Language and culture reciprocate a fluid relationship. They both interact and shape the structure through which individuals can mediate their lives within a social context. Language and culture are immanent forces that help to define and open up the way we understand various dimensions of our lives, whether through the mass media and advertising, science and technology, slang, diverse vocabulary, changes of meanings. This essay will aim to break down the specific forums through which language is useful to culture and how culture forms the mechanisms and strategies through which we use language.
I will begin with a discussion of the relationship between language and culture and then move on to the different paradigms that contain specific uses of language. To begin, it will be helpful to lay a framework upon which to build a working definition of language. According to the University of Princeton’s online dictionary, language is “a systematic means of communicating by the use of sounds or conventional symbols” (Language). This is straightforward enough for us to understand that language acts as a medium for communicating.
The key terms to highlight here are systematic as well symbols because they stretch the function of the definition to include the power that institutions have over language as well as the way that language can shift and change through semiotics. As a system, language relies upon a specific and formal set of rules in order to function. Grammar, syntax, slang, and meaning are all elicited from the rules of language. The institution of a particular language also varies greatly depending on socio-economic factors as well as through educational strategies.
For example, with the rise of information technology and the internet as well as through global capitalism, the English language has taken center stage as a pseudo-global language due to its far reaching capacity and its prevalence in scientific and technological innovations. It will be interesting to see how the role of English changes as the world becomes smaller through interconnectivity and the rise of other global languages such as Chinese. Different cultures, through different languages, create different modes of expression and understanding that give rise to cultural diversity.
Cultural diversity relies upon the comparing and contrasting mechanisms through which meaning is ingrained. Semiotics is the realm of language that is concerned with signs and signification. Language is the tool through which we identify particular signs and accord them a meaning, or a signification. This is important because through the sign, or symbol, a culture places specific connotations beyond the traditional denotative structure of language. Language both identifies and distinguishes. This is where varying mediums play a significant role on the way cultures digest and create their lives through language.
To illustrate how this works, I will next discuss the role that the mass media has on both the language of culture and the culture of language. The dominance of mass media and advertising over the realms of cross cultural communication cannot be underestimated. Through advertisements, newspapers, television, radio, and the internet, people across the world have instant access to a constant stream of information that shapes the way we live our lives. This can have both positive and negative impacts. On the positive side, mass media acts a vehicle for cross cultural dialogue.
It provides people with a common language and a common set of terms through which to discuss the pressing issues of the day. The information presented is current and has a specific point of focus. Depending on a person’s cultural condition and through which avenue of mass media they travel on the information highway, the meaning of the information changes dramatically. In this way, two people from different cultures can watch the same news clip and come away from the experience with two completely different understandings from the same language and information.
On the negative side of mass media we can point to what cultural theorists beginning with Antonio Gramsci have termed cultural hegemony. This names a dual process through which competing ideologies are struggled out on the stage of culture and through which subversive or outsider paradigms are brought into the dominant arena of culture in order to assimilate and therefore neutralize the conflict of interests (Chandler). This applies to our discussion of language and culture because it helps explain how the role of the media frames certain issues in order to parlay a particular point of view.
For example, here in America hegemony can be witnessed through the way Fox News presents its conservative political agenda against the way that Comedy Central portrays its progressive politics through shows like the Daily Show. The language presented and used in media relies upon subtle ideological functioning in order to suggest at an agenda or viewpoint instead of simply communicating said purpose. As mentioned before, language both identifies and distinguishes. As in the previous example of news presentation, we can see how Fox News identifies its audience through its conservative ideology.
By identifying as they do, they also distinguish themselves from the liberal-leaning Daily Show audience. It will be interesting to see how much, if any, influence Fox News can have during the Obama presidency and the rise of liberalism after relying so heavily upon Republican and conservative politics through the Bush administration. The shift in the power of balance in American politics will sway the tide of public opinion in the arena of culture that hegemony frames. We can also witness the way science and technologies rely upon specific uses of language in order to elucidate communication and meaning.
Perhaps this arena of culture illustrates the example best. Science and technology create paradigms of knowledge. By this, we can see how biochemists almost literally speak another language than nuclear physicists in their professional lives. Again, this is not a positive or a negative situation; it is a cultural practice that plays itself out through particular frameworks of understanding the world. Another interesting example of how science and technology play out in the realm of language is to consider the macro level.
As hinted at earlier, science and technology, with their innovations originating largely from the United States and Japan, have consisted and evolved through the language of not just professional jargon, but specifically and nearly exclusively through English. In his innovative essay, Translingual Travel: The Discourse Practice of Cultural Hegemony, Chinese cultural theorist Dai Xun writes of the impact this phenomenon has in China, “The primary premise in the rise of cultural hegemony is the advantages and control western countries enjoy over science, technology and information (Xun).
This is another form of cultural hegemony that phases out periphery languages at the cost of integrating English into the global vocabulary as well as forming the unbalanced socio-economic relationships of our age. Language is utilized for specific purposes through systematic controls and symbolic gestures. That being said, language is not a monolithic and static entity. Although language relies on specific grammatical and syntactical rules, cultures have always innovated and bent the rules of grammar in an effort to assert their unique cultural conditions.
The rise of slang is one of the most important and culturally reinforcing tactics that marginal groups use to coalesce and self-identify. Slang is a part of language, and it follows that it serves again to identify as well as to distinguish. One of the most striking examples of slang can be witnessed in hip-hop music. Hip-hop is rapidly becoming a global phenomena and it goes beyond just the music to include fashion, dancing, music making and lifestyle.
In this way, the slang the hip-hop community uses separates them from other groups while also helping them to identify with like-minded people. Hegemony in the realm of hip-hop can help explain how power relations work themselves out through culture. In its infancy, hip-hop was a culture unique to African-Americans in inner-city America. With its popularity and rise through mass media, white, middle-class teenagers are adopting hip-hop into their lifestyles and trying to identify with the conditions that gave rise to it.
This is how dominant culture integrates what was previously a subversive and politically threatening subculture into the mainstream. Now we see hip-hop artists in children’s cartoons, at suburban schools and in the malls. In conclusion, language and culture maintain mutually reinforcing relationship. Both dominant and subversive forms of communication are played out on the arena of cultural hegemony. This condition goes beyond the traditional positive/negative paradigm of culture. What is important to some cultures can have very little significance to others.
Chandler, Daniel. (2000). Gramsci and Hegemony. Marxist Media Theory. Retrieved December 22, 2008 from http://www. aber. ac. uk/media/Documents/marxism/marxism10. html Language. (2008). Wordnet. Princeton University. Retrieved December 22, 2008 from http://wordnetweb. princeton. edu/perl/webwn? s=language Xun, Dai. (2008). Translingual Travel: The Discourse Practice of Cultural Hegemony. Southwest Normal University. Retrieved December 22, 2008 from www. ln. edu. hk/eng/staff/eoyang/icla/Translingual%20Travel
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