basic vocab (long)
|Date:||Monday, September 18, 2000, 18:58|
On Sun, 17 Sep 2000, Yoon Ha Lee wrote:
> I once had a psychology major tell me that he learned nothing about
> Japanese culture from high school Japanese, and that he didn't believe
> learning language in general taught you anything about culture. I was
> just boggled. Surely he learned something and didn't realize it? Or did
> he really not pay attention?
Well, the to the average American English-speaking layman, culture means
ethnic food, odd customs, weird music, colorful clothes, folklore and
nifty little dances - usually out-of-context (which is what we acutally
mean when we say we appreciate cultural diversity... commodifiables).
Actually, the fact that he learned any Japanese language at all means that
he learned *something* of Japanese culture by default. In addition, every
little part of a lifestyle is part of culture, from ways of eating and
lovemaking to the range of personal space and acceptable loudness of
> Philosophy gives me a headache, alas, but I've been meaning to find some
If you forget the bias that relegates myths to being merely superstitious
stories, and realise that many are allegorical then you'll be able to get
your hands on some less-headache-provoking philosophy ... and from some
> cultural anthropology texts. The problem is, I don't know
to > start, and my one anthro major friend tells me that there aren't
> "canonical" books where you know where to start. Do you have any
> suggestions for reading?
To get a working idea of some of the concepts involved, most generic books
with titles like "Introduction To Cultural Anthropology" will provide the
basics. Then you want some readers. A good one is "Conformity and
Conflict". Two good articles to look for (esp. re: this topic) are
"Shakespeare in the Bush" and "Non-sequential ??? among Trobriand
Islanders" (i'm not home with the collection right now).
"Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf" is another very good book,
though it is easy to misinterpret. IMHO, Whorf is brilliant; though in
writing on his cultural observations made through linguistic studies, he
has a hard time making his points as lucidly as possible. Cultural
anthropology was in its infancy at the time, and proper terms were not
available. I'd hazard this contributes to the mistaken notion that Whorf
ever advanced a "strong" version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
Margaret Mead and to a lesser extent Ruth Benedict are also good to read,
though they have their problems. Ruth Benedict flagrantly displays
western bias though she go to great lengths to be fair. Her book "Four
Ways of Being Human" is easy reading. Margaret Mead is also easy reading.
I suggest especially a book she wrote on gender roles in three New Guinean
societies- Tchambuli, Arapaho and one other. I don't recall the title
Colonization and globalization give us more of the illusion of the
existence of universal "human nature" everyday, and it hasn't been until
within the last 25 years or so that cultural anthropologists have started
realising that cultures are often misinterpreted by being being focused
through the prism of western assumptions about reality.
One example of this is the notion that males are dominant in just about
every culture in the world. Although it is true that men are publically
celebrated and officed in most cultures, the western assumption that
public power is most respected or most dominant has come to be
re-examined. In fact, domestic power is where true dominance lies in some
cultures. In others, the spheres are so totally separate that to assume a
dominance of one over the other is inane. Then there are cultures where
public power is more of a service role, often not very desirable.
Anyway, some of the questions you might want to ask about reality that
will dramatically influence a language's lexicon: What is the universe?
What is life? What is the fundamental structure of the universe? Where
is human's place in the universe? What is "real"? Is there "real" and
"unreal"? What of human nature? What about magic? Where does noumenal
reality stand in relation to phenomenal reality? What are birth, life,
sleeping, waking, the states of consciousness, dreaming, death? et cetera,
In western reality, the universe is radically dualistic, oppositional and
hierarchical: good/ evil, black/ white, sacred/ profane, nature/ nurture,
human/ environment, activity/ passivity, dominance/ submission,
masculinity/ femininity, etc. Life is a struggle, a contest or a game.
Arts, people, classes, actions, values are classified according to a
notion of importance. Humans stand apart from nature. There is "real"
and "unreal" in addition to "true" and "untrue". Subjective reality is
less real than phenomenal reality. Humans are born with an inherent
"darkside" in their nature. The individual is separate from the group.
There are 2 unchangeable, mutually exclusive sexes and 2 rigid genders.
The only "good" states of conciousness are sleeping and waking. Death is
In other cultural realities, there may be a holistic approach to dualism,
or it may not exist at all. Draqa doesn't even have a concept of
"opposite". Life may be a hell, a lesson, a journey, a quest. There may
or may not be hierarchies- and their structures will probably differ.
Draqa has no concept of hierarchy, but does see the universe as an
infinite series of "meta-" and "micro-" manifestations. In most cultures,
esp "primitive", humans are part of rather than apart from nature. (Which
is why it is so ironic when natives are restricted from environmental
parks by western-ideologized governments.) It is also very frequent for
subjective and phenomenal realities to be non-distinguished. In some
cultures, dream reality is the most real. Some cultures see humans as
inherently "good", while others make no claim one way or the other. The
individual may be indistinguishable from the group, or the division may
lie along other lines. Some cultures recognise 2 sexes and 2 genders
also, but consider all children to be female. Others: 2 sexes, 3 genders;
3 sexes, 2 genders; 3 sexes, 3 genders; 2 sexes, 4 genders; etc. Death
may be seen as good, or even unremarkable. Some cultures see trance
states, "schizophrenic" manifestations or chemically-induced states of
conciousness as equally useful, better or worse than normal waking
conciousness. Some may even see altered states as more in-touch with
reality. In most cultures, magic is an accepted fact, with its own
metaphysics, and is tied up with the mundane, along with religion.
Not having meant to get on a long discourse on culture, I think it is
pretty apparent that these things make crucial differences in the nature
of a language's lexicon - even if those differences are not obvious upon
casual observation. I find it nearly impossible to make good English
translations of draqa and vice-versa.
Anyway, sorry for the longwinds, but I hope it's been helpful...