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Language Reflects Culture

Margaret Cote, Ojibway Lecturer, Saskatchewan Indian Federated College

Native Children at the local playground. How does language affect the way a person views the world? In what ways does language shape a person's ideas and attitudes? What influence does language have on the way a person processes information? And in what sense does language cause people's minds to work differently from culture to culture.

I do not have all the answers to these questions, if I did I would write a book. In this paper I will attempt to point out some facts based on my knowledge as a bilingual, bi-cultural person, and on what I have learned in my studies of linguistics.

There was a time in one of my classes when I was teaching the colours when a student asked me: "How do you say purple and orange in Saulteaux?" I told the students that words for these colours did not exist in the Saulteaux language.

People who speak different languages name colours in different ways. The English system is based on wavelengths of light. When a beam of white light is passed through a prism, it appears on a surface as a rainbow of colours, ranging from red to blue and including all the thousands of descriminable hues. To Saulteaux people the rainbow in the sky served as a prism. Saulteaux has words for the three basic colours plus black and white:

Inanimate Intransitive Animate Intransitive
white wapiska wapiskisi
black mahkatewa mahkatewisi
red, orange, pink miskwa miskosi
brown, yellow osawa osawisi
blue, green, purple osawaskwa osawaskosi

Linguistically, the Saulteaux treat red, orange and pink things as similar, and blue, green and purple things as similar. But, "perceiving as similar" does not mean "failing to perceive as different". The fact that a Saulteaux person might say the same word for two colours does not mean that he is incapable of seeing differences in hues, it is just that the Saulteaux language has only one word for everything that falls into that hue of colour. It was not all that important in the Saulteaux culture to distinguish very closely between colours. Another interesting fact is that colours in Saulteaux are verbs, not adjectives as they are in English grammar. In Saulteaux there is an Inanimate Intransitive form, which means that the subject of the verb is an inanimate noun, and there is an Animate Intransitive form, which means that the subject is an animate noun.

Language determines the way a person views the world. Language is one training tool of the mind. Studying the functional relationships between language and other mental operations increases one's knowledge about the way people think. The more one knows about this in our increasingly interdependent world the better.

Indian people who speak their native language view everything around them differently. Even simple statements reveal the way an Indian person views things. This way of looking at things is inherent in the structures of many Indian languages. In the Algonquian languages, such as Saulteaux, the whole language revolves around the concept of animacy and inanimacy. This distinction is not only observed in the nouns but also in the pronouns and verbs. The animacy or inanimacy of a verb in a particular sentence is dependent on the abolutive, which is the direct object if there is one, otherwise the subject determines which verbal form is used. For example if one is talking about an animate noun and there is no direct object then the Animate Intransitive form of the verb is used, and if one is talking about an inanimate noun and there is no direct object then the Inanimate Intransitive form of the verb is used. But if there is a direct object that is an animate noun then the Transitive Animate form is used and if the direct object is an inanimate noun then the Transitive Inanimate form is used.

Does the difference in the way English and Saulteaux sentences are constructed indicate a difference in the way English and Saulteaux speakers process information? Is the syntax of input universal and only the syntax of output different, or do they differ in corresponding ways from one culture to another? These are empirical questions that would affect linguistic theory. Extensive research is yet to be done in this area.

Being a fluent speaker of English and Saulteaux, I have to say that I view the world in two different ways. I have two different attitudes and even two different personalities, depending on which language I use.

Language Reflects Culture

Margaret Cote, Ojibway Lecturer, Saskatchewan Indian Federated College

Saulteaux English offers me one way to order information and cope with reality, one set of attitudes and behavioral styles, and Saulteaux offers me a different way. When I switch languages, I also move from one constellation of attidues and thought patterns to another. Concepts and objects have frames of reference in which their meanings are embedded and these frames of reference differ from culture to culture. The meaning of a word depends partly on the culture's historical relation to the concept or object described.

Whenever I return home to my reserve and speak with other people who are fluent speakers of Saulteaux and English, the topic of our discussion determines which language we use. If we are talking about our personal lives or discussing concepts that would only be realized by Indian people, we speak Saulteaux. But if we are discussing my studies at the university we speak English, sometimes a mixture of both languages. It would be very difficult to discuss the theory of relational grammar, semantic roles, or the use of conditional connectives in the Saulteaux language, when words for these concepts do not exist in the Saulteaux language. Nor could we discuss such things as the space shuttle Columbia and the astronauts, because these things were never a part of the Saulteaux language or culture. It is not just a matter of finding word for word equivalents; we would have to force the English words into the Saulteaux conversation, which most often turns out to be too hilarious to be a serious conversation. One would hear more Saulteaux being spoken at a cultural activity rather than the streets of the local towns or cities.

When I teach Saulteaux to non-speakers of the language, I find it difficult to get them to understand the various connotations, assumptions and attitudes that words, especially jargon words, encapsulate. It is especially hard to do this in a classroom setting. The words that Saulteaux speaking people use to speak to one another are not learned from any dictionary; they are learned from everyday behavior and circumstances. For example, the Saulteaux words that a mother uses to comfort her child and the impact that these words have on the child will remain with the child forever. Whereas an adult person learning these words will not have experienced them.

