Language and culture

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Language and culture

Message  Philippe-Henri le Sam 18 Fév - 12:33

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Source : Onze Taal 2017 ─ 2/3
Translated from Dutch by Philippe-Henri

Dan Everett, linguiste and dean of a small American university, did extensive research on the language and culture of Pirahã Indians in de Brazilian Amazon Forest. He worked for the Summer Institute of Linguistics, an evangelical organization in charge of translating the Bible into all languages of the world. Everett’s mission failed : instead of converting the Indians, they converted HIM. He apostatised! He changed his ideas about language radically. Before, he saw language as something that reflects human thought. After, he believed that language is primarily an instrument which people use to express their culture.

Everett explains he changed ideas when he had learned more or less to speak the language of the Pirahãs end started translating the New Testament for them. Now, Pirahãs never talk about people they don’t know, or about things they have not experienced themselves. Everett :«When reading part of my translation to one of them, the listener cast a confused look around. He thought the story went about people I knew myself. I felt myself cheating. In the world of the Pirahãs I was a liar.

The Pirahãs didn’t understand a iota of the Bible, for the story didn’t connect with their culture, which made them live totally in their own hic and nunc. There was no room for things they couldn’t see and therefore had occurred long ago or outside reality. Similarly, they have no stories about how the world might have come into being.

The work of the Bible translator is based upon the idea that all people worldwide understand at least the message of the Gospel. Everett suspected this concept to be wrong. The mental world of the Pirahãs was completely different and so was their view of the world as a whole. They didn’t give a damn about the Gospel.

Everett nevertheles went back to the Pirahãs, not to convert them, but to study their language thoroughly. Yet, there was something wrong as well. Like most modern linguists he believed that everybody had an innate language instinct, which enables children to learn their native language (mother tongue) easily and which determines the form of that native language. He regarded the ‘cartography’ of that biological capacity as his main task. But as shown by the the Pirahãs’ culture not all people need the Gospel, their language didn’t square with the idea of an innate language organ. The Pirahãs had no words for colours or abstract things, as little as they had for numerals or for how to refer to the distant past or the faraway future. They didn’t use personal pronouns such as he and you, they continued to repeat the name of their chat partner : «Dan must come, Dan must take a seat there». They made sounds that are not found in any other language and, therefore, had no symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet. In their culture, there was no room for abstractions or arithmetic, neither did they use different tones when speaking with children or adults.
Similartly, their language ignores subordinates. According to that principle, they can’t insert a sentence in another one. Hence they always speak in short sentences.

P.H.

Philippe-Henri

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Re: Language and culture

Message  MurielB le Sam 18 Fév - 19:44

I really enjoyed reading what you have written Henri. For me a language is a window open onto the world.It helps us to understand things  with specific eyes. This is what I find interesting.
language is primarily an instrument which people use to express their culture.
I totally agree with that and I don't see the point of translating the bible or the gospel into all the languages of the world. It doesn't help to understand anything because it is a dogmatic view point which prevents us from putting ourselves in the shoes of somebody who lives in a country far way, or  in a remote part of the world with different codes. I prefer the search of truth, I prefer to understand people and to share. For instance my grand daughter has taught me the SMS language. I know that a lot of people in my generation would disdain that spelling. I find that amusing like the Pirahãs’ culture because it reflects a different approach on things.

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Language and culture

Message  Philippe-Henri le Dim 19 Fév - 3:21

Muriel was kind enough to react to my post regarding Dan Everett’s research on the Pirahã Indians in de Brazilian Amazon Forest. Let me just add some clarifications.

The quotation : «Language is primarily an instrument which people use to express their culture» is not mine. It was Everett who said this within the scope of his assignment. I should have mentioned in addition to my comments that his ideas led to much controversy among his fellow researchers. In particular, his opinion that language is but determined by culture and not by biological properties of the human mind encountered a fair amount of scepticism and even anger. «I sometimes go to a university», Everett said, «where people refuse to shake hands.» He doesn’t mind. «I confiscated an idea from them, which whole careers are built on, and some of them believed I attacked them personally», he added.

I share Muriel’s view that language and culture are closely related, but in the context of the Pirahãs this is not really the point. Those nomadic hunters and gatherers still live in the Late Stone Age (Neolithic) and their language matches their needs and way of life. As Neandertal and Sapiens, they are quite intelligent and cultivated, but their mentality is hic and nunc compared to our modern Western mentality, which is speculative and prospective : we look into the past and into the future, which those Pirahã tribes don’t do. That’s why our ‘Bible & Gospel story’ is totally beyond understanding to them. Translating our Bible and Gospel into all languages of the world is just a proof of self-complacency. By sending Christians to developing countries as missionaries we give evidence of dramatic short-sightedness. For me, it’s a fantastic experience to penetrate the heart of the Brazilian Rain Forest and to communicate peacefully with our forefathers as they lived twelve thousand years ago. I believe we should primarily comply with their culture before making pipe dreams on their language.

P.H.

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Re: Language and culture

Message  MurielB le Dim 19 Fév - 22:01

Hi Henri
I would add that there are two words in French "Langage" and "Langue".In English it is translated by the same word "Language" which has 2 meanings
    1  method of human communication
    2 system of communication used by a particular country or community with its codes
For me, it’s a fantastic experience to penetrate the heart of the Brazilian Rain Forest and to communicate peacefully with our forefathers as they lived twelve thousand years ago. I believe we should primarily comply with their culture before making pipe dreams on their language.
The way a group speaks helps us understand many things about them and that is what I also find interesting.

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language and culture

Message  Philippe-Henri le Lun 20 Fév - 18:28

Muriel said French has two words for ‘langue’ : «Langage» and «Langue» whereas English has only one : « language». That’s a real headache for tanslators, all the more so as there are also:

tongue (e.g. mother tongue)
speech (way of speaking)
parlance (way of speaking)

As to the subject of the Pirahã Indians, she added that the way a group speaks helps us understand ‘many things about them’. She meant : 'about their culture'. That’s quite obvious, but there’s much more. What, for instance about voice (biological ability to speak) and non-prospective (hic et nunc) languages ? How and when did languages originate and develop? Has there ever been one single common protolanguage (Ursprache in German) ? How did Tumaï (Sahelanthropus tchadensis, ─6 million years) and Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis ─3 million years) communicate ? A task for paleoanthropologists !

Philippe-Henri

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Re: Language and culture

Message  MurielB le Lun 20 Fév - 21:22

Thanks Henri for your words. In that forum you can read a lot of very interesting posts about languages in
=>*** "multilingual lounge index" *** what do you think ?







.

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Re: Language and culture

Message  MurielB le Lun 27 Fév - 12:16

If you want to know more in French please click=>Language et culture

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