Language and Culture

Published on 1st October 2013

As a person who lived in a colonized country and was active in the liberation struggle, I understand the relationship between language and culture. There are many ways in which the phenomena of language and culture are intimately related. Language, of course, is determined by culture. Culture is a set of beliefs and practices which govern the life of a society for which a particular language is the vehicle of expression. Since language is rooted in culture and culture is reflected and passed on by language from one generation to the next, language and culture encompasses a people’s past or history.

What is Culture?

Culture is a set of beliefs and practices which govern the life of a society. Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth as well as  Black Skin White Masks observes that it is hardly justifiable to try to find cultural expression for and to give new values to native culture within the framework of colonial domination. Culture is the first expression of a nation, the expression of its preferences, of its taboos and of its patterns. It is at every stage of the whole of society that other taboos, values and patterns are formed.

A national culture is the sum total of all these appraisals. It is the result of internal and external extensions exerted over society as a whole and also at every level of that society. Fanon probed the relation between the freedom struggle – whether political or military – and culture. Is there a suspension of culture during the conflict? Is the national struggle an expression of culture? Is the struggle for liberation a cultural phenomenon?

The conscious and organized undertaking by a colonized people to re-establish the sovereignty of their nation constitutes the most complete and obvious cultural manifestation that exists. It is not the ensuing success of the struggle alone that gives validity and vigour  to culture. Culture is not put into cold storage during the conflict.

Culture and National Liberation

Amilcar Cabral in Culture and National Liberation opines that the value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign domination  lies in the fact that culture is the vigorous manifestation on the ideological or idealist plane of the physical and historical reality of the society that is dominated or to be dominated. Culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history, by the positive or negative influence which it exerts on the evolution of relationships between man and his environment, among men or groups of men within a society, as well as among different societies. The ignorance of this fact may explain the failure of several attempts at foreign domination--as well as the failure of some international liberation movements.

Let us examine the nature of national liberation. We shall consider this historical phenomenon in its contemporary context, that is, national liberation in opposition to imperialist domination. The latter is, as we know, distinct both in form and in content from preceding types of foreign domination (tribal, military-aristocratic, feudal, and capitalist domination in time free competition era).

The principal characteristic, common to every kind of imperialist domination, is the negation of the historical process of the dominated people by means of violently usurping the free operation of the process of development of the productive forces. In any given society, the level of development of the productive forces and the system for social utilization of these forces (the ownership system) determine the mode of production. The mode of production whose contradictions are manifested with more or less intensity through the class struggle is the principal factor in the history of any human group, the level of the productive forces being the true and permanent driving power of history.

Culture is an essential element of the history of a people. Culture is, perhaps, the product of this history just as the flower is the product of a plant. Like history, or because it is history, culture has as its material base the level of the productive forces and the mode of production. Culture plunges its roots into the physical reality of the environmental humus in which it develops, and it reflects the organic nature of the society, which may be more or less influenced by external factors. While history allows us to know the nature and extent of the imbalance  and conflicts (economic, political and social) which characterize the evolution of a society; culture allows us to know the dynamic syntheses which have been developed and established by social conscience to resolve these conflicts at each stage of its evolution, in the search for survival and progress. 

Culture and the African Personality

A cultural historian and linguist Dr Cheikh Anta Diop was once asked about the actual mission of culture. He responded that it was survival and creativity. Man must create to survive. To create he must ensure his survival. Collective historical consciousness is one of man’s chief means of survival and a source of creation. Destroy or stifle it and the chances for the survival of a people become questionable. According to Diop in Civilisation or Barbarism, historical, linguistic and psychological factors make up the collective personality (or cultural identity) of a people. These factors, particularly the psychological aspects, are undergoing constant change. The linguistic and historic aspects provide coordination of relationships.

People of African descent in the Diaspora have had their linguistic ties cut but the historic factor remains as strong as ever, perpetuated by memory. Similarly, the cultural heritage of Africa is obvious in the African Americans and attests to the continuity of cultural customs.

The historic factor is the cultural cement which unites the disparate elements of a people to make a whole. Historical consciousness is the most solid rampart of the cultural security of a people. Historical continuity is the effective cultural arm of a people against outside cultural aggression. He believed that loss of historical continuity can lead to stagnation and retrogression.

The linguistic factor is important in cultural identity. Africans should seek the unifying elements of their many languages. According to Diop, there is a total incompatibility between the formal defence of African culture on the one hand, and the systematic refusal on the other to adopt concrete measures to develop our national languages. Those who are incapable of solving this problem can do nothing for African culture. They merely embrace African culture to better smother it. Diop singles out former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere whose attitude he described as consequential because he elevated Kiswahili to the status of a national and government language. Diop says flight from one’s own language is the quickest shortcut to cultural alienation.

