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The politics of recognition


Finally we turn to the difficult and complex issue of what has been called 'tolerance', 'empathy', or, from a political perspective, 'recognition' of other cultures. Individuals need to be recognized both in their individual and in their social group identity. But as with facework (see Chapter 4), these two demands might be incompatible. As individuals, they deserve the same respect and human rights protection given to all individuals by the laws of a democratic society; but as members of a cultural group they deserve to be given special rights and recognition. In other words, 'I want you to recognize me as the same as you, but at the same time I want you to recognize how different I am from you'. Simply put: should one recognize sameness or separateness?

The struggle for recognition, expressed here as 'we are equal but different', seems ro be based on an assumption of equal worth, where 'I' or 'you' can be 'we' because we share a tight common purpose and can work towards the common good. But a common purpose and a common definition of what is good precludes any differentiation of roles and world views. Both the universal and the particular are abstractions that gloss over more fundamental realities of unequal power, authority, and legitimation. What is needed, then, is not peremptory and inauthentic judgments of equal value or of the relative worth of different cultures, but a willingness to accept that our horizons might be displaced as we attempt to understand the other. In the same manner as we should not confuse bureaucratic and self-ascribed cultural identity, so we should not presume that the cultural categories we use to judge the worth of other cultures are universal.

Given the recent large-scale migrations around the world, this is a difficult issue that politicians are grappling with in almost every industrialized society. National governments that promote multicultural, multiracial harmony like Singapore or the US, one could argue, in fact enhance ethnic separateness by constantly drawing attention to 'racial' and 'ethnic' identities. Such distinctions may be bolstered by religion. For example, in Singapore, the differing beliefs and practices of Chinese Taoists or Buddhists, Indian Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, and Islamic Malays maintain cultural and ethnic separatism despite the strong claim to a national Singaporean identity. These distinctions might also be strengthened by the educational system, for instance in the United States where a decentralized school system, financed mainly by local property taxes, ensures the perpetuation in schools of the local social class structure and local ethnic and racial distribution.

In modern urban communities where the individual cannot rely on predefined social scripts, nor on universally or nationally accepted moral principles, to find his/her cultural self, cultural identities are seen as being formed in open dialogue with others. Communicative practices reflect institutionalized networks of relationships, defined by the family, the school, the workplace, the professional organization, the church, each with its own power hierarchy, its expected roles and statuses, its characteristic values and beliefs, attitudes and ideologies. This may be as far as we may go in defining the boundaries of one's cultural identity. Geographic mobility, professional change, and the vagaries of life may give a person multiple social identities that all get played out alternately on the complex framings and reframings of daily encounters.

However, such a multicultural view of the link between language and cultural identity has to be recognized as stemming, itself, from an urban, industrialized intellectual tradition. A growing gulf is opening up not between national cultures, but between those who can afford to be supranational cosmopolitans - through access to the Internet, travel privileges, knowledge of several languages beside English, ability and freedom to code-switch between them - and those who are rooted in one national or religious culture. The description suggested above of the plurality and multiplicity of cultural identities within one individual might be violently rejected by people from a different intellectual tradition for whom categories of identity are much more stable consensual affairs.

This brief survey of the multifarious links between language. and culture has led us from a study of signs and their meanings all the way to issues of cultural identity and cultural survival. In the realm of the symbolic, the stakes are high. Equally urgent is the necessity to cast as broad a semiotic net as possible in the study of language and culture, and to honor the marvelous difference and diversity among and within human beings.



SECTION 2 Readings


Chapter 1 The relationship of language and culture


Text 1


Edward Sapir: Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality. Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. University of California Press 1949, page 162.


This well-known statement from linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir grew out of his studies of American Indian languages. In this passage, Sapir lays the ground for the principle of linguistic relativity.


Language is a guide to 'social reality'. Though language is not ordinarily thought of as of essential interest to the students of social science, it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached ... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

¨ Why do you think Sapir distinguishes between 'distinct worlds' and 'the same world with different labels attached'?

¨ Is Sapir claiming here that our language determines the way we think?


Text 2


Benjamin Lee Whorf: Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press 1956, pages 212, 2.13, 221.


The following passages are the most cited and the most controversial of Whorf's statements on linguistic relativity. We recognize here some of his main themes: language and thought reinforce each other; language not only reflects, but also shapes reality; grammar is not universal, it is particular to each language.


The background linguistic system (in other words, the gram-mar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual's mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees....


From this fact proceeds what I have called the 'linguistic relativity principle', which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers, but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.

¨ What does Whorf mean by the phrase 'mental stock in trade'?

¨ The phrase in italics is the one that earned Whorf the most criticism. Can you imagine why?

