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Standard language, cultural totem


The way this national identity is expressed is through an artificially created standard language, fashioned from a multiplicity of dialects. When one variety of a language is selected as an indicator of difference between insiders and outsiders, it can be shielded from variations through official grammars and dictionaries and can be taught through the national educational system. For example, in the times of the Ancient Greeks, any person whose language was not Greek was called a 'barbarian', i.e. an alien from an inferior culture. Hence the term barbarism to denote any use of language that offends contemporary standards of correctness or purity. In some countries that have a National Academy for the preservation of the national linguistic treasure against external imports and internal degradation, misuses of the standard language by its speakers are perceived not only as linguistic mishaps, but as aesthetic and moral offences as well (hence derogatory verbs like 'butchering' or 'slaughtering' a language).

Note that standard language is always a written form of the language, preserved, as we saw in the last chapter, through a distinct print culture serving a variety of political, economic, and ideological interests. But it is well known that even though educated people will display strong views about what 'good' language use is supposed to be like, when they speak they often themselves commit precisely those barbarisms they so strongly condemn. The desire to halt the march of time and keep language pure of any cultural contamination is constantly thwarted by the co-construction of culture in every dialogic encounter (see Chapter 3).

Language acquires a symbolic value beyond its pragmatic use and becomes a totem of a cultural group, whenever one dialect variety is imposed on others in the exercise of national or colonial power (France), or when one language is imposed over others through the deliberate, centralized pressure of a melting pot ideology (English over French in Louisiana, English over Spanish in New Mexico), or when one language supplants others through centralized deliberate planning or diffuse societal forces (the spread of English as an international language). The totemization of the dominant language leads to the stigmatization of the dominated languages.

Members of a group who feel that their cultural and political identity is threatened are likely to attach particular importance to the maintenance or resurrection of 'their language' (for example, Quebec, Belgium, Wales among many others). The particularly poignant death of Edmond Laforest is a reminder of the deeply personal association of language with one's self-ascribed cultural identity, especially when the recognition of that linguistic identity is denied. Laforest's despair was compounded by the intransigently literate view that the majority of educated French (or those who want to be seen as educated) hold toward their national language. By having learned and adopted the literate idiom of the colonial occupant, the Haitian poet may have felt he had betrayed not only his Haitian Creole identity, but also the rich oral tradition of his ancestors.


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