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English Language and Cultural Thought
Reflections on Language Structure and Human Thought

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

A Swiss reader wrote with a question related a project she was working on.  This entailed reflection of how multiple languages are used in her home country and the role of English as an "international language."  This led to consideration of the overall relationship of languages and worldview thought patterns in an interethnic or international setting.

Here is Andi's opening question:

I am looking for a single class or category term that would encompass language + geography + ethnicity + religion.  Do you know of a term that includes these 4 topics?  Just like cutlery = knife + fork + spoon.

These four nouns all refer to characteristics of culture referred to as cultural descriptors.  More specifically, language, location (geography) and religion are components or descriptors of ethnicity.  These characteristics define ethnicity.  An additional component would be genetic or historical relationships.

My correspondent responded to my definition of ethnicity and culture.

Thank you for your kind reply. Your words clarified things, and I went with the word "culture" as a label.  Also i enjoyed reading your article about language vs. dialect, it opened my mind in that area.  Here are some thoughts about dialect from my (non-linguistic) point of view in relation to  your text:

"It is odd that, with all the information available now, I still see uses of the word "dialect" to refer to a substandard form of speech, perhaps one that does not have a written form, or the speech of a more "primitive" culture.  (And of course, the person talking this way always speaks a language -- not a dialect!)"

My mother tongue is Swiss German (aka alemannic, iso 639-3 gsw, 6.5 million speakers), not to confuse with German as used in Switzerland (de_CH).  The Ethnologue classifies it as a language.

She provided an insightful sociolinguistic analysis of the dialect use and attitude from her Swiss background.

Even though it's classified as a language, people here believe they're speaking a dialect.  Reasons probably are:
 - no written form, we switch to standard German for writing.  (It has become somewhat common to write how we speak in private emails and chat, but it's harder and slower to read and I can't stand it for much text. everyone writes as he hears it, and not consistent either.)
 -not the "tv language"
 - simpler grammar, fewer time forms, may seem like baby language to a linguist;  using noun diminutives very often (those ending in -li for German -lein/chen).
 - sounds more country side [with some sounds being different]

In Switzerland, people always speak "dialect" at home and at work.  There are many Germans living and working here, and most Swiss even continue speaking their local language with them.  The foreigners have to adapt (learn to understand), and reply in standard German.  They do not reply and speak in their own local form.

In contrast, in the US, local pronunciation is accepted, expected, even encouraged.  But there is more pressure to conform to somewhat standard, formal syntax.  Still, US speech varies considerably in syntax.  A high value is placed on syntactic creativity.

Local vocabulary and idiom are used in many contexts within formal English to make a point or show solidarity or camaraderie.  Sociolinguistics in the US are very complex.

Andi comments also on a feature of her multilingual European society's use of the various languages in different daily relationships.

When we speak to foreigners other than German - or for example to French or Italian-speaking people from our own country, everyone speaks standard German (except for a few old countryside farmers who never really learned it).  Big contrast here.

Also, we change to the foreigner's language when possible.  If the Swiss speaks French, English, Italian or whatever as a 2nd language, he or she will immediately switch to that.  We make it convenient for the foreigner - unless it's a German.

When traveling to Germany, then we do speak standard German; we adapt to their standard.

These complex patterns of lingual interaction are conventions within social or geo-poolitical boundaries or contexts. They may be developed, encouratged or enforced at various levels of formal or informal social or levels in a cociety.

I was glad to have her comments as an insider on the Swiss vs German situation.  This matches what I experienced and observed on some visits to both countries.  I have not been in either country for quite a while now, so am less aware of the dynamics now in play.  But it sounds similar to what I have known in earlier years.

Genial and Fluent
I found the Swiss very genial and adaptable, open to foreigners and generously accommodating.  The Germans seem very regimented and intractable in their cultural and linguistic attitudes and they approach most aspects of their life like this.  On the other hand, a high percentage of the German populace seems to have proficiency in English, and are generally hospitable.

The Germans focus on the system and standards, with a high value for efficiency and consistency.  These positive qualities that make their systems work (like the train system) are sometimes seen by others as an arrogance and insensitivity.

The Ethnologue provides a set of codes that reference the defined and confirmed speech forms of the human race.  Note that the ISO number is assigned to each listed language or reported dialect as simply a classification and referencing standard and not a judgement on speech forms.

But there are literally tens of thousands of investigators, mostly fulltime and some part time, working on analysis and comparison of languages around the world on a constant basis.

I have worked in the field directly with many of the linguists who learn, analyze and reduce to writing many of the languages of the world.  There are many languages of whole peoples still under analysis, so we do not know the whole world picture of speech forms yet.

Since a character of human speech is continual change, the catalogue may never be "finished," though it will become more complete and accurate.

Language and Thought
The most effective language courses seem to be those dynamic ones with a practical focus centered in the daily life exchanges and situations of the people.

Language is a primary factor of human identity, as well as a major tool of social interaction, within and across identity group boundaries.

There is a dynamic interplay of language and thought, but the guiding reference or source is the set of life experiences of the individual and the social/cultural group.  English is used around the world, but by different cultures at different levels of interaction and in different ways for varying purposes.

The pattern we have seen indicates that the set of language forms called English are changing to meet the needs of the peoples needing to use it.  The practical aspects of interchange in the medium are adapted to the thought being conveyed and the particular situation.

Of course, the requirements of English and the international exchanges going on will involve adaptation of the perspectives of the people who have adopted English for their interaction with other peoples.

Shifting Streams
But keep in mind the difference between English as a native language or mother tongue - where it is the format of thinking - and English as a second language used for trade, diplomacy, learning or other functional uses.

