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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 word culture evokes the traditional nature/nurture debate: Are human beings mainly what nature determines them to be from birth or what culture enables them to become through socialization and schooling?

Emily Dickinson's poem expresses well, albeit in a stylized way, the relationship of nature, culture, and language. A rose in a flower bed, says the poem, a generic rose ('The General Rose'), is a phenomenon of nature. Beautiful, yes, but faceless and nameless among others of the same species. Perishable. Forgettable. Nature alone cannot reveal nor preserve the particular beauty of a particular rose at a chosen moment in time. Powerless to prevent the biological 'decay' and the ultimate death of roses and of ladies, nature can only make summer when the season is right. Culture, by contrast, is not bound by biological time. Like nature, it is a 'gift', but of a different kind. Through a sophisticated technological procedure, developed especially to extract the essence of roses, culture forces nature to reveal its 'essential' potentialities. The word 'Screws' suggests that this process is not without labor. By crushing the petals, a great deal of the rose must be lost in order to get at its essence. The technology of the screws constrains the exuberance of nature, in the same manner as the technology of the word, or printed syntax and vocabulary, selects among the many potential meanings that a rose might have, only those that best express its innermost truthand leaves all others unsaid. Culture makes the rose petals into a rare perfume, purchased at high cost, for the particular, personal use of a particular lady. The lady may die, but the fragrance of the rose's essence (the Attar) can make her immortal, in the same manner as the language of the poem immortalizes both the rose and the lady, and brings both back to life in the imagination of its readers. Indeed, 'this' very poem, left for future readers in the poet's drawer, can 'Make Summer' for readers even after the poet's death. The word and the technology of the word have immortalized nature.

The poem itself bears testimony that nature and culture both need each other. The poem wouldn't have been written if there were no natural roses; but it would not be understood if it didn't share with its readers some common assumptions and expectations about rose gardens, technological achievements, historic associations regarding ladies, roses, and perfumes, common memories of summers past, a shared longing for immortality, a similar familiarity with the printed word, and with the vernacular and poetic uses of the English language. Like the screws of the rose press, these common collective expectations can be liberating, as they endow a universal rose with a particular meaning by imposing a structure, so to speak, on nature. But they can also be constraining. Particular meanings are adopted by thespeech community and imposed in turn on its members, who find it then difficult, if not impossible, to say or feel anything original about roses. For example, once a bouquet of roses has become codified as a society's way of expressing love, it becomes controversial, if not risky, for lovers to express their own particular love without resorting to the symbols that their society imposes upon them, and to offer each other as a sign of love, say, chrysanthemums instead - which in Germany, for example, are reserved for the dead! Both oral cultures and literate cultures have their own ways of emancipating and constraining their members. We shall return to the differences between oral and literate cultures in subsequent chapters.



The screws that language and culture impose on nature correspond to various forms of socialization or acculturation. Etiquette, expressions of politeness, social dos and don'ts shape people's behavior through child rearing, behavioral upbringing, schooling, professional training. The use of written language is also shaped and socialized through culture. Not only what it is proper to write to whom in what circumstances, 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.

 





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