Language and Culture

Tradition has been defined as ‘the total set of beliefs, attitudes, customs, behaviour, and social habits of the members of a particular society’. Our tradition informs us what’s appropriate, what is normal, what is acceptable when dealing with other members of our society. Our culture lets us know what to expect from others, what they will say in certain situations, and the way in which they will say it. It lets us know how they will act, and how they will react. It is the knowledge of the ages handed down to the present. We are affected by it, and it is affected by us. Tradition is in a constant state of flux, altering incrementally, altering the way we speak and the way we think, the way we act and the way we react.

That tradition is indelibly linked to language is undeniable, for language is a vehicle by which it is transmitted, probably its chief vehicle. One observable way in which language acts as a vehicle for, or a transmitter of, tradition is in the usage of idiomatic language. Idiomaticity is arguably the most typical form of language, when it comes to percentages of the whole. Idiomatic language, most frequently found in the form of phrases consisting of more than one word, typically does not conform to say the grammatical construction of non-idiomatic language. For example, within the phrase, ‘at large’, as used within the expression, ‘the public at large’, or in the sentence, ‘The escaped convicts were at massive for two weeks before being recaptured.’, the preposition ‘at’ seems before what seems to be an adjective, ‘large’. This appears to be in direct contradiction to the ‘normal’ place such a part of speech occupies in a grammatically appropriate sentence, viz. before a noun, equivalent to in the following examples, ‘at dwelling’, ‘at work’, ‘on the office’ et al. The phrase, ‘at large’ appearing on the web page in isolation from any context that would make its which means more clear, has an opaque quality the place semantic that means is worried, and maybe still retains some of its opacity of meaning even within the context of a sentence.

To members of the community using such idiomatic language, there may be tacit agreement on what these phrases imply, despite their opaque quality. Idioms are cultural entities.

To learners of a foreign language, any foreign language, tradition imbues language with this opacity. The word, table is easily understood and realized, but what about the phrase, ‘to table a motion’? That phrase carries a cultural value that’s not readily appreciated or obvious to a learner. The which means does not reside within the individual words that make up the phrase. The verb, ‘to table’ must initially appear nonsensical to a learner. Likewise, ‘a motion’ must seem like an anachronism, having learned that motion is a synonym for the word ‘movement’.

Each culture has its own assortment of phrases which might be peculiar to it, and whose meanings are not readily apparent. Were this not so, George Bernard Shaw’s adage that America and Britain are nations separated by the same language would haven’t any ironical appeal. Ostensibly, we speak the identical language, the British and the People, but each varieties use many different words, and have many various phrases that are often mutually unintelligible, and generally uttered very differently. Sometimes only the context in which a phrase or word is used serves to disentangle. Generally even the context will not be quite enough. Generally we think we have now understood when we have not.

This points out another characteristic of tradition certain language; that it exists within a larger entity, that localized varieties exist. What is understandable to a person from one region could also be unintelligible to one from another. If this is true within the community of a particular set of users of one language, how a lot more must it hold true to learners of that language. Many a learner of English, feeling herself proficient, has gone to England only to search out the language at worst totally unintelligible, and at greatest emblematic, but still not absolutely comprehensible.

The ‘cultural weighting’ of any language, within the form of idiomatic phrases, is understood by members of that cultural community, or maybe more appropriately, and more narrowly defined, by the members of that particular speech community, and conversely, is just not readily understood by those that come from one other tradition or even another speech community, albeit ostensibly within the same culture.

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