mercoledì 14 aprile 2010

Claire Kramsch on language and culture

Chapiter 1 the relationship of language and culture

Language is the principal means whereby we conduct our social lives. When it is used in contexts of communication, it is bound up with culture in multiple and complex ways.
The people express facts, ideas or events that are communicable because they refer to a stock of knowledge about the world that other people share. In other words, language expresses cultural reality.
This people do not only express experience but they also create experience through language.
They give meaning to it through the medium they choose to communicate with one another, for example, speaking on the telephone or face to face, writing a letter or sending a email message, reading newspaper or interpreting a graph.
Indeed, the way in which people use the spoken, written, the speaker’s tone of voice, accent, conversational style, gestures and facial expression. Through all its verbal and non–verbal aspects, language embodies cultural reality.
Speakers identify themselves and others through their use of language, they view their language as a symbol of their social identity. The prohibition of its use is often perceived by its speakers as a rejection of their social group and their culture (in others words, it is perceived like a rejection of our humanity). So, we can say that language symbolizes cultural reality.

Nature, culture, language

One way of thinking about culture is to contrast it with nature. Nature refers to what is born and grows organically ( from the Latin nascere: to be born); culture refers to what has been grown and groomed (from the latin colere: to cultivate).
The debate is now: Are human being mainly what nature determines them to be from birth or what culture enables them to become through socialization and schooling?
Culture are not a biological phenomena but is a sophisticated technological procedure, develop especially to extract the essence of nature ( the nature are beautiful just for the summer season after they decay and became perishable), cultures forces nature reveal its ‘essential’ potentialities.
For that kind of process we need many labour.
Particular meaning are adopted by the speech community and imposed in turn on its members, who find it then difficult to change a word in a original way. For example, a bouquet of roses has become codified as a society’s way of expressing love, it becomes controversial for lovers to express their particular love without resorting to the symbols that their society imposes upon them, and to offer each other as a sign of love chrysanthemums, which in Germany, for example are reserved for the dead!
The screws that language and culture impose on nature correspond to various form of socialization or acculturation. Etiquette, expressions of politeness, social dos and don’ts shape people’s behaviour through child rearing, schooling, professional training.
The use of written is also shaped and socialized through culture. Not only what it is proper to write but also which text genres are appropriate ( the application form, the business letter, the political pamphlet), because they are sanctioned by cultural conventions. These ways with language, or norms of interaction and interpretation, form part of the invisible ritual imposed by culture on language users. This is culture’s way of bringing order and predictability into people’s use of language.

Communities of language users

Social conventions, norms of social appropriateness, are the product of communities of language users. The people in society, like poets, readers, florist creates meaning through their words and actions. Culture liberates people from the randomness of nature, and constraints them by imposing on them a structure on the individual on liberating and constraining itself on the social.
Let examine this effect: people who identify themselves as members of a social group (family, neighbourhood, professional or ethnic affiliation, nation) acquire common way of viewing the world through their interactions with other members of the same group. These views are reinforced through institutions like the family, the school, the workplace, the church, the government, and other sites of socialization throughout their lives. Common attitudes, beliefs and values are reflected in the way members of the group use language, for example, what they choose to say or not to say and how they say it. Therefore, in addition to the notion of speech community composed of people who use the same linguistic code, we can speak of discourse communities to refer to the common ways in which members of a social group use language to meet their social needs. Is it not only question about the grammatical, lexical or phonological but also the topic they choose to talk about, the way they present information, the style with which they interact, in other words, their discourse accent. For instance, Americans have been socialized into responding ‘Thank you’ to any compliment, as if they were acknowledging a friendly gift: ‘I like your sweater!’ ‘Oh, Thank you’
The French, who tend to perceive such compliment as an intrusion into their privacy, would rather downplay the compliment and minimize its value: ‘Oh really? It’s already quite old !’ The reactions of both groups are based on the differing degrees of embarrassment caused by personal comments. This is a view of culture that focuses on the way of thinking, behaving, and valuing currently shared by members of the same discourse community.
Other way of viewing culture is one takes a more historical perspective. For the cultural way which can be identified at any one time have evolved and become solidified over time, which is why they are so often taken for natural behaviour. The culture of everyday practices draws on the culture of shared history and traditions. People identify themselves as members of a society to the extent that they can have a place in that society’s history and that they can identify with the way it remembers its past, turn its attention to the present, and anticipates its future. Culture consists of precisely that historical dimension in a group’s identity. This diachronic view of culture focuses on the way in which a social group represents itself and others through its material productions over time (technological achievement, its monuments, its works of art, its popular culture, that punctuate the development of its historical identity. This material culture is reproduced and preserved through institutional mechanisms that are also part of the culture, like museums, schools, public libraries.
Language play a major role in the perpetuation of culture, particularly in its printed form.
This material achievements represent a social patrimony and a symbolic capital that serve to perpetuate relationship of power and domination.

