What unites and what separates all human cultures is language, the complex of verbal and physical signs the human animal uses to communicate. Its very universality, its constant presence, its mundaneness, hides from us the sheer complexity and magnificence of the phenomenon of human language. Perhaps the greatest feature of language is its ability to enclose within itself in a complex and dynamic way the world view of a group of speakers, for language isn't merely about applying words to things, it is about perception, it contains a set of relations between things and these relations vary from language to language.

   Language at its most basic is a system of signs; signs function as substitutes for things, concepts, or actions. Rather than hold up a dog in front of your face, I can substitute a "sign" for a dog: this could be a picture, a pantomime, a facial expression, or, more efficiently, a unique sound. In order for these sounds to work, humans need different sounds for different objects, concepts, or actions: if we decided that the sound "dog" could not only substitute for a dog, but can also substitute for a cat and a gerbil, we'd all be in trouble: "walk the dog!" could mean collaring and leashing a cat, which in general would be a bad idea. So at one level, language requires a system of unique signs each of which has meaning because it neither sounds nor looks like other sound signs in the language. However, in order for language to work, there must be a consensus within a social group as to what the verbal signs can substitute for: the only reason "dog" refers to that slobbering, klutzy thing that drinks out of the toilet and "cat" stands for that dignified, loving, intelligent thing that purrs is that we all agree and understand that these verbal signs can substitute for those particular things.

   This is how language differs as a sign system than say drawing pictures. If you drew a picture of a dog and you were at least half-way competent, nearly everyone you meet no matter what language they spoke would understand what that pictorial sign is meant to be. Certain words which mimic the sound of objects ("a bow-wow"), called onomotopeia, are the verbal equivalent of pictures. But most words, in fact, have no relationship or resemblance to the objects, concepts, or actions that they substitute for. If you were in China and someone walked up to your face and said, "go" and pointed towards a dog, you'd probably walk towards the dog; you'd certainly have no idea no matter how hard you listen to that word that the person is talking about the dog itself since "go" is Chinese for "dog." Therefore—and this is a difficult concept to really understand—all language works because it is composed of a huge number of verbal signs all different from one another; the only reason a certain sound has meaning is not because it resembles the thing it refers to, but rather because it is different from every other sound in the language . A picture looks like the thing it refers to (called a referent"); a word sounds different than every other word and so can be assigned one particular referent.



Glossary
World View

Cultures in America
Native American Languages

What is Language?
Universal Grammar
   This means that every member of a social group sharing a language must all agree on the meanings attached to language; language, then, functions only because of a social consensus. This has far-reaching consequences for language: since language is a common phenomenon shared among a cultural or social group, that means that the structure of language—vocabulary, sounds, syntax, etc.—reflects and produces the world view of its speakers. Learning or speaking other languages, then, is not like acquiring a decoder ring: this word corresponds to this word, etc. Rather, languages have a logic that reflects a social reality different from our own. In linguistics this is called the "Sapir-Whorf" hypothesis; this hypothesis, I must warn, you is highly controversial. One can explore, however, the dynamics of Native American languages and construct a world view out of this language.

   Despite the profound differences between languages, all human languages share some common characteristics; these common characteristics make up what we call universal grammar and may be intimately related to the basic structures of human cognition and the physiology of the human brain. All languages, for instance, distinguish between objects and actions, that is, all languages have some types of words that function like nouns and some types of words that function like verbs. So at some level, the distinction between objects and time (that is, change) is fundamental to human cognition and the human view of the world. All languages have some sort of tense system, that is, they distinguish between past, present, and future; therefore, the experience of time as duration might be considered a universal human experience that we all understand in roughly the same ways. All human languages have structures that distinguish in some way between what is real and what is not real, i.e., "If I had been there, I could've saved my basement from flooding," as opposed to "Since I was there, I went ahead and saved my basement from flooding." This means that the distinction between the real and the not real is a universal aspect of human experience and human world view. However, how individual languages make these distinctions can vary tremendously; it is in the variations of universal grammar that the world view of a culture is forged.



World Cultures

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1995, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-30-96