Language is a Carrier of Culture

Every language possesses a dual role; it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture. According to Ngugi Wa Thiongo in Decolonising the Mind, language is a carrier of a people’s culture. Culture is a carrier of people’s values. Values are a carrier of people’s outlook or conscience and a sense of identity. Language is not only a means of communication but it is a reflection of people’s values and identity. Through language, we can deduce the personality and the general perspective of the people. The diversity of the language reflects the multi-ethnicity nature of the world. Language portrays a people’s identity; therefore to be without language is to be lost and to be without value.

Frantz Fanon observes that being colonized by a language has larger implications for one’s consciousness: “To speak…means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization. Speaking French means that one accepts, or is coerced into accepting, the collective consciousness of the French, which identifies blackness with evil and sin. In an attempt to escape the association of blackness with evil, the black man dons a white mask, or thinks of himself as a universal subject equally participating in a society that advocates equality supposedly abstracted from personal appearance. Cultural values are internalized or “epidermalised” into consciousness, creating a fundamental disjuncture between a black man’s consciousness and his body. Under these conditions, the black man is necessarily alienated from himself.” European languages must not be considered diamonds displayed under a glass bell dazzling us with their brilliance (Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State by CA Diop.)

Destruction of African People’s Culture

The physical expansion of Europe into Africa exposed African peoples to the change taking place elsewhere. The European conquest of Africa reached its formal climax with the Berlin Conference of 1885 at which the major powers of Europe politically shared out the whole of Africa apart from Ethiopia and Liberia. The change that Europe forced on Africa was total and affected all spheres of our lives. Traditional life was deeply undermined. Traditional cultures which were suited to the traditional background allowed little if any radical change. Traditional societies were disrupted.

New societies have emerged, partly out of the old society and partly in response to the new change. The emergence of those new societies brought with them new problems for themselves and sprayed other problems over traditional societies. Most of the problems of the emerging societies are concentrated on people living in towns and cities. They are housing problems, slums and ghettos or shacks, earning and spending money, alcoholism, prostitution, corruption, and thousands of young people roaming about in search of employment.

Many people suddenly come from the country or rural areas into the cities where they have no roots or tradition to help them settle down. There are problems of women with children out of wedlock. There are poor people who sit about in the streets begging for money and food. There are problems of unwanted children, orphans, criminals, delinquents and prisoners, all of whom need special social care to be brought up in or integrated into their communities.

Increasingly there is the gap in wealth between the few relatively rich men in top positions of government and commercial employment and the poor masses who barely earn enough on which to live. This great imbalance in wealth can only breed discontent, jealousy, greed, theft and even open uprising.

Ethical and moral problems also arise from the new social problems. Tribal ethics suits tribal solidarity. It is not easy to apply it in the changing situation where urban society requires its own set of morals suited to its type of life.

The ties of kinship have not the same power in the city as they have in the country. The individualism of urban life demands its own code of behavior. The concept of ‘neighbor’ differs considerably in the two situations. The traditional solidarity in which the individual says ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am’ is constantly being smashed, undermined and in some respects destroyed. Emphasis is shifting from the ‘we’ of traditional corporate life to the ‘I’ of modern individualism (John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 1969.)

Religion is Part of a People’s Culture

In every human group there is always religion. Africans were first taken to Brazil in the early 1500s. They have been in America for five hundred years (four hundred years in the USA...where they were taken in 1619, to Jamestown, Virginia, USA). African Americans were brought in as slaves. Their slave masters made sure that those from the same tribe were dispersed so that only strangers could be around each other. This was to prevent the Africans from developing a sense of unity hence organize insurrections (still, Nat Turner and other slaves did mount insurrections in the 1830s).

The slave master made sure that the slave lost his religion, language and culture. Worse, the slave master refused to admit the slave to his own culture and language, afraid that education would make the slave know too much hence challenge the slave master's rule over him. The slave master kept the slave ignorant to prevent him from learning that it is unnatural for one human being to lord it over others.

Human beings mostly learn by observation so Africans learned a bit about their slave masters culture, language and religion. During the 1930s, some African Americans living at Detroit, Michigan perceived that Christianity contributed to their enslavement. They also learnt something about Islam. Arab Muslims practiced slavery. In fact, they had been buying African slaves since about 700 AD, a full eight hundred years before the founding of America.

Indeed, the Portuguese learnt about slavery while searching for a sea route to India in the 1490s when they ran into Arab islands in the Indian Ocean and saw Arabs using African slaves on their plantations. When the Portuguese got to Brazil in 1500 and could not use the native Indians to do their work, they came to West Africa to buy African slaves. Arabs taught Europeans about using African slaves.The issue of language and culture involves more than what people think. African people need a cultural renaissance.

By Sam Ditshego

The writer [email protected] is  a researcher at the Pan Africanist Research Institute.

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