A whole people do not commonly give up their native language for another.  Such a shifting of language stream happens gradually, usually over three or more generations.  This normally occurs where small numbers from one culture and language have moved into a context where another language and culture dominate.

It may also occur where a minority conquer and move in, like the Norman-Frankish invasion of England in 1066 (the Norman Conquest) and their gradual expansion in all the British Isles, to one degree or another, over a matter of several centuries.  They gradually lost their Frankish speech, but transformed the many Anglo-Saxon dialects in the process.

But most peoples live in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual situation.  The North American dominance of one language is abnormal.  So there are gradations and levels to what we mean by the term "English is becoming the universal language."  This does not commonly mean people are giving up their mother tongue in which they think and maintain their identity.

German Language in America
In the United States, for instance, English grew into dominance only gradually.  In the early period, before the Revolution and right after, German was a dominant language in many areas.  By 1800 about 1/3 of the population of the new United States spoke German.*

In 1795, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives was a German, Frederick Augustus Muehlenberg, a Federalist from Pennsylvania.

In the US presidential election of 1800, the first contested by more than one political party, flyers, ads, speeches, ballots, everything was in German in many areas.  Pennsylvania was primarily German-speaking.  Philadelpha was the capital of the young Republic.

The language of the British King they had overthrown was German.  German was the language of the Royal Court of the United Kingdom and its colonies.  Check it out.  And Hessian mercenary troops fought on both sides in the American Revolution, then settled there after the war.

Then between 1820 and 1910, nearly 5.5 million German-speaking immigrants arrived in the US.**  Many of these landed by the boatload in Texas ports.  Into the current generation, German has been a medium of social and educational interaction in German communities in the south Texas Hill Country.

German is still taught in the schools, and Oktoberfest has grown in the last few decades to become a whole statewide celebration.  North Texas along the Red River was aso a big German settlement area.

English in the United States developed within a dynamic and multi-lingual context of some of the North American colonies originally founded by the British.  The same thing is happening.  English is a practical tool for most of the world's users.  

Native English-speaking cultures themselves vary considerably.  One has to learn new vocabulary and phrasing wherever one goes, and the changes are always related to the local environment and cultural situation.  One characteristic of our modern world is the access and awareness of the full range of human activity, characteristics and diversity.

English-language cultures and countries are affected by what they have access to now from other cultures.  Often English is the medium of access.  The change effect is usually mutual.  We have already seen dramatic change in popular culture.  Deep-level culture in the US remains quite local.  And there are several layers of "culture" or spheres of relationships and language use.

How second-language speakers of English use English in their own locale and cultural context is always initially determined by their prior worldview.  The English is usually adapted to their local mother-tongue way of speaking and thinking, because that is the core of their life experience and orientation.

These second-language forms of English and the cultural and human "information" they carry may also affect the native English-language areas and cultures of the world.

For instance, note the wide range of vocabulary from across the world.  English has many words for the same thing from different languages – keeping the local flavor by using the local word when speaking of that context.  One common example is cilantro, coriander and dhania.

Phrases, ideas, preferences, turns of phrase and cultural aspects are taken up and become common characteristics across the originial culture-groups so engaged.

High Cross-Cultural Mobility
There is high mobility across cultures in world English.  This is one reason there are so many nuanced words for the same thing in English.  For instance, tornado, cyclone, hurricane.  All borrowed from different cultures and applied to certain categories of the same storm, by geography or whether over land or water.

East African English is quite different from International English.  South Africans with English mother tongue (descendants mostly of English settlers) have a very different English from British or Americans, being heavily influenced by Afrikaans and the indigenous African languages and the African life setting.

Technical aspects of life and technologies are the easiest to change.  Tools and practical aspects of material life are easiest to change, borrow, adapt or introduce.  These may affect how one relates to their environment, but may only extend, though modify, the previous thought-system or worldview that accounts for the whole set of life experiences.

So English language will become the exchange medium, but what is exchanged or accepted and what is changed will not be uniform across the world.  I think there will be a growing sense of unity across cultures, but we note that there will arise conflicts over the differences that come to light in these new exchanges and encounters at deeper levels as more and more aspects and experiences of life are exchanged.

Shared Significant Experiences
Technology will be a great factor in how cultures shift and thought-systems change.  Culture or worldview is based on Shared Significant Experiences. Technologies can cause a change in the types of experiences shared by a social group or similar social groups in a region or broad cultural milieu.

As the set of Significant Experiences changes, the worldview (thought-system) will change to account for these.  Sometimes changes are radical, rapid and traumatic, leading to dramatic shifts of worldview.  Usually it is a slower, more gradual process.  So we can see a culture only at the current stage.  Changes and directions in the worldview may not be obvious without a historical "map" of the society, its practices and beliefs.

The more detail available about the society over a period of time, and the longer the period of time to compare, the better able we will be to map the steps in worldview.  This is similar to the process language scientists use in reconstructing and mapping changes in language forms and anthropologists use in mapping culture forms.

*  Gordon S Wood,  The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.  (NY:  Penguin, 2004), passim;  and Edward J Larson.  A Magnificent Catastrophe:  The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign (NY:  Free Press, 2007), pp 60, 88, 103-104.
** Owen Rutz, German Immigration to the US in the 1800s

Also related:
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Shared Significant Experiences - Worldview and Experience
Shared Significant Experiences - Worldview: The Thought-System Behind Every Culture
What is a "People Group"?

Also view related PowerPoint Presentations:
What is Worldview -- Download Presentation

Related on the Internet:
Owen Rutz, German immigration to the us in the 1800s
The Ethnologue


Original comments written in an email exchange 14-20 October 2010
Developed 2012, 2013, 2014, 2018
Developed as an article 25 January 2018

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2018 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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