Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Language of Expression

When my parents immigrated to Canada from Paris, France, they each had a different experience when faced with a new white anglo saxon protestant community who spoke English, a language neither spoke well. And, even though my Romanian father was somewhat of a linguist, able to speak at least ten languages (including impeccable French), he was the one who had the most trouble picking up and mastering English. By contrast, my German mother, who could hardly speak French when she lived in Paris, had no problem picking up English and speaking it with hardly an accent. Aside from the obvious language differences (e.g., German is so close to English as a language vs Romanian and the romantic languages), I think one of the reasons that my father had more problems acquiring the English language with the usual ease he picked up Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, etc. was how the language was used. Language is, after all, much more than the spoken word. It is an expression of culture and biology.

1) What is language?

On the surface language appears to be the means by which animals communicate, through body movements, symbols (e.g., drawings, written word) or vocalizations to share knowledge (whether for mutual good – “Here’s some food” – or as competition – “He’s mine!” – or as antagonist – “Back off! I have a weapon and I know how to use it!”) and whereby one or both are changed by the interaction.

But language is so much more. Consider, for instance, smell. Pheremones and other aromatic chemicals provide an important mechanism for both plants and animals to communicate, whether to attract, repulse or to trigger some other action. This can be obvious, as in the case of strongly scented flowers, and purposeful, as in the skunk’s defensive discharge, or subtle and unconscious, as in the case of the example of women living together developing synchronous mentral cycles.

Language is not restricted to individual plants and animals. The language of biology, chemistry and physics occurs at every level of life and inanimate form, from atoms, to cells, individuals, communities and ecosystems. Randal Whitaker uses “languaging” as a verb to describe the interaction between autopoietic (self-organized) entities. Maturana and Varela (1987) call this ongoing engagement “structural coupling” and suggest that this “coupling” results in mutual co-adaptation.

Language is the means by which order emerges spontaneously from chaos as synchronous self-organization. Like a field of crickets chirping in concert. Or the thousands of fireflies on the tidal rivers of Malasia that blink in dramatic unison. Or the millions of neurons firing together in your brain to control your breathing. They all “language”and co-evolve through mutual triggers and perturbations in a kind of synchronal dance, a loose symbiosis. Consider, for instance the tiny powerhouses of every cell in our bodies: the mitochondria. Billions of years ago mitochondria were bacteria that co-evolved into a symbiotic relationship with their host metazoan cells. This happened through communication and the language of survival.
Fireflies communicate with light; planets speak through the force of gravity; heart cells share elecric currents. This is all language.

2) What is culture?

To me a culture reflects the common “language” among the individuals of a society that has evolved over many years. It embodies the zeitgeist of what defines a particular group, whether it be a community of similar faith, philosophy, tradition, geography, or simply through the basic need of survival. Culture, therefore, is the result of mutual co-evolution, most likely arisen through the need to form community to survive.

3) How are these two Related?

Culture is defined and held together by language in all its forms. For instance the “cyber-culture” is defined by its mode of communication on the Internet. The culture of the common folk in Germany is maintained by the language of plat-Deutch. Language is the thread that ties the culture’s fabric together. Dialects, codes, encryptions all arise from this inclination to form a common, and at times, exclusive, club. Each culture is an autopoietic (self-organized) system that, in turn, communicates with other cultures. Through this mutual interaction and co-evolution, arises a larger encompassing culture and from it yet larger ones, in a fractal pattern to eventually our global culture.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Language isn't just about words, but also visual expression.

sfgirl said...

You're so right, Jean-Luc. And these can contradict one another too!