Sunday, February 14, 2016

“A Survey Of Language And Culture: Linguistic Anthropology And Cross-Cultural Communication”

Mike Findlay, longtime Butte College anthropology instructor (and my colleague), is a man full of liver. As he points out in his new textbook, while the reference doesn’t make sense to most English speakers, for many in Asia “the liver is associated metaphorically with life because it filters harmful substances.” Those in the US might instead refer to the heart. Such “lexical choice” is made within a cultural context. And that’s what Findlay explores.

“A Survey Of Language And Culture: Linguistic Anthropology And Cross-Cultural Communication” ($64.95 in paperback from Cognella Academic Publishing,; also at select libraries) is accessible to the general reader. (Disclosure: I formatted an earlier version of the book.) Linguistic anthropology looks not only at physical aspects of human language (fricatives and palatals and plosives, oh my!), but also language and the development of writing and how language and culture interact.

It’s clear, Findlay writes, that there is no “primitive” language, one that lacks complexity or subtlety. The book is replete with case studies, not only about the complexity of language, but the challenges one culture faces in “decoding” another.

“On one occasion I observed a student teacher working with four Hmong girls” who were learning English. At one point the teacher decided to introduce a math question and asked the girls which they’d rather have, one-third of a dozen cookies or two-thirds. The students, who didn’t realize it was a math question, said they wanted one-third. The teacher was perplexed. Did the students not understand that two-thirds is bigger than one-third? Of course they did, but “the original question had asked the girls for their preference…. For the Hmong, taking the larger amount is considered rude.”

Another example: Languages that depend on “pitch, tone, stress, sound duration, pause, and silence can cause misinterpretations. For instance, in some parts of China a mere conversation can be loud—even boisterous—to a point where outsiders might think that an argument is taking place.”

The upshot for Findlay is that “the importance of recognizing that language is culturally patterned brings us to the heart (or liver) of this overall discussion.” Findlay is an illuminating guide.

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