethnic conception. In the case of the Western sense, culture is interpreted as a group of laws, traditions and ideas. On the contrary, the ethnic conception states that the culture is composed by a vernacular language and religion (Smith, 1991). It could be, therefore, deduced that depending on what each person understands as ‘culture’, language would be the most important factor or not. The most common sense is, nevertheless, a mixture of both conception.
Throughout this paper, both the words ‘culture’ and ‘nation’ have been and will be synonyms in most of the arguments. This is due to the fact that most of the authors and experts in this subject do not distinguish in most cases between these two concepts. Continuing on the same line, Smith (1991) lists five features of nation: history territory, common myths, public culture, common legal rights, and common economy. It could be noted that, among all of them there is no room for language. As a result, language may be not as important as other symbols.
Among all the reasons against language as the most unifying factor in a particular culture, there is one which is the most important one: history. A common history, a group of common myths and traditions, common feelings and ideologies should be included to build a culture, to form a state and, to unify communities. ”Nations may have had a long history before they reach their destination – that of forming themselves into state” (Hegel cited by Gellner, 1983). As in personal relationships where common stories and experiences are one of the most important components to build a friendship, to create and maintain a culture, historical events such as wars are needed. In this sense, as it has been said above, myths and traditions which are created throughout common history are key factors.
Furthermore, among the reasons in favour of language, it has been mentioned a linguistic reason. Another linguistic reason is, therefore, included against this statement. Sapir-Whorf theory was believed as the right one for a long period of time until it has been proved that language influences in culture although language does not accumulate all culture. With all the linguistics contents, human beings have a cultural heritage broader and placed outside from the vocabulary they accumulate in their minds. This lexicon derives from our personal experience, knowledge and instinct which are codified neither in lexemes nor phraseological units. As Gell (1996 p. 164) maintains:
”[…] culture consists of concepts, and concepts cannot be understood in terms of the associated linguistic code […] culture includes language, but consists of much more besides. Concepts are prior to language in so far as they consist for the most part of network of exemplary instances and practical routines connected with them ââ‚¬”routines which include appropriate forms of utterance, but also mental imaginary […] Concepts do not come from language learning, but the experience and practice, and they are not codified as dictionary entries, or as checklists of features.”
As it can be drawn from the discussion that has been developed throughout this paper, language and culture are two fields which are closely linked to each other. There are some facts and evidences which indicate the supremacy of language in unifying a culture. A culture without language to communicate its own traditions, symbols and myths cannot prosper and survive as part of the current cultures for instance Chinese culture. Even cultures and languages have passed the same stages together. For example, Roman culture cannot be understood without Latin. Latin and Roman culture lost their official status together and together they diversified in the same languages and cultures: in Roman languages and in their respective cultures. The Spanish language and Spanish culture are, for instance, respectively a Romance language and a culture which has a large number of its basis from Roman culture.
On the other side, there are more factors that unify a culture. History is the one which is prominent above the rest. Speaking the same language is fundamental to create a culture but if a community does not have any history, if they do not share some events as it has been said before, then as a result that culture would be incomplete. For instance, a large number of countries have as a first or second official language English even though these countries do not share the same culture with Great Britain.
In conclusion, language and culture are two subjects of study which are always studied together and are very linked to one another. Some researchers believe that language is the most important unifying factor in a culture but from my point of view it is not. Language is quite significant within a culture, without it could not be possible to transmit all of our culture generation from generation. There are, however, another factors that maintain a culture as it is. In my opinion, history is more important than language in this sense: two people can have different cultures and ways of seeing life despite the fact that they can have as a mother tongue the same language.
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