As a culture changes the language of that culture also changes, and many words and expressions become obsolete. Languages classify things differently and cultures have different systems of values and beliefs (different congnitive structures) that they use language to express. The same concept, event or object may then convey an entirely different message and be described in entirely different ways, depending on one's language and culture.

However, a culture is more than a collection of attributes or facts; it is a style of life, an orderly way of coping with the infinate complexities of reality. Language is only one way a culture expresses its style. Language therefore conveys a great deal of information about how a culture sees the world. For instance why does English use only one form of "you" and Saulteaux uses two "kin" singular and "kinawa" plural, and English also uses only one form of "we" whereas Saulteaux uses two forms "ninawint" the exclusive and "kinawint" the inclusive, these are the two 1st. person plural pronouns, "ninawint" excludes the person spoken to and "kinawint" includes the person spoken to. This is not only observed in the personal pronouns but also in the verbal form. This classification that Saulteaux uses for "you" singular and plural, and "we" exclusive and inclusive, reflects the concern for articulated exactness. Many Saulteaux speaking people carry this over into their English, therefore one may find it rude and abrupt when the Saulteaux person says "we are going, not you." Adding on the "not you" is a carry-over from their Saulteaux way of speaking, which may seem to be rude by non-Saulteaux speakers who do not know this. Especially if this is an Indian child, what affect would it have? Even if the child does not speak Saulteaux, he or she may have learned to speak English this way from his or her parents.

Since different cultures classify the world's complexities in different ways, translations from one language to another are often very difficult. Many Saulteaux expressions and phrases are ineffable in English, just as many English phrases and expressions are also ineffable in Saulteaux. When translating from Saulteaux to English or visa-versa it is difficult to say what `meaning' is, when one part of the world's meaning is based on the ways one manipulates an object referred to, on what one can expect it to do back. Concepts rather than concrete objects are even more difficult to translate.

Language determines the way things are thought about, for example, the common metaphors of English are very spatial and physical, take into consideration the following English metaphors: "I grasped the thread of another's arguments, but if its level is over my head my attention may wander and lose touch with the drift of it, so that he comes to his point we differ widely, our views being indeed so far apart that the things he says appear much to arbritrary, or even a lot of nonsense." Here English treats ideas as if they were objects in space that can drift, wander or be grasped. Spatial metaphors like these do not occur in the Saulteaux language.

Language Reflects Culture

Margaret Cote, Ojibway Lecturer, Saskatchewan Indian Federated College

The Saulteaux language is very literal and exact. The translating of Saulteaux legends into English is extremely difficult because much of the expressiveness and true meaning can be lost in translation.

The easiest of all to translate are the verbs, especially the action, stative, psychological and meteorological verbs. Nouns are also quite easy to translate, although many times the Saulteaux words are very long because they describe in detail the purpose of the object, for example: a dishwasher "wahsikani-kisipihinakanemahkahk", literal translation is (the lightning powered thing that cleans dishes).

Another example that language reflects a culture is the Saulteaux word for (clock) "kihsohkan", since Indian people of the past did not have clocks with which to tell time, they used the sun to tell time, and the day was divided: morning, noon, afternoon, evening, dusk, night, midnight, and dawn. There are words for these various divisions of the day. The Saulteaux word "kihsohkan" (clock), is derived from the word for (sun) "kihsihs" and the suffix "hkan" which indicates that something is artificial or fake, so the literal meaning for clock is (artificial or fake sun). Another interesting Saulteaux word that uses the suffix "hkan" is the Saulteaux word for (Chief) "okimahkan", the word "okima" means (a leader, boss or one who rules), but it certainly seems appropriate that the Saulteaux people attached the suffix "hkan" to the word for Chief, which reveals that Indian people realized that the powers or authority of a chief are merely artificial or fake, since the true ruler or governer of Indian people is the Department of Indian Affairs. Also the name that is given for (reserve) "iskonikan", comes from a word that means (left overs) "iskoncikan", this reveals what the Indians thought or knew that the reserves were just the left overs of the land.

What languages do is group some aspects of reality together. Things that have little significance within the culture are either ignored or the things are lumped into large groups. For example; in Saulteaux (cars) "otapanan", this includes all cars, in English there are many words for the various kinds of cars such as; a sedan, a compact, a sports car, a station wagon, a convertible, a jeep, a limosine, a race care, a dune buggy, a hearse and a taxi. In Saulteaux there is only one word for (car) "otapan". This reveals that cars did not play a major role in past Saulteaux culture, but cars do play an important role in white culture this is why the English language has many words for the various kinds of cars. A similar example would be the importance of snow in Inuit culture. In the Inuit languages there are many ways to say (snow), each of these different words describe the different kinds of snow in detail; because snow plays an important role in the Inuit culture, in fact their very lives revolve around snow.

In conclusion it would be safe to say that there are vast differences between the way the minds of English-speaking people and Saulteaux-speaking people work. Language is a mold that determines the shape our thoughts and experiences take.