About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Language and Knowledge

In a recent post by Ken Allen, I commented

"...literacy is more than the language. Governments and certain societies want to control language, but it has a deeper goal. What they want to control is the knowledge, the means of communication, and the structures that are behind the language, imposing their ideas through the restriction of language."

Ken then challenged me to come up with an example of what I meant by controlling knowledge through language. I came up with the example of using the passive voice in American English. In the States, we are taught in schools not to use the passive voice (The paper was handed in). In the passive voice, there is no action agent unless the speaker (or writer) puts it in (The paper was handed in by the student).

How does this affect knowledge creation? By requiring that there is an agent for action, the language is reinforcing the American cultural value of the belief that man has control over every thing (even nature). An extension of this is that every idea is tied to a specific person (thus the obsession with identifying plagiarism in schools and identifying owners of "intellectual property." In other cultures, ideas might be considered communal or community owned. But in American English, we have a language based mechanism that helps to reinforce that every idea comes from an individual (the active voice preference).

However, American English and English in general is much more flexible and less constrictive in limiting ideas. An English speaker can (and often does) make up, borrow, or modify words when there is no word or expression that fits a specific idea. Simply look at the tech words that have come into use in the last 5 years (to google something, wiki, social software, texting, just to name a few).

I am more familiar with the control of ideas for francophones. In the '80's and 90's there was a big controversy over the use of "le marketing" over "publicite". This had more to do with the fear that American marketing practices might take hold in the French organizations. However, rather than letting a French version of marketing evolve (so that le marketing was not the same as marketing in English), companies were fined for using the word, but did not necessarily create their own form of the concept. There was a gap in expressing what they were doing. Now, I am not saying that this influenced the direction the French marketing departments took on. However, the fact is that English became a language of choice for many multinationals companies, because French was not allowed to evolve naturally. The action did not control French ideas so they maintained their "Frenchness" but rather encouraged those that worked with French businesses to use another language.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia

Of course, the context of the discussion was that language evolves, though I wasn't mentioning anything about the agents for its evolution. I find it interesting that you exampled education as one of the controllers of the way language is used.

I know only English, so I am impaired in my ability to find examples from other tongues, but I suspect that English would be among the most rapidly evolving languages? I may be wrong.

In education alone, I've witnessed the shift in the use of words - nouns becoming verbs, as in 'purpose' and its derivative 'repurpose', and in 'progress' and 'action', as in to action a plan. I find some of these evolved words ugly.

Others have shifted from the verb to the noun, as in 'connect' and a 'disconnect', as in the disconnect between reality and the virtual world.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

What you point out in terms of words changing from verbs to nouns or nouns to verbs is one of the aspects of English which makes it flexible (and at times difficult for non-native speakers to learn it).

I think we often underestimate the impact of education--especially early education--in developing the "rules" we carry about the language. Deviation from what we were taught in our early years as being "proper" sounds weird to us. So I still spell the color "grey" as opposed to most Americans who spell it "gray" (and yes, it did come up as a misspelled word on my word check!).

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia.

Spelling. Hmmm. That's quite another agent that brings about change, I am convinced about this. I find it is interesting how pronunciation seems to take precedence over spelling.

In the county of my birth, Fife, the dialect pronounces certain words differently from most other speakers of English. Words such as 'brought', 'sought', 'sight', 'might', 'bright', 'light', 'thought', are pronounced with the 'ought' uttered as 'ocht', with a gutteral pronunciation of 'och' similar to the way the Scots pronounce 'loch', which is unlike the English, who say 'lock'.

Yet the 'ought' words are usually pronounced by others like awt. 'Thocht' becomes 'thawt', for thought. 'Licht' becomes 'lite' for light, and so on (German origin?).

But I am convinced that the spellings indicate how these words were pronounced way back when the words were first written, as, for example, 'brought', bearing little resemblance to how they are pronounced today.

The commonality of the spelling of these words, that matches the commonality of the way the Fife dialect pronounces these words, is compelling evidence in support of what I believe.

There are many words like those in English, and various studies, such as of rhyming in poetry, assists us to have some idea of how pronunciation was long ago.

Words like 'love' and 'prove' for instance were probably pronounced similarly in the time of Shakespeare, for Shakespeare (and even the later poets such as Alexander Pope, a stickler for correct rhyme) wrote them as if they should rhyme - loov and proov, for 'love' and 'prove'.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth