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Across Cultures

Dialects, Peoples and Cultural Change
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Language provides vital clues to the thinking and worldview of a community.  Languages (speech forms or speech varieties) are related to others.  When speakers of one cannot generally and easily “hear” speakers of another variety, we usually use the term “language” for the varieties.*

In many cases the name of a dialect corresponds with the name of an ethnic group that speaks that form of the broader language.  In other words, the "dialect" is referred to by the name of the people that speak that way.  In many cases the Ethnologue indicates this, and includes some information about the peoples.  In many cases no further comment is given.

Mutual Identity
In some cases the dialects do correspond with sub-groupings which consider themselves part of a larger group called by the main name under which that language is listed.  In these cases, we consider all these ethnic groups as part of one main ethnic group, called by the name of the group as a whole.

In other cases, the peoples whose speech forms are listed as dialects consider themselves separate peoples, but do acknowledge that they speak the same language.  The world standard reference for languages of the world is The Ethnologue.  Ethnologue information and codes can be helpful in determining whether to list related peoples as separate ethnic entities with the same or different languages or dialects.

Identification involves a code from both the The Ethnologue and the Registry of Peoples.  In the Registry of Peoples (ROP), a standard coding system for the peoples of the world, a unique ethnic group may have their own unique People Code, but share the same Language Code as given in the Ethnologue with one of more additional peoples.  As a simple, obvious example, consider English or French language.  A people may additionally need to be assigned a Dialect Code to further specify its identity as an ethnic entity.

As editor of the Registry of Peoples (ROP) for over seven years, I had to make the calls for classification purposes.  Because the ROP is used as a coding reference by many research agencies and databases, there were important implications for understanding peoples of the world and for changes needed people and language lists to account for insights from updated research.

What Difference Does it Make?
Well, basically, if you wish to communicate with them at any meaningful level that might involve change or decision-making, you must know who someone is in their own view.  Self-identity is critical.  How they see the world and themselves in it is critical.  How the particular group thinks of themselves in relation to neighboring peoples affects your project strategies.  Lack of this focus has caused the colossal failure we have seen of many aid, education and medical projects by UN and National or Mission agencies.  

This is critical for any for project strategies involving social patterns or worldview beliefs, like why people get sick, how you can prevent disease, preventive safety in general, planning and accountability.  This is a complicating factor for the task-oriented westerner limited by funds, time and other resources in developing literacy programs and materials.

Linguistic findings can sometimes help clarify the question.  This has also been a problem for some task- and project-oriented western agencies and individuals, who decide it will "take too long" or "cost too much" to learn the language to any degree or to investigate the people's worldview.

But in the long run, they fail because they built on an alien model (their own worldview and goals) rather than the reality in which the people live and their own felt needs in that context.  Short-sighted!  And ironically costly in terms of personnel frustration as well as funds!

These are generally based on a worldview of linear planning and analysis concepts in the western world, but are dynamic in an oral-relational worldview.  These values do not connect directly with relationship-oriented cultures.

The communicator will have to look for connection points in the values that already exist in the thinking of the people.  This is where the older term "felt needs" is really valuable if not critical.  Most cultures of the world are not Idea-oriented.

This is important for individuals and agencies involved in international aid or development.  Not just to be able to speak the language, but to understand how the local people think and how important decisions are made.  This is not a matter of technical competency but of thought form and social patterns -- and of expectations that determine how change can happen.

This is the first step to any advocacy or strategy on behalf of a people or community with whom you wish to work, and whom you wish to serve.  This same situation occurs with many larger people and language groups.  This would affect any foreign specialists or community workers.  They need to understand the worldview and self-identity of the people they are working with to have a very deep impact on the community.

Who Does this Affect?
This would involve community development; sustainable technology; health care, especially community-based health education, AIDS education and prevention;  or mission outreach or other services that involve worldview assumptions and basic life commitments.

Personal identity and social mechanisms for change affect any "aid" or "assistance" or "development" project.  Or any religious service that affects core life commitments and concepts of reality.
*The term “dialect” is generally used for a form of speech that is understandable to a related form of speech without translation. Both” language” and “dialect” have imprecise usages and are general working terms. For instance, everyone speaks a language. Dialects are similar forms of a “language.” Like the varieties of speech all called “English” around the world.  In some places and situations, “language” distinctions may need to be made for political or religious purposes.  For more on the relationship and classification of speech forms of the world, consult The Ethnologue.

Also related:
Accent, Dialect and Language
Cities and People Groups
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Language and Identity
What Everyone Needs to Know Before Communicating Across Cultures
What is a People Group?
Language as Worldview Window
Suswa:  An Evangelical Experiment
      (Use of Natural Cultural Networks in Christian Evangelism)
What is Worldview?
What Makes a Dialect a Dialect?

Also view related PowerPoint Presentations:
Describing a People Group
Identifying a People Group
People Groups:  an Ethnolinguistic Reference Point


Written 10 January 2013

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2013 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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