Imagined communities

The social (synchronic) and the historical (diachronic) aspect of the culture, have often been called the sociocultural context of language study. There is a third essential element to culture, is the imagination. Discourse communities are non only characterized not only by facts and artefacts, but by common dreams. These dreams are mediated through the language, that over the life of the community reflects, shapes, and is a metaphor for its cultural reality.

Insiders/ outsiders

To identify themselves as members of a community, people have to define themselves jointly as insiders against others, whom they thereby define as outsiders. Culture, as a process that both includes and excludes, always entails the exercise of power and control. Cultures, and especially national cultures, resonate with the voices of the powerful, and are filled with the silences of the powerless. For talking seriously about culture we need to questioning the very base of one’s own intellectual inquiry, and accepting the fact that knowledge itself is colored by the social and historical context in which it is acquired and disseminated. In any case, the study of language has always to deal with the difficult issue of representation and representativity when talking about another culture. We can say that culture are a common system for perceiving, believing, evaluating and acting.

Linguistic relativity or Sapir–Whorf hypothesis

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis makes the claim that the structure of the language one habitually uses influences the manner in which one thinks and behaves. Whorf insist that the English language binds English speakers to a Newtonian view of objectified time, neatly bounded and classifiable, that cuts up reality in ‘afters’ and ‘untils’, but is incapable of expressing time as a cyclic time.
Fifty years later, after the positivistic climate is gone, we can said that if the speakers of different languages do not understand one another, it is not because their language cannot be mutually translated into one another, it is because they don’t share the same way of viewing and interpreting events; they don’t agree on the meaning and the value of the concepts underlying the words. In short, they don’t cut up reality or categorize experience in the same manner. Understanding across languages does not depend on structural equivalences but on common conceptual systems, born from the context of our experience.
We can generally accept a weak version of Sapir, in finding that there are cultural differences in the semantic associations evoked by seemingly concepts. The way a given language encodes experience semantically makes aspects of that experience not exclusively accessible, but just more salient for the users of that language.
The generic semantic meanings of the code that have established themselves over time within a given discourse community are subject to the various and variable uses made of them in social contexts. We are, then, not prisoners of the cultural meanings offered to us by our language, but can enrich them in our pragmatic interactions with other language users.
So, the theory of linguistic relativity does not claim that linguistic structure constrains what people can think or perceive, only that it tends to influence what they routinely dot think. In this regard, the work of Sapir and Whorf has led to two important insights:

1. There is nowadays a recognition that language, as code, reflects cultural preoccupations and constraints the way people think.
2. More than in Whorf’s days, however, we recognize how important context is in complementing the meanings encoded in the language.
The first insight relates to culture as semantically encoded in the language itself; the second concerns culture as expressed through the actual use of the language.

Capitol 3
Meaning as action

Context of situation, context of culture

It is the study of “why they said what they said and how they said it” to whom in a specific context of situation. In addition, one had to link their words, beliefs, and mindsets to a larger context of culture such as: economical and social organizational, kinship patterns, fertility rites, seasonal rhythms, concepts of time and space. Thus the semantic meanings of verbal signs had to be supplemented by the pragmatic meanings of verbal actions in context.
How is pragmatic meaning culturally realized in verbal exchange?
Meaning is created not only through what speakers say to one another, but through what they do with words in order to respond to the demands of their environment. In this chapter, we consider what these responses entail.
Structures of expectation

