Chapter Two: Cultural Globalization

VI. The Future of Language as a Cultural Marker

As has been seen, language is a dominant factor in establishing the cultural space of an individual. Before language existed, it is reasonable to suppose, culture would have been limited to music, dance, graphic images and mythic ceremony, with some very primitive aspects of inter-personal relationships, all of which could be transmitted by imitation.

As we have also seen, the invention of printing made language available as a tool of mass indoctrination or education, and prepared the ground for the emergence of modern nation states.

There are an enormous number of languages in existence, and they are in a constant state of evolution, so that it would never be possible to define that number exactly. Ethnologists and anthropologists constantly bemoan the loss of diversity in languages as minority cultures become subsumed into more successful ones. If a language has not been written down (still the case for a majority of the languages spoken on the planet) then once it has died out, its culture is lost. The culture of a written language survives the death of the language in the sense that books, plays, operas and other cultural artefacts involving language remain extant, and can give some clue of what the culture of speakers of the language may have been like. But without a recording of the psyche of a speaker – and preferably many speakers – of the language, how far can one really assert that we 'know' that culture?

The question is far from academic, since the time is not far off (2020?) when immediate machine translation from one language to another will become a reality, and soon after that (2030?) there will be a 'babel-fish' as in The Hitch-hiker's Guide To The Galaxy – an implant which will enable an individual to hear another's speech in her own language. These technologies, and the implacable advance of English as a common global language, will undermine the existence of today's widely differentiated set of languages and the variegated cultures they generate.

There are further, more speculative possibilities. Despite intense study, there is no agreement yet on whether psychological concepts exist in the absence of language, and are merely clothed in verbal form when communicated to one's linguistic consciousness or to the outside world, or whether the concepts are stored in absolute linguistic form. The present and future roles of language in delivering culture, and the extent of non-linguistic symbolic cognitive representation will be dealt with more thoroughly in Chapter 9, Language and Other Cultural Artefacts. But perhaps it is not a distortion of the situation to say that opinion is tending towards a considerable degree of independence of conceptual thought from language. It is quite difficult to explain a person who speaks a number of languages equally fluently without supposing some degree of shared conceptual storage.

It is not necessary to posit the existence of telepathy in order to have a non-linguistic world: experiments on the control of prosthetic limbs without the mediation of nerves or even the immediate sensory apparatus of the medulla oblongata show that psychological events and decisions pass through a varied set of implementing and converting mechanisms before they have their effect in the physical world. Can it be ruled out that direct radio (or magnetic) communication could take place between people's psyches without the interposition of language?

If it's the case that language is at least partly just a cloak placed around non-linguistic thought for the purposes of expression, then it is possible that communication between individuals could become non-verbal, at least to an extent. What then of culture? Beethoven will still be Beethoven; Cezanne will still be Cezanne; and love will still be love: 'A rose by any other name smells just as sweet'.

Is it possible then that culture, to the extent it is carried by particular forms of linguistic expression, is a spandrel, ie it is an accidental by-product of evolution? Maybe culture, in so far as the word means 'what makes someone different', is just something that gets in the way? Of course, in so far as it means, what makes someone individual, that is fine.

Well, retreating from such speculations to firmer ground, it is at least undeniable that mutually understandable linguistic communication will shortly exist, regardless of the 'native' languages of the speakers and listeners concerned. This is certain to have a powerful effect in terms of reducing cultural differences between nations.

Let's explore that a little. Human nature is a given; that is the inescapable conclusion of countless researchers. Humans, all humans, have at least the following social characteristics:

Nowhere in the list will you find any of the British cultural characteristics set out in a previous section; they exist courtesy of the power that language has to form and preserve cultural ideas (one could almost say 'memes', along with Richard Dawkins).

'Mean Scotsmen' is a sample British cultural characteristic given above, and which arguably could not exist without the linguistic concepts 'mean' and 'Scotsmen'.

No-one supposes that any given Scot is necessarily mean, let alone that all Scots are mean. Nonetheless, most English speakers and quite a few non-English speakers will have that generalization in their psyches and will employ it, whether consciously or unconsciously, in deploying linguistic and other behaviours when a Scotsman forms part of a life situation. But meanness is not a standard human characteristic. This is not to say that it is inappropriate sometimes to be mean, just that it is wrong to think, however jokingly, that a particular type of human is mean by nature. And it is language that causes such a result. Maybe we will be better off without it! At any rate, we would be better off without the cultural distortions that are embodied in the existence of different languages.

The argument can be left there, for the moment. Parts Two and Three will take it up again in the effort to map possible futures for the human race.