Language and Culture: Part II


*Be sure to read part I to get the whole picture.

I once heard from a linguist professor, "Language is culture, and culture is language." They are intertwined so beautifully, like an intricate mandala spread out across the floor. Early humans viewed the world around them and constructed culture and language almost simultaneously based on what they valued, feared, and desired. What they valued, feared, and desired was largely impacted by their environment. If they lived in an area where natural disasters were prominent, then the language of that particular region would reflect that in a multitude of ways. Japanese is a language vastly different from English because it developed in a very different part of the world; a very simple conclusion, indeed. But what are the roots of this? I'd like to examine this below.

*Please understand that this is not an academic paper, just an accumulation of many discussions I've had with friends and colleagues in conjunction with books I have read on the subject.

Japan is a natural disaster prone area that, to this day, suffers from regular flooding, earthquakes, fires, you name it. Even with modern technology, nature has had a strong grip around the Japanese archipelago; something all of us witnessed in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that ripped through Japan in March of 2011. Another factor is that Japanese became sedentary at a very early stage in their history. Farming was an extremely important aspect of their existence. Even today farming is a huge industry, and many families will keep a personal farm simply because the art of farming is almost common place knowledge here (at least in the country side).

Farming depends on two important things: regular seasons (nature), and human cooperation (culture). Unfortunately, nature is uncontrollable, and like many things that are out of human control, it became an object of worship for the Japanese (more about this in another post). But human cooperation is definitely something controllable. As a result, cooperation became a vital aspect of survival in Japan early on. If there were people who didn't cooperate in the village, it could spell disaster for an entire year's crops and potentially wipe out the population. It's a bit of a stretch, but I believe a lot of the harmony seen in Japanese society today is as a result of the necessity of cooperative farming societies  fostered in Japan's early history. The only difference between the cooperation seen in society today and the cooperative farming of the past is that the main driving force for harmony in society today is much less farming and nature, and more so culture. Let me explain.

Culture forms when human activity becomes a pattern; when something gets repeated because of its significance or value within a population of people. This is precisely what I believe happened with Japan. Cooperation within society was initially necessitated by survival, but eventually it became so much a part of everyday life that it enshrined itself in Japanese culture, and naturally found it's way into the language as well. Next, I'd like to look at some concrete examples within the language that reflect what I have written so far.

If you speak Japanese then you would agree when I say that much of Japanese conversation, outside of your personal life, is a decided conversation with very little room for imagination. When you go to the grocery store you hear only a certain type of Japanese and you respond with a small set of appropriate phrases. Unlike the U.S., the cash register is not a place to strike up a conversation. In fact, talking to anyone on the street randomly is considered taboo, unless you have a good reason to do so (or you are an old lady...for some reason they seem to be exempt from cultural conformities, and it could very well be an international phenomena!). Once you find yourself in a conversation, whether planned or not, it is very much a guided conversation with a level of expectation that makes participating parties feel at ease. Randomness has very little room in a society that values cooperation and harmony, so random conversation is hardly welcome.

When Japanese talk to each other its not about who has the best one liner, or who can outwit the other, it's very much a dance; a cooperation. I believe this conversational dance accounts for the courteous nature of Japanese no matter what language they speak, because they are continually thinking of ways to maintain harmony within a conversation, and often times this harmony materializes in compliments or friendly intonation. This maintenance of harmony can also be see in the "shy nature" of most Japanese. There is a Japanese proverb that goes, 「出る釘は打たれる」("A nail that sticks out will be hammered"). This proverb is often interpreted to mean that one should refrain from causing trouble. An easy way to achieve this is to avoid conversation all together, thus resulting in the West labelling Japanese as a nation of shy people. These are just a few examples of many I could give you. If you can think of more please comment below and maybe I can add them in later.

Now, I don't want to generalize too much here, so maybe it would be appropriate to pause to tell you that of course Japanese speak to each other randomly, unplanned, harshly, strongly, etc., just like at times English conversation can seem very planned and guided. What I am saying is that Japanese tend to place emphasis on conversation that is guided, safe, and comfortable. Where as English speakers tend to place emphasis on conversation that is clever, convincing, and confident. In fact, if you look at the early history of our ancestors in Europe, very much unlike Japan, one would find a population of competing hunter gatherer societies that much later became sedentary. It was the initial hunter gatherer society that necessitated competition, cleverness, and strength to overcome the enemy, so, just like Japan, it's no wonder the romance languages, including English, developed along these lines. By the way, these arguments are outlined very well in 和辻 哲郎 (Watsuji Testsuro) 「風土」("Climate and Culture"? There is no English version of this book so I'm not sure of the translation).

So far we've briefly covered the foundation with which the Japanese formed their culture and language, and I gave you a few examples in the language itself. So how has all of this affected me, a non-native speaker of Japanese? Quite a lot to say the least. Try to image (if you don't speak another language) switching languages that are diametrically opposed to each other, as shown above, on a daily basis, or even within a single conversation. Better yet, imagine how thinking in that foreign language would shape how you view the world you once viewed exclusively with your native language. My wife always says, and I completely agree with her, that it's a constant battle between Japanese and English in her head trying to decide how to express herself in some situations. Even as I write this blog Japanese has made its way into my mind time and time again (that's my excuse for poor writing!). In next series of this blog I will cover language thought, and how learning Japanese is shaping the way I think about the world I live in.

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