Functions of Language
"In the beginning was the WORD".... Language and culture are at the core of all human society. Since we're looking at cross-cultural communication, let's consider briefly the many ways we use language to commnicate. (
Through language, human beings:
Language and the politics of identity
Are there two cultures that share a language? In a general sense, yes. But at the level of local experience and group identity, language is a primary boundary marker for all cultures. This is why every generation of teenagers develops a "dialect" that is mysterious to their parents. Likewise, in the online world we've seen an explosion of terms and abbreviations and smiley faces that puzzle and intrigue those new to the scene.
Dialects: are regional or social variations of a larger language.
Dialect form in chains: we can understand the dialect next door, but not several dialects down river from our own. We forget how recent "national languages" are. Before WWII, my German grandfather could identify which village customers came from by their dialect.
"Dialect" is more a political term than a linguistic one. By definition, everyone speaks a dialect. The question is which dialects are considered the "standard", "correct", or "official" language, and which ones are marginalized as the "dialects" or "slang". "Poor English" literally means the English of the poor, the rural, the weak.
When conflicts increase, linguistic boundaries are drawn more sharply. Language and dialect become a flag proclaiming one's identity. Speech becomes a battleground. In the disintegrating Yugoslavia, residents fought over which alphabet was used on street signs; in Kosovo they fought about what language university classes would use. In the nationalist sweeps of the past two centuries, local languages were fiercely stamped out through schooling, sanctions, imprisonment,even genocide.
We are all marked by the language we speak -- it proclaims our identity to others, and it shapes our minds along cultural forcefields. It is also the main way that we connect with those we love, those we serve, those we belong to. In communicating with strangers and foreigners, I find that the language barrier is a more formidable and immediate obstacle than cultural differences. And it is in learning another language that we come closest to understanding the cultural universe of others.