The Most Important Factor Unifying Cultural Studies Essay





In order to discuss the statement above, it may first be necessary to define what is meant by ‘culture’ as well as by a ‘common language’. Once all the concepts are clearly defined, it will be possible to study the different points of view regarding how decisive a common language is when unifying any particular culture. Finally, it seems the case that hardly any particular culture could be unified, were it not thanks to the tool which allows its people to be able to interact and thus to identify with each other: a common language.

The word ‘culture’ (from the stem ‘cult’, belonging to the Latin verb ‘colo, colere, cultum = to cultivate’) etymologically was used in terms of the meaning of ‘cultivation of the soil’. However, today the term ‘culture’ refers, sensu lato, to all which is characteristic of a group of people: the language, the arts, the religion, the law, as well as their ideas, traditions and social behaviour. Even though not all these elements need to be present in all cultures to be considered as such (e.g., despite not having a common language, it is possible to talk about the ‘European culture’), the increase of common features and interests seems to lead to a stronger union of any particular culture. And, among them, a common language seems to be the least dispensable.

Nevertheless, although some authors, such as the linguist Edward Sapir (1921), consider that language has an important role in uniting a culture, they also state that a common language is not the most important factor unifying any particular culture. On the one hand, Sapir (1921) argues that language and culture are not intrinsically associated, since it is possible to find that ‘totally unrelated languages can be found in one culture and closely related languages—even a single language—belong to distinct culture spheres’ (Sapir, 1912: 228). It is possible to find an example of the first statement in the Basque Country, where there are two linguistic communities (Spanish and Basque) sharing the same culture. Examples of a single language in different cultural communities are very widely spoken languages, such as Spanish, English or French.

On the other hand, Sapir (1912) also states that a common language cannot indefinitely keep the common culture of a social group united, when the geographical, political, and economic determinants of that culture have changed. For instance, even though a common language, English, is still and will long continue to facilitate a mutual cultural understanding between the United Kingdom and the United States of America, other factors, such as politics or the economy, are counterbalancing the unifying effect of the common language (Sapir 1912).

Finally, Sapir (1912) finds it difficult to establish any kind of relationship between ‘culture’ (defined by him as ‘what a society does and thinks’ as well as ‘a selected inventory of experience’) and ‘language’ (the ‘how of thought’, ‘the way the society expresses all that experience’). In order to support this statement, he argues that the drift of culture and language is different:

‘The drift of culture, another way of saying history, is a complex series of changes in society’s selected inventory—additions, losses, changes of emphasis and relation. The drift of language is not properly concerned with changes of content at all, merely with changes in formal expression. We shall do well to hold the drifts of language and of culture to be non-comparable and unrelated processes.’ (Sapir, 1912: 233)

However, he also admits that ‘the history of language and the history of culture move along parallel lines, in the sense that the vocabulary of a language more or less faithfully reflects the culture whose purposes it serves.’ (Sapir, 1912: 234)

It is possible to find further compelling arguments supporting the fact that culture and language usually go hand-in-hand when analysing the characteristics which are intrinsic to both culture and language:

Universality: for a feature to be considered "cultural", it needs to be shared and accepted by all or most members of a society.

Naturality: why pertain to this culture or why speak this language (and no other) are topics on which people tend not to reflect, because they accept them as natural. Normally, people do not even know the reasons for why they follow the rules or customs of the culture. In general, they only realise that their conduct is not completely "natural" when they are interacting with members of another culture (or another language) and observe that their behaviour is different.

Utility: culture and language themselves are means to satisfy the needs of society. The most important reason for the existence of culture is the role in guiding appropriate behaviour, either through verbal or body language.

Dynamism: since culture plays a strictly practical role, it changes as the reasons which conditioned their appearance change, and, when no longer needed, they become a nuisance to the satisfaction of the needs of a part of society.

Product of Learning: both culture and language are not innate, but learned through socialization, that is to say, people are not born with a particular culture or language, but they acquire them as they live in a particular social group.

And as with culture so with language. From all that has just been explained, it can be concluded that both culture and language have so many features in common and are so interrelated that they reinforce each other and lead to a stronger union for those people who share them.