Language users have not only learned to interpret signs and act upon them; they have also learned to expect certain behaviour of others as well. In the same manner as they expect cars to stop at a stop sign and pedestrian to be able cross the street at a walk sign, so too they expect to be greeted upon a first encounter, to be listened to when they speak, to have their questions answered. There are cultural differences in these expectations. French speakers from France may expect to be greeted with a handshake.
American may expect to a smile instead; a professor may expect to be greeted differently from the student. On the basis of their experience in their culture, people organize knowledge about the world and use this knowledge to predict interpretations and relationships regarding any new information, events or experiences.
The general structures of expectation established in people’s minds by the culture they live in have been variously called frames or schemata.

Contextualization cues, situated inferences

The words people exchange in verbal encounters are linked in a myriad of ways to the situational and cultural context in which they occur. For example: A’s words to B: ‘ I need to get in there. Can you open the door? Will have meaning for B only if he knows English and is able to grasp the semantic meaning of A’s utterance; but he must also relate the ‘I’ to the friend he knows and recognize him by his voice and his outward appearance; he must relate the ‘there’ to a room he knows lies behind the door which he sees from where is standing; he must recognize that ‘the’ in ‘the door’ that A wants opened indicates the same door that he sees; from A’s smile, tone and intonation, and from the preceding statement of A’s needs, he must understand that this is a justified, friendly request for help and not a fortuitous inquiry. In other words, B has to understand how these words relate to the pragmatic context of their utterances.
These verbal (‘I’, ‘there’, ‘ the door’), paraverbal ( stress and intonation, tempo and laughter) and non verbal signs ( gaze direction, gesture, body gesture, tone of voice); that help speakers hint at or clarify or guide their listener’s interpretations of what is being said among the infinite range of potentially relevant factors of the context, are called contextualization cues.
These cues help listeners make the relevant situated inferences, evoking the cultural background and social expectations necessary to interpreted speech. Through the use of contextualisation cues, speakers and hearers can convey to each other what their expectations are with respect to the communication they are engaged in. Participants in verbal exchanges have to manage their interpretation of each other’s utterances in accordance with how they perceive the situational and cultural context to be an instant by instant basis.

Pragmatic coherence

Efforts to make the words uttered meaningful within the situational and cultural context of the exchange are efforts to establish pragmatic coherence. Coherence is not given in speakers utterances, it is created in the minds of speakers and hearers by the inferences they make based on the words they hear. If semantic cohesion relates word to word, pragmatic coherence relates speaker to speaker within the largest cultural context of communication.
The speaker’s efforts to establish pragmatic coherence through the use of contextualization cues can have an inclusionary effect.
For example, the toine of voice is usually interpreted as a direct cue to attitude, and therefore, a piece of intended behaviour. So, the study o contextualization cues not only brings to light the way in which speakers give pragmatic coherence to their respective utterances; it is also gives us a hint at the way participants in verbal interactions co construct cultural roles for themselves all the they co–operatively construct the topic of the conversation.

The co–operative principle

The misunderstandings illustrated in the last example can cause particular frustration because people make the general assumption that verbal exchanges will conform to what the philosopher Paul Grice has referred to as the co–operative principle. People can generally assume that in conversations in which, for example, the exchange of information is primary, speakers will not say more than is necessary for the purpose of the exchange and will say all that is necessary to convey the information required. They generally expect that what their interlocutor says is relevant to the topic at hand, that the message will be clear and understandable.
The expectations of speakers and hearers in informational exchanges are in part shaped by these four maxims of the co–operative principle of conversation. If listeners are sometimes frustrated because they feel that their interlocutor is trying to give them unnecessary or irrelevant information, to avoid the topic or to deceive them, that is because they expect him/her to abide by the maxims for co–operative behaviour.
Speakers from different cultural background may have different interpretations of what it means to be true, relevant, brief or clear with the regard to conversations. They may have different definitions of the speech activity itself. A service encounter at the bank might have a different social value in India and in England, and the roles of cashier and customer might be differently defined. At the end, all enter a verbal exchange assuming that there will be some sort of co–operation between the parties involved.

