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Cultural Constraints and the Acquisition of Language


Diana Elena Lixandru

Course Instructor: Sevcenco Anca


III year Arabic- English

13 May 2008

Cultural Constraints and the Acquisition of Language

It is highly debated nowadays among linguists the question of the language seen as process proper to the human being, relying entirely upon recursion or as a product of cultural circumstances and factors.

It is the aim of this project to argue in favour of the substantial influence the culture has upon a language that 'grows 'it.

The structure of this paper is the following: 1. I will discuss the impact of Everett's discovery and characterization of the Piraha language on the already accepted theories and the possible consequences it triggers or it triggers not. 2. Provide an example to sustain my view- the case of Arabic and the status of language in this broad linguistic space.

To start with, Daniel Everett proposes, after years of study among the Piraha subjects, a hypothesis that challenges the already known theory of universal grammar put forward by Chomsky. In other words, not only that he defies it, but he also offers the alternative: cultural factors can influence language to such a length that the consequences of this process can be seen not only at the level of vocabulary, but also at the level of grammar. Therefore, Everett states that the Piraha language has shaped itself as an outcome of a major cultural constraint: 'the restrict 20520e49u ion of communication to the immediate experience of the interlocutors' (Everett, 622). Before any other comments, I consider it worthy of saying that even though Everett denies building his arguments in favour of his hypothesis, as other theoreticians have done, this is precisely what he does in his article. He presents the facts form a single point of view: the Piraha case. What is more, the status of this language should be taken into consideration. And one talks here about a language in complete isolation, a language that very few people, besides its native speakers, know it. Even though his arguments seem very deep rooted, the fact that the reader lacks a direct approach to this world is a state of affairs that is to cast doubt and difficulty in fully understanding Everett's claims. He is very keen in highlighting the 'uniqueness' of this language, as some of his critics would put it.

But, even like that, one cannot disregard that the phenomenon Everett brings forth into discussion is a good pretext for people to revise the concept of universal grammar model. And the Manchester professor manages to do this by his discoveries: the lack of terms for numbers, colors, the lack of embedding and the ability of Piraha language to remain monolingual after years of contact with foreigners and with Portuguese language, in particular. Also, the absence of any creation myths or legends and pieces of art is, indeed, a clear indicator of the fact that something different from the universal model proposed abides there.

Truly, the immediacy of experience is a very good argument that helps justify most of the peculiarities that present themselves in this language. For example, the refusal to record in writing their culture: 'We don't write our language', Everett recalls in his article (Everett, 626), might be considered a consequence of the above mentioned constraint. The fact that people choose not to register their own heritage when they are offered the chance to learn how to do this (Everett's failure of the literacy classes), is, in my opinion, a sample of cultural constraint. Also, it is not the case here of what one would call an oral type of civilization, seen as the counterpart of the written one. One would think that if people don't write, for sure they will keep the memory of their cultural heritage. But this thing does not happen in the case of the Piraha. The most striking proof is the fact that they are not able to date back the history of their people for more than two generations before. And as a consequence to this, the kinship terms are very scarce, as pointed out by Everett. This is an interesting phenomenon: to see clearly the link between culture and language and how the first manifests itself in the later.

Everett's demonstration appears a very determinate one. He furnishes many arguments, very technical, some of them , like the discussion regarding the embedding. He also states very clearly that what he dealt with was not, by any means, a 'primitive' language.

It is interesting to note that most of the criticism brought to his article deals with one, two, at most, three issues of his argumentation. I have not personally encountered any article that should literally neutralize Everett's argumentation. Most of them claim that Piraha is not unique in its lack of embedding or numbers or colours.

Indeed, maybe that the morpho-syntax structure should need firmer arguments in order to be accepted as relevant and pertinent. But what Everett's theory does not fail to do is to state once and for all that there really are some constraints on the language that originate from the cultural environment. And this is precisely what I am about to argue in favour of in the next section of this paper. By discussing the case of Arabic, a language closer to my knowledge, I will try to point out some characteristics and particularities that are meant to help in the above mentioned argumentation.

The case of Arabic Language

It is my belief that the example of Arabic is a pertinent argument with which I would like to argue in favour of the influence of the cultural circumstances upon the language.

To start with, the term Arab itself encompasses both a very strong cultural component and a linguistic component. When people, in general, refer to the Arab culture, few of them are aware of what 'Arab' means. Because it is common knowledge that an Arab is whoever speaks Arabic. If one takes into consideration this definition, one reaches the conclusion that the element that links hundreds of years of culture is a linguistic one.

