Language and Culture

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Culture has been defined as ‘the total set of beliefs, attitudes, customs, behaviour, and social habits of the members of a particular society’. Our culture informs us what’s appropriate, what is regular, what’s acceptable when dealing with different members of our society. Our tradition lets us know what to anticipate from others, what they will say in certain situations, and the manner in which they will say it. It lets us know how they will act, and how they will react. It is the knowledge of the ages handed down to the present. We’re affected by it, and it is affected by us. Tradition is in a relentless state of flux, altering incrementally, changing the way we speak and the way we think, the way we act and the way we react.

That culture is indelibly linked to language is undeniable, for language is a vehicle by which it is transmitted, probably its chief vehicle. One observable way in which language acts as a vehicle for, or a transmitter of, culture is in using idiomatic language. Idiomaticity is arguably the most common form of language, in terms of percentages of the whole. Idiomatic language, most often discovered within the form of phrases consisting of more than one word, typically doesn’t conform to say the grammatical structure of non-idiomatic language. For example, in the phrase, ‘at massive’, as used in the expression, ‘the general public at giant’, or in the sentence, ‘The escaped convicts were at massive for two weeks before being recaptured.’, the preposition ‘at’ seems earlier than what seems to be an adjective, ‘giant’. This appears to be in direct contradiction to the ‘normal’ place such a part of speech occupies in a grammatically correct sentence, viz. before a noun, equivalent to within the following examples, ‘at residence’, ‘at work’, ‘on the office’ et al. The phrase, ‘at large’ showing on the page in isolation from any context that would make its which means more transparent, has an opaque quality the place semantic meaning is worried, and perhaps still retains a few of its opacity of meaning even within the context of a sentence.

To members of the community using such idiomatic language, there may be tacit agreement on what these phrases imply, despite their opaque quality. Idioms are cultural entities.

To learners of a international language, any international language, tradition imbues language with this opacity. The word, table is easily understood and learned, but what concerning the phrase, ‘to table a motion’? That phrase carries a cultural worth that isn’t readily appreciated or apparent to a learner. The meaning doesn’t reside within the particular person words that make up the phrase. The verb, ‘to table’ must initially appear nonsensical to a learner. Likewise, ‘a motion’ should appear like an anachronism, having discovered that motion is a synonym for the word ‘movement’.

Every tradition has its own assortment of phrases that are peculiar to it, and whose meanings aren’t readily apparent. Were this not so, George Bernard Shaw’s adage that America and Britain are nations separated by the identical language would haven’t any ironical appeal. Ostensibly, we speak the same language, the British and the Individuals, but each varieties use many alternative words, and have many different phrases which can be usually mutually unintelligible, and sometimes uttered very differently. Generally only the context in which a phrase or word is used serves to disentangle. Sometimes even the context just isn’t quite enough. Generally we think we now have understood when we now have not.

This factors out another function of tradition bound language; that it exists within a larger entity, that localized varieties exist. What’s understandable to a person from one region could also be unintelligible to 1 from another. If this is true within the community of a particular set of users of one language, how much more should it hold true to learners of that language. Many a learner of English, feeling herself proficient, has gone to England only to find the language at worst totally unintelligible, and at best emblematic, but still not totally comprehensible.

The ‘cultural weighting’ of any language, in the form of idiomatic phrases, is understood by members of that cultural community, or perhaps more appropriately, and more narrowly defined, by the members of that particular speech community, and conversely, isn’t readily understood by those who come from another culture or even one other speech community, albeit ostensibly within the same culture.

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