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Language, Race and Culture

Language has a setting. The people that speak it belong to a race (or a number of races), that is, to a group which is set off by physical characteristics from other groups. Again, language does not exist apart from culture, that is, from the socially inherited assemblage of practices and beliefs that determines the texture of our lives. Anthropologists have been in the habit of studying man under the three rubrics of race, language, and culture. One of the first things they do with a natural area like Africa or the South Seas is to map it out from this threefold point of view. These maps answer the questions: What and where are the major divisions of the human animal, biologically considered (e.g., Congo Negro, Egyptian White; Australian Black, Polynesian)? What are the most inclusive linguistic groupings, the “linguistic stocks,” and what is the distribution of each (e.g., the Hamitic languages of northern Africa, the Bantu languages of the south; the Malayo-Polynesian languages of Indonesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia)? How do the peoples of the given area divide themselves as cultural beings? what are the outstanding “cultural areas” and what are the dominant ideas in each (e.g., the Mohammedan north of Africa; the primitive hunting, non-agricultural culture of the Bushmen in the south; the culture of the Australian natives, poor in physical respects but richly developed in ceremonialism; the more advanced and highly specialized culture of Polynesia)?

The man in the street does not stop to analyze his position in the general scheme of humanity. He feels that he is the representative of some strongly integrated portion of humanity—now thought of as a “nationality,” now as a “race”—and that everything that pertains to him as a typical representative of this large group somehow belongs together. If he is an Englishman, he feels himself to be a member of the “Anglo-Saxon” race, the “genius” of which race has fashioned the English language and the “Anglo-Saxon” culture of which the language is the expression. Science is colder. It inquires if these three types of classification—racial, linguistic, and cultural—are congruent, if their association is an inherently necessary one or is merely a matter of external history. The answer to the inquiry is not encouraging to “race” sentimentalists. Historians and anthropologists find that races, languages, and cultures are not distributed in parallel fashion, that their areas of distribution intercross in the most bewildering fashion, and that the history of each is apt to follow a distinctive course. Races intermingle in a way that languages do not. On the other hand, languages may spread far beyond their original home, invading the territory of new races and of new culture spheres. A language may even die out in its primary area and live on among peoples violently hostile to the persons of its original speakers. Further, the accidents of history are constantly rearranging the borders of culture areas without necessarily effacing the existing linguistic cleavages. If we can once thoroughly convince ourselves that race, in its only intelligible, that is biological, sense, is supremely indifferent to the history of languages and cultures, that these are no more directly explainable on the score of race than on that of the laws of physics and chemistry, we shall have gained a viewpoint that allows a certain interest to such mystic slogans as Slavophilism, Anglo-Saxondom, Teutonism, and the Latin genius but that quite refuses to be taken in by any of them. A careful study of linguistic distributions and of the history of such distributions is one of the driest of commentaries on these sentimental creeds.

That a group of languages need not in the least correspond to a racial group or a culture area is easily demonstrated. We may even show how a single language intercrosses with race and culture lines. The English language is not spoken by a unified race. In the United States there are several millions of negroes who know no other language. It is their mother-tongue, the formal vesture of their inmost thoughts and sentiments. It is as much their property, as inalienably “theirs,” as the King of England’s. Nor do the English-speaking whites of America constitute a definite race except by way of contrast to the negroes. Of the three fundamental white races in Europe generally recognized by physical anthropologists—the Baltic or North European, the Alpine, and the Mediterranean—each has numerous English-speaking representatives in America. But does not