Language Expresses Culture

Language communicates

Language not only is the basis of communication as  a common frame of reference but is is itself a form of communication in that it reflects what concepts are possible within the language.

The glee with which people explain that the Chinese word for crisis is the same word for opportunity is a reflection of the maturity of the Chinese culture – English does not have a word to mean these two concepts.

In older times the word crisis was just that – a devastation, having to start over, rebuild – but, when you have experienced enough crisis to be able to see the crisis building, then it becomes an opportunity – to avoid the crisis, to control the crisis, to mitigate the crisis in advance to change the crisis from a crisis to being a lower magnitude bump

The German word schadenfreude– a level of enjoyment of someone else’s pain – can refer to anything from a petty I told you so to being genuinely happy that someone is working out their karma. German has a number of words to mean feeling emotions on behalf of other people, a concept that is of a higher magnitude than mere and generic empathy.

In a culture with pioneer values that may be horrifying, but to a more urban cosmopolitan mindset, it could be very enlightening – after all – what is wrong with being glad that someone has learned a lesson that has arisen from their own actions or words?

The Canadian expression, hoisted by their own petard is a lot less elegant and compact as the German. And who can related to loading cannons and having them flip upward and pulling the person along for an unpleasant ride?

Comeuppances are generally deserved – the trick is to get to the point where you are chagrined enough to enjoy your own petard hoisting.

This is why translation is a tricky matter – because not all languages include the same concepts, even though they include the basic verbs and noun  words.

Without understanding the culture, you cannot understand the language – which is why the northern languages have a word for each type of snow, but languages more equatorial have fewer and fewer until there’s no word for snow, since snow is not part of the culture.

So, to look at the original texts that the modern bible was derived from – through centuries of selection and translations – instead of a large coherent volume, we have stacked texts with unclear origins of each word, each line and verse – unable to know if the word is from the oldest or the newest – and as a consequence, which culture to understand the word in.

That the basic bible was essentially written centuries ago, shows that the bible has little meaning in the modern world, for the words and lines and verses, stories and chapters (which used to be the sum total of the text, but now whole texts are reduced to chapters of a larger work – so we see how the past is relegated to a lesser role now than it once held)

The book is essentially meaningless drivel to the point where despite Guentenberg making the bible available to all who could read and cultures in which most of the populace can read – they do not read the actual bible, but continue to allow designated specialists aka priests – to tell them what is in the book.

The next time anyone tells you that the bible says thus and so, hand them a bible and ask where – or better yet, hand them three difference versions and ask where – because the three won’t say the same time in the same way.

4 thoughts on “Language Expresses Culture

  1. Good post. I agree that most Christians don’t have a basic understanding of different languages, translations, etc. And many Americans revel in that fact. They pride themselves on “understanding” one language, while lots of foreigners speak and write several.

    I think many would agree that most people who speak American English do not have an intelligent grasp on their own grammar, nor care to improve it.

    You can delete this next comment if you wish, but you have a typo above. It’s “Schadenfreude”.

    There’s a term morose delectation that supposedly comes close. And the Greek version of it is: ἐπιχαιρεκακία.

  2. I think that the concepts we convey with language – and how they are conveyed – is an aspect of culture that has yet to be examined.

    It’s interesting to me that while English is drawn from a number of languages, and is a very dynamic language which encourages the creation of new words, it does not seem to be gaining in concept complexity.

    cultures that have been around longer have languages with more developed concepts it seems to recognize the different perspectives of a situation – like with the crisis/opportunity

    whereas languages from shorter lived cultures seem more in the descriptive mode of expression, than the higher meaning recognition of concepts expressed in the language

  3. Nicely put, Nina. But can we just all agree now that anybody who thinks the Bible was dictated by God and is the whole and complete instruction manual for life, the universe, and everything is just ignorant and stupid beyond being worth a second thought or another inch of type. I don’t know how they avoid getting laughed out of their own church.

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