¨ While Sapir saw ideas as shaped by the 'language habits of the group' (see Text ????), Whorf sees them as shaped by the 'grammar' itself. Do you see a potential difference there between Sapir's and Whorf’s views on linguistic relativity?

¨ Show with a concrete example how a grammatical feature in one language formulates an idea which cannot be easily expressed through the grammar of another language.


Text 3


Steven Pinker: The Language Instinct. Harper 1995, pages 60-61.


As a cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker uses psychological arguments to shoot down Whorf’s claim about the relationship of language and thought.


What led Whorf to this radical position? He wrote that the idea first occurred to him in his work as a fire prevention engineer when he was struck by how language led workers to misconstrue dangerous situations. For example, one worker caused a serious explosion by tossing a cigarette into an 'empty' drum that in fact was full of gasoline vapor. Another lit a blowtorch near a 'pool of water' that was really a basin of decomposing tannery waste, which, far from being 'watery,' was releasing inflammable gases. Whorf's studies of American languages strengthened his conviction. For example, in Apache, It is a dripping spring must be expressed 'As water, or springs, whiteness moves downward.' 'How utterly unlike our way of thinking!', he wrote.


But the more you examine Whorf's arguments, the less sense they make. Take the story about the worker and the 'empty' drum. The seeds of disaster supposedly lay in the semantics of empty, which, Whorf claimed, means both 'without its usual contents' and 'null and void, empty, inert.' The hapless worker, his conception of reality molded by his linguistic categories, did not distinguish between the 'drained' and 'inert' senses, hence, flick ... boom! But wait. Gasoline vapor is invisible. A drum with nothing but vapor in it looks just like a drum with nothing in it at all. Surely this walking catastrophe was fooled by his eyes, not by the English language.


The example of whiteness moving downward is supposed to show that the Apache mind does not cut up events into distinct objects and actions. Whorf presented many such examples from Native American languages. The Apache equivalent of The boat is grounded on the beach is 'It is on the beach pointwise as an event of canoe motion.' He invites people to a feast becomes 'He, or somebody, goes for eaters of cooked food.'... All this, to be sure, is utterly unlike our way of talking. But do we know that it is utterly unlike our way of thinking?


As soon as Whorf's articles appeared, the psycholinguists Eric Lenneberg and Roger Brown pointed out two non sequiturs in his argument. First Whorf did not actually study any Apaches, it is not clear that he ever met one. His assertions about Apache psychology are based entirely on Apache grammar - making his argument circular. Apaches speak differently, so they must think differently. How do we know that they think differently? Just listen to the way they speak!


Second, Whorf rendered the sentences as clumsy, word-for-word translations, designed to make the literal meanings seem as odd as possible. But looking at the actual glosses that Whorf provided, I could, with equal grammatical justification, render the first sentence as the mundane 'Clear stuff – water - is falling.' Turning the tables, I could take the English sentence 'He walks' and render it 'As solitary masculinity, leggedness proceeds.'


¨ In the first two paragraphs, Pinker seems to claim that people are guided by their senses more than by the language that surrounds them. Do you agree?

¨ Pinker pushes Whorf’s claims ad absurdum. How would you respond to each of these two arguments?


Text 4


John j. Gumperz and Stephen c. Levinson: 'Introduction: linguistic relativity reexamined' in J. J. Gumperz and S. C. Levinson (Eds.): Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge University Press 1996, page 1.


In the late 19905, linguists and anthropologists revisited the notion of linguistic relativity in light of developments in cognitive science, ethnography, and the sociology of language. Taking an anthropological and a pragmatic perspective respectively, Gumperz and Levinson propose a balanced view that acknowledges the universal aspects of language as well as its particular manifestations in individual speakers in varied contexts of use.


Every student of language or society should be familiar with the essential idea of linguistic relativity, the idea that culture, through language, affects the way we think, especially perhaps our classification of the experienced world. Much of our experience seems to support some such idea, for example the phenomenology of struggling with a second language, where we find that the summit of competence is forever over the next horizon, the obvious absence of definitive or even accurate translation (let alone the ludicrous failure of phrasebooks), even the wreck of diplomatic efforts on linguistic and rhetorical rocks.


On the other hand, there is a strand of robust common sense that insists that a stone is a stone whatever you call it, that the world is a recalcitrant reality that imposes its structure on our thinking and our speaking and that the veil of linguistic difference can be ripped aside with relative ease. Plenty of subjective experiences and objective facts can be marshaled to support this view: the delight of foreign friendships, our ability to 'read' the military or economic strategies of alien rivals, the very existence of comparative sciences of language, psychology, and society.


¨ Explain what Gumperz, and Levinson mean in this context by the phrase 'the phenomenology of struggling with a second language', and how that would support the principle of linguistic relativity.

¨ Give further 'subjective experiences and objective facts' that might contest the validity of linguistic relativity.



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