In the history of the Arab culture, the science of language has emerged once with the need to clarify some possible errors or misunderstandings of the lecture of the Quran. As one knows, Arabic is a language based on a root system, where the writing of the consonants is compulsory, but the writing of the vowels is optional. Therefore, one pattern formed of a string of three consonants might mean at least two different things, depending on the writing of the vowels. This would lead, of course, to different interpretations. As the word of God is only one, the sacred one, no possible errors could exist and there could not be more than one revealed truth. Thus, the scholars proceeded and wrote down the vowels, on the one hand, and on the other, they developed the science of linguistics with the help of which they created fixed structures that were meant to norm the language: the morphological and syntactical rules, the rules of inflexion, the exceptions and others.

Before the revelation of the Quran, it is said that there existed more than one dialect in the Arabic Peninsula, but that there was some kind of intertribal koine that people used in the process of communication mainly between different sedentary tribes in order to settle commercial affairs. So, once with the Quran, in the seventh century A.D., there also took place a linguistic unification.

As showed above, the language in this space plays a very important unifying role, not only linguistically speaking, but also culturally and politically. To have a grasp of that, the concept of qawmyya (nationalism) developed on linguistic foundation. To fight back the colonial powers and their attempt at the sovereignty and unity of the Arab world, the intellectuals appealed to language, claiming, that among all components that could link a great nation, the language is the feeblest element. They regarded language not as a simple channel of communication, but as the expression of their cultural identity. If there is a common geography, common history, common fate, then a common language surpasses all these, having the power to bring together what others try to bring apart.

So, to summarize what has been said, there are at least two angles of interpretation of language in this cultural space. As pointed, there is the mythical, or the religious point of view, for the believers. First of all language was given by God and the perfect sample of it is said to be the Quran. Also, one encounters the nationalistic aspect language draws upon itself.

But, it is important to highlight the fact that language does not equal religion. A Muslim is not necessarily an Arab, as well as an Arab is not necessarily a Muslim. And this is a fact that dates way back in the Arab history, when the Arabs conquered great part of the world and settled in places where they encountered populations of different religions. They allowed them to continue practicing the rituals specific to their own religions. In point of language, an interesting phenomenon developed which will be discussed later.

The Oral Tradition and the Myth of the Ideal Bedouin

Another argument is favour of the cultural influence upon language is the distinction that was made at the beginnings of history of the Arabs, namely, the difference between the sedentary populations and the nomads- the Bedouins. Not only that they were seen as very different, but two cultural backgrounds developed out of this distinction. I will tackle with language, the subject of this paper.

First of all, the Bedouins were the people of the desert. The sedentary were the people of the city. In order to better understand that there was at least a clear distinction between the two, if not a rivalry, it is important to make you familiar with a point of view which belongs to a XIV-th century homme de lettres, sociologist and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun. He talks in terms of 'social conflict' and dichotomy between desert and city. He claims that the 'generation' of the city loses its power the moment the group of warriors form the desert conquer it. This cycle repeats itself. Once the Bedouins become 'civilized', and, therefore, weaker, they, in their turn, are conquered by another 'generation' of warriors that come form the same milieu of the desert.

So, even nowadays, the Bedouins are considered to own a very pure, correct language, the language of famous pre-Islamic poetry, which, along with the language of the Quran shape what is called the 'Classical' language. (Classical, not only in terms of history, but also in terms of a canon). And it is in this type of language that the influence of the milieu is seen. Because of the stress this culture of the desert put on the oral tradition, many written proofs do not exist. But, even though maybe it is not the case here of influence on a grammatical level, as in Everett, but it still exists on a semantic level and a pragmatic one. What I mean is that this culture 'grew' that special fund of words very related to the desert conditions: very many words for camel, the main animal used, and very many words that are somewhat related to this: for example verbs concerning a certain way of stopping the camel, or verbs describing certain patterns of behaviour of the camel (how it walks, how it scratches), the means of sacrificing it and so on.

Also, the Bedouins were considered to be people prone to meditation. The desert itself was the ideal place for thinking, solitude, discovering oneself. These were the circumstances in which their poetry was born and for which they are famous. Their language was a very lyric one, very melodic, similar to the soft curves of the dunes in the desert. It is impossible to disregard the influence of both natural and cultural environments in this case.