Partecipants’ roles and the co–construction of culture

In addition to the social and institutional role, there are also local participant roles or participation frameworks, according to the sociologist Goffman, that all speakers and hearers must carve out for themselves through what they say and the way they say it. Through their register (informal, formal), their key or tone of voice (serious, jesting, sarcastic), the frequency of their interruptions, the way they take the floor, the feedback signals they give, their choice of lexical and grammatical structure, the distribution of their silences, participants in verbal exchanges play out various social roles that reveal a great deal about the social persona they wish to represent and assigning to their interlocutors. For example, they may come across as confident or shy, interested or indifferent, close or distant, helpful or pushy; they may take on a friendly, competitive, bossy, motherly role.

They may take on various interactional roles as well. For example, following this interaction between A (male, husband), B (female, A’s wife), and C (female, friend and neighbour):

A: Y’ want a piece of candy?
B: No
C: She’s on a diet

C is in a sense animating words that are not hers, but B’s. By speaking for B, she might be perceived as either ‘chipping in’ in a helpful manner, or ‘butting in’ and not minding her own business. This utterance can therefore be understood as enacting B’s role as helpful explainer of B’s refusal, with the intention of minimizing the negative impact that B’s rejection might have on A. In other contexts, speaking for another person might be viewed as signalling not solidarity, but, rather, an asymmetrical relationship of power and authority, such as when a mother speaks for her child, a husband for his wife, a teacher for a student.
Another role may be by virtue of the institutional power granted the speaker by society. We can meet different kind of role during interaction: addressees, hearers, eavesdroppers, bystanders.
It is through the enactment of these roles that culture is jointly constructed through language in action. The same situation, we have in school culture by the way teachers tend to animate pupil’s utterances. Similarly, gender role are not the natural result of biological makeup, but they are socially constructed by males and females enacting different participant roles in conversation. These roles are achieved by a pattern of small cues that show either self–assertiveness or uncertainty, dominance or submissiveness, and that get attributed over time to one gender or another. Consider the following:

Husband: when will dinner be ready?
Wife: Oh… around six o’clock….?

The woman’s rising intonation is often interpreted as signalling female uncertainty and lack of self–assertiveness. In contrast, the male’s interruption may be viewed as a sign of male dominance, his power to switch the topic to suit his own agenda.
Language use is a cultural act not only because it reflects the ways in which one individual acts on another individual through such speech acts as thanking, greeting, complimenting, that are variously accomplished in various cultures. Language use is a cultural act because its users co–construct the very social roles that define them as members of a discourse community.

In conclusion

The structure of sign that constitute culture is actively constructed through the verbal actions taken by sign–markers in interaction with one another. In the construction of meaning, the interpretation of events is grounded in each person’s experience and field of perception. The context of situation and the context of culture in which verbal actions take place are constitutive of these actions; they permeate them with the necessary pragmatic coherence. As they talk, speakers draws on frames of expectations they have in common with other members of the group who share the same life history and the same larger context of culture. Based on these expectations, speakers then position themselves vis–a–vis the situational context of a given exchange by means of contextualization cues. These contextualization cues are evidence of situated inferences that speakers make, based on their culturally shared frames of expectations and applied to the local situation of the exchange. These cues give the exchange pragmatic coherence. The participants maintain this verbal coherence by observing a principle of conversational co–operation, that prompts them to align their expectations onto those of others by playing various participant roles. All these actions by the participants are finely attuned to the cultural norms and conventions of the group they belong to and to its attitudes and beliefs.
However, we can say that the meaning of words are different if they are conveyed face to face in proximity of another human being or over distance.

Chapter 2 Meaning as sign

Language can mean in two fundamental way, both of which are intimately linked to culture: through what it says or what it refers to as an encoded sign (semantics), and through what it does as an action in context (pragmatics). We consider the semantic aspect of language in this chapter.

The linguistic sign

The crucial trait that distinguishes humans from animals is human’s capacity to create signs that mediate between them and their environment. Every meaning–making practices makes use of two elements: a signifier and a signified. For example, the signifier (sound or word) in itself is not a sign unless someone recognizes it as such and relates it to a signified (concept). So, a sign is therefore neither the word itself nor the object it refers to but the relation between the two.
For that reason, the linguistic sign have been called arbitrary.

The meaning of signs

For example, when we talk about word like rose, garden, these words are referents of object that are present in a definable reality. Their meaning, that can be looked up in dictionary, is denotative. On the other hand, the meaning of ‘rose’ or ‘garden’ is not just some denotative word but they are linked to many associations they evoke in the minds of their readers: for instance, a rose might be associated with love, passion, beauty; garden might be associated with holidays, love, pleasure, family. Both words draw their meaning from the connotations.
The third level of meaning for words can be called icon or images of them. For example, exclamations like ‘ whoops!’, ‘wow!’, ‘whack!’ don’t so much refer to emotions or actions as they imitate them (onomatopoeia). Their meaning is therefore iconic.

Cultural encodings

All three type of signs correspond to ways in which members of a given discourse community encode their experience. In that regard, the code is not something that can be separated from its meanings. Different signs denote reality by cutting it up in different ways, as Whorf would say.
For example, table, tisch, mesa denote the same object by reference to a piece of furniture, but whereas the English sign ‘table’ denotes all tables, Polish encodes dining tables as stol, coffee tables or telephone tables as stolik.
The encoding of experience differs also in the nature of the cultural associations evoked by different linguistic signs. For example, although the words ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ are usually seen as the English equivalents of the Russian word dusha, each of these signs is differently associated with their respective objects. For a Russian, not only is dusha used more frequently than ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ in English, but through its associations with religion, goodness, and the mystical essence of things it connotes quite a different concept than the English. Studies of the semantic networks of bilingual speakers makes these associations particularly visible.
For example, bilingual speakers of English and Spanish have been shown to activate different associations within one of their languages and across their two languages. In English they would associate ‘house’ with ‘window’ and ‘boy’ with ‘girl’, but in Spanish they may associate casa with madre, and muchacho with hombre. But even within the same speech community, signs might have a different semantic values for people from different discourse communities.
It is important to mention that the differences noted above among the different languages are not only differences in the code itself, but in semantic meanings attributed to these different encodings by language–using communities. It is these meanings that make the linguistic sign into a cultural sign.

Semantic cohesion

Beyond individual nouns and sounds, words refer to other words by a variety of cohesive devices ( for ex: ‘it’, ‘demonstratives (‘this’), repetition of the same words from one sentence to the next or same sounds from one line to the next, recurrence of words that relate to the same idea, conjunction (but, when). These devices capitalize on the associative meanings or shared connotations of a particular community or discourse community.
A sign or word may also relate to the other words and instances of text and talk that have accumulated in a community’s memory over time, or prior text. For example, the Russian sign ‘dusha’ which denote a person’s inner core’, it connotes goodness and truth because it is linked to other utterances spoken and heard in daily life like pricelessness, human will, inner speech, knowledge, feelings. When in English speakers translate the word dusha by the word ‘soul’, they are in fact linking it to other English words, as ‘disembodies spirit’, ‘immortal self’, ‘emotions’, that approximate but don’t quite match the sematic cohesion established for dusha in Russian culture.
The meanings of words cannot be separated from other words with which they have come to be associated in the discourse community’s semantic pool.
Another linguistic environment within which words carry cultural semantic meaning consists of the linguistic metaphors that have accumulated over time in a community’s store of semantic knowledge. For example, the English word ‘argument’ is often encountered in the vicinity of word like ‘to defend’, ‘ to shoot down’, ‘on target’.
Some of these metaphors are inscribed in the very structure of the English code, for example, the metaphor of visual field as container. This metaphor delineates what is inside it, outside it, comes into it, as in ‘ The ship is coming into view’, ‘ I have him in sight’, ‘he’s out of sign now’. Each language has its own metaphors, that provide semantic cohesion within its boundaries.
In all these examples, the semantic meanings of the code reflect the way in which the speech community views itself and the world and the own culture.