Furthermore, according to Macmillan Dictionary, by ‘language’ it is meant ‘the method of human communication using spoken or written words’ as well as ‘the particular form of words and speech which is used by the people of a country, area, or social group.’ Moreover, when analysing the etymology of the word ‘to communicate’, which is undoubtedly the main purpose of any language, it is found that it comes from the Latin ‘communicat-’ which means ‘shared’ (Oxford dictionary). Thus, considering all the definitions above, it is possible to determine another key point which both culture and language have in common: they are shared by a social group. Outside it, language and culture differentiate this group from another. Within it, they allow their people to feel united and understand each other. In other words, the relationship between ‘language’ and ‘culture’ is reciprocal: as I have already explained, one of the functions of a language is to be ‘used’ by people for communicating and, therefore, realise that they are sharing something in ‘common’ in their culture, and, at the same time, it is through this culture that it is possible to learn and understand the meaning of many different expressions and words which form a language. Stated differently, culture allows people, both literally and figuratively, to speak the same language, that is to say, ‘to have the same ideas and attitudes as someone else’ (Macmillan dictionary).

There are also many authors who confirm the chief importance of a common language as the unifier of a culture. Grève and Van Passel (1971: 173) state that the teaching of a language contains ipso facto a teaching of the culture, since, in its condition of phenomenon, it represents, in essence, one of the main aspects of the culture of any community. In addition, Jesús Mosterín (1993 and 2009) defines the culture as the information transmitted by social learning between animals of the same species. As such, it contrasts with the nature, that is to say, the information transmitted genetically. And a common language is the tool which allows the transmission of that information. Finally, Also E. Gellner (1983: 43) states that ‘an at least provisionally acceptable criterion of culture might be language, as at least a sufficient, if not a necessary touchstone of it’.

Just as a common language is the most important factor unifying a culture, a common culture seems to be one of the most important factors unifying a nation. Smith (1991: 14) defines a nation as a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members. Therefore, the importance of a culture for a nation is the same as the importance of a language for a culture: the culture is not an intrinsic element to a nation (since there can be several cultures in one nation and vice versa), but so important are the roles of common culture and a common language that some social groups are using them to become a nation. For example, Catalan nationalism justifies the fact of having one’s own language (as well as one’s own culture and history) to defend its independence from Spain.

One of the explanations given by those who do not consider a common language to be the most important factor unifying a culture is the fact that a unique culture for all the linguistic community is inexistent in languages spoken by very wide, heterogeneous and different cultural communities, such as English, Spanish or French. In this regard, it is true that within the same linguistic community there are different cultures and subcultures, which give rise to a diversity that has its correlation with more or less perfect intralinguistic variation, manifested in the different sociolects, ethnolects and dialects, as well as in the different registers or stylistic variations. They also argue, and I agree with them, that in the case of vast linguistic communities, there is not cultural homogeneity in all their speakers so as to be considered as a cultural unity. Therefore, it should not be stated that there are some values and beliefs which are inherent in a supposed culture shared by all the speakers of these languages. Although they do not deny that there might be any particular common feature to all the linguistic community, they refute the idea that, globally, these widely spoken languages are a reflection of a specific culture, taken as a whole. Consequently, there is not always a perfect superposition between cultural community and linguistic community.

Nevertheless, even though all the statements above are true when they argue that within a given linguistic community there might be different cultures and vice versa, a further reflection leads us to the conclusion that none of the characteristics attributed to any culture (such as the arts, the religion, the common ideas, traditions and social behaviour, etc) appears, either at the same time or at the same degree, in all the cultures. Therefore, although nothing is intrinsic to all the cultures, the role of some of those features is more important than the one of the others in the hard task of unifying any particular culture, which means that the appearance of some of them may lead to a faster and stronger union of any culture. And the feature which seems to be at the peak is a common language, since it can do what neither a common history nor a common tradition can: make the people communicate and, hence, share things in common, such as, for instance, the culture.

In conclusion, the fact that there might be several cultural communities within a linguistic community, and vice versa, leads many people to think that a common language is not the most important factor unifying a culture. Nevertheless, as it has been demonstrated in this work, for a group of people to be actively conscious of pertaining to a specific culture, which is more important that the fact of passively belonging to a culture, this culture needs to be shared. And the main and fastest way of sharing any particular culture (and, this way, feel united) is through language. A compelling example of ‘passive culture’ is the ‘European culture’: most of the citizens of the European Union (especially of Western Europe) are told to share a so-called common ‘European culture’, since they partially share common history, ideas, values, behaviour, majority religion, etc. However, this European culture is passive because it only exists theoretically. Most of the citizens of the different countries forming the European Union, when asked about their feeling towards "European culture", affirm that they are supposed to belong to it but they do not feel it, since they lack a truly cohesive element [1] which allows them to actively share their ideas, thinking and customs, all which are characteristics of their culture. Consequently, a common language would be the decisive element to unify the ‘European culture’ and make it active, since the most important factor unifying any particular culture is a common language.