Sunday, June 21, 2020

Cultural variety

                                          (Japanese picture of man in boiling water*)

As a continuation to two previous posts about words and cultures, culture is relative to a specific society not only in form but also in connotation. Formally speaking culture includes the artistic achievements of a group but also the mechanisms of daily interaction. So, the type of music loved by people is an example of culture but so is the manner of saying hello, whether that is by shaking hands, bowing, kissing cheeks, or using words alone. Thus, it is clear that all human languages must include some way to express culture.

For a linguist, an additional distinction is the attached connotation. For example, the word “culture” when applied in the United States, France, Israel and Russia can imply very different purposes. Modern America was settled by immigrants that were poor and quite often uneducated, even illiterate... Thus, a reference to culture is a way of distinguishing one person from another, generally negatively. Describing a lover of opera as cultured can either be praise or derogatory, i.e., elitist, depending on the point of few. Not only that, its multiethnic society has espoused a vision of blending as compared to maintaining traditions. Thus, the expression “they come from another culture” is an alternative phrase for “they don’t behave like Americans”. The American ethea of anti-intellectualism and melting pot, notwithstanding the existence of exceptions to these tendencies, adds a connotation of different to the term culture.

By contrast, France glories in its Culture. French people are proud of its artistic icons, whether in literature or the visual arts.  The country even has a special institution for them, the Pantheon. The average French person mentions Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Claude Monet and Edith Piaf with pride. Even those that would never read any of their books beyond what is required for the Bac or go to a museum would think twice before stating so. France is the cultural leader of Europe, at minimum, in terms of literature, art and food. Unlike the United States, culture in France, or at least its appreciation, is a unifying factor.

Israel too was founded by immigrants but they came from many communities, each with its own Culture and culture. The dogma of wiping out the diaspora and imposing the new Israeli stamp on all of its citizens, applied for its first 25 or so years, is slowly but surely disappearing. Today, Israelis talk about culture to explain differences in food, music and wedding arrangements. In practice, most couples reflect mixed ethnic background except for the ultra-orthodox. This requires negotiation of cultural issues such as which foods to eat on holidays, the level of spiciness and frequency of family visits, to name just a few matters. Culture in Israel is of part of the dialogue of everyday life.

The Russian use refers to both the high-brow and, more commonly, the communal aspect of culture. As the French, Russians are proud of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, to name a few. However, the most common use of the word culture is the negative term некультурный человек  [nekulturni cheleovek], meaning an uncultured person, better translated by the term barbarian. To clarify, this expression does not refer to the lack of familiarity with Shostakovich’s music. Instead, it describes crude (by Russian standards) behavior, a lack of social savior faire and open greed. It is hard for a foreigner to decode this term as it encompasses so many unspoken rules.  For example, to the best of my knowledge, Ivan the Terrible was a некультурный человек but Stalin and Putin are okay.  It is possible to be unbelievable cruel but remain cultured. So, when a Russian accuses you of being uncultured, you have apparently crossed some (ultraviolet) red line.

Dictionaries may agree upon the definition of culture but people stamp their own opinions and perspectives on the term. There is a wonderful scene in Shogun in which several Japanese calmly discuss how they are so much civilized than the shipwrecked English sailors, which are being boiled alive at the time. One person’s culture is another person’s primitivism.

*Insert captions under pictures to allow access to the blind. Picture from wikipedia.

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