So, special poetry contests were organized in places, where the people were challenging each other by reciting poetry that was seen as a virtue. Though he is not the only one, Henri Lammens talks about the myth of the Bedouin. By no means was the latter looked upon as a barbarian or lacking manners. On the contrary, he was the expression of many qualities like hospitality, generosity, courage. He was very subtle and refined in language. The Bedouin, considered a master, was surrounded by many rawi, who were his disciples, the future poets, the ones who passed the oral literary tradition on.

As already mentioned, there was a very rich oral tradition, the only means of the descendants to get acquainted with the art of their ancestors. In terms of language, the same Ibn Khaldoun makes a very interesting observation: the language between craft (written form) and habit (oral form). He claims that the best way to learn is by memorizing after constant repetition. In citing Ibn Khaldun, Miriam Cook refers to words as 'veils': 'concealing, yet revealing links between thought and understanding' (Cook, 180). She continues saying: 'Language, according to Ibn Khaldun, begins as a habit, that is, it is the repeated correct usage of words and expressions in particular ways which are deemed most effective for communicating ideas' (Cook, 182). So, it is obvious the link that is made between language and the situation of its usage. The concept of 'habit' itself is relevant. The original word in Arabic is malakah. Its entries in the dictionary are: 'trait of character, natural disposition, aptitude, gift, faculty, talent' (Wehr, 1082). So, the ability to communicate appears to be a natural disposition of man, who possesses it (also, the root of this word malakah is the verb malaka which means to possess, be the owner of). And man himself, is the expression of the cultural background and space he was brought in.

The Linguistic Situation in the Arab Space Nowadays

The current linguistic situation of the Arab world nowadays is very ambiguous. It is the case of the standard Arabic, which is the language of the media, the literary production, the conferences, the official level, and the dialects, the common, day-to-day manner of speech between the people, the language of the streets. Though it was coined by analysts as diglossia, triglossia, quadroglossia or multiglossia, this situation is very relevant in terms of linguistic conflict as the expression of cultural conflict, among others.

I will present the situation of North Africa, in order to highlight, in this case, the relation about which I think it exists between culture and language.

When the Arabs conquered this part of the world, they came across a local population, namely the Berbers, that had their own language and culture. This is the first level. The second one is the Arabic of the vanquishers. Later on, this area was a colonial territory of France, which brought its own language in the administration. Let's name it the third level.

The encounter between these languages was not a happy one. When they met, they clashed. Each group cared about its language, as much as each group cared about its culture. If it were only about a linguistic conflict, it would not have lasted that long and at least one side would have made some concessions for the sake of the communication process. But, the outcome nowadays is that, according to the statistics, 40% of the population in Morocco, an Arab state, is Berber. Most intellectuals and people that work in administration speak and write fluently French. Most of the contemporary Moroccan writers project their books in French. A Berber child speaks Berber in his family, dialect in the streets, is taught standard Arabic at school and should learn French if he wants to work in the administration. This is a situation too awkward and complicated to be explained exclusively by the universal model.

That is the reason for which this situation was called linguistic conflict. But if only language was taken into account, maybe things would have worked out easier. But the one who assumes that a conquered entity (Berbers) should give up its language in favour of a nation that defines itself through language (Arabs) and that a third party (French) should renounce one of its instruments of colonization is a nave person. And this happens because language is not to be looked at in a 'technical' way exclusively.


As I tried to prove using the two cases (Everett's and the case of Arabic), I argue in favour of the cultural influence that manifests in a language.

I would not go that far as to affirm, as Everett did, that language is culturally constrained, nor to claim a radical, universal model, as is the case with Chomsky. I would rather cling to my opinion that people should acknowledge the fact that language is a product of the human being and that the human being is necessarily influenced, if not shaped, in a cultural environment.

If one learns a foreign language, he does it by using the experience of his life and culture. It is my belief that there is no such zero point from which one can start acquiring a language from scrap, in a total independent way of what he truly represents.


Anghelescu, Nadia. Limbaj si Cultura in Civilizatia Araba. Bucuresti: Editura Stiintifica si Enciclopedica, 1986

Cooke, Miriam. 'Ibn Khaldun and Language: From Linguistic Habit to Philological Craft' Journal of Asian and African Studies XVIII (1983): 179- 188

Everett, Daniel L. 'Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha.' Current Anthropology Volume 46. Number 4 (2005): 621- 646.

Lammens, Henri. Islamul. Bucuresti: Corint, 2003

Wehr, Hans. Arabic- English Dictionary. Urbana, IL: Spoken Languages Services, Inc., 1994

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