The non–arbitrary nature of signs

Native speakers do not feel in their body that words are arbitrary sign. For them, words are part of the natural, physical fabric of their lives. As we have seen before, the sign are created, not given, and combine with other signs to form cultural patterns of meaning, for native speakers linguistic signs are the non arbitrary, but natural reality.
The major reason for this naturalization of culturally created signs is their motivated nature. Linguistic signs do not signify in a social vacuum. Sign–making and sign–interpreting practices are motivated by the need and desire of language users to influence people, act upon them or even only to make sense of the world around them. With the desire to communicate a certain meaning to others comes also the desire to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to be believed, and to influence in turn other people beliefs and actions. The linguistic sign is therefore a motivated sign.


With the passing of time, signs easily become not only naturalized, but conventionalized as well. Taken out of their original social and historical context, linguistic signs can be emptied of the fullness of their meaning and used as symbolic shorthand. For example, words like ‘ democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘choice’ when uttered by politicians and diplomats, may lose much of their denotative and even their rich connotative meanings, and become political symbols in Western democratic rhetoric; signifiers like ‘the French revolution, ‘May 68, ‘ the holocaust’, have simplified an originally confusing amalgam of historical events into conventionalized symbols. The recurrence of these symbols overtime creates an accumulation of meaning that not only shapes the memory of sign but confers to these symbol mythical weight and validity.
For example, much of what we call ideology is symbolic language. Word like ‘rebels’ or ‘freedom fighters’ to denote anti–government forces, ‘challenges’ or ‘problems’ to denote obstacle, and ‘collaboration’ or ‘exploitation’ to denote workers labor, are cultural symbols propagated and sustained by sign–makers of different political leaning in their respective discourse communities. The way in which language intersects with social power makes some uses of cultural signs seem legitimate, natural, others illegitimate, unnatural or taboo.
A right–wing newspaper, for example, would censor the use of ‘freedom fighters’ to refer to guerrilla forces; its readers would find it quite natural to see them refereed to as ‘rebels’.
This example illustrate the problem encountered through out this chapter of keeping semantics and pragmatics strictly separate from one another. Where does semantics end and pragmatics begin? The meanings of words as they are linked both to the world and to other words establish a speech community’s pool of semantic resources; but this semantic pool is constantly enriched and changed through the use that is made of it in social context.


Signs create with words and things a range of semantic relations of denotation, connotation, or iconicity that offer a general meaning to the world. In adding, signs establish semantic associations with others signs in the direct setting of verbal exchanges, or in the historical context of a discourse community. The creation of meaning through signs is not arbitrary, but is, rather, guided by human desire for appreciation, influence, power, and the general motivation for social and cultural survival. Given that meaning is encoded in language with a purpose, meaning as sign is contingent upon the context in which signs are used to regulate human action. In consequence, it is frequently difficult to draw a clear line between the generic semantic meanings of the code and the pragmatic meanings of code in various contexts of use.

Chapter 4
Spoken language, oral culture

The question is: how participants in verbal interactions build for themselves and for each other a cultural space of reference in which they take up various social roles?
The spoken medium is directly linked to the time of its enunciation and to the perception by those present of the transient dimensions of the verbal event. By contrast, the technology of writing, as a spatial extension of the mind and the hand, has been able to overcome the ephemeral, auditory nature of spoken language by translating it into more permanent, visible signs on a page.
Some scholar have defined seven characteristic of conversational speech from the expository writing.
1. Speech is transient, rather permanent. Because of physical constraints, interlocutors may not speak at the same time, or else they cannot hear what the others say. They are bound by non reversible distribution of turns at talk. Written language, by contrast, can be stored, retrieved and responses can be delayed. Because it cannot be immediately challenged as in oral communication, written language carries more weight and hence more prestige.
Moreover, the permanence of writing as a medium can easily lead people to suppose that what is express is permanent too, hence the important link between written document and the law.

2. Speech is additive or ‘rhapsodic’. Because of the dialogic nature of oral interaction, speaker stitch together element from previous turns at talk, they add language as they go along (and… and….then….then), thus showing conversational co–operation in the building of their own turn.
By contrast, the information conveyed in writing is hierarchically ordered within the clause structure, and is linearly arranged on the page. Since it is likely to be read by distant, it has developed an information structure characterized by a high level of cohesion.

3. Speech is aggregative

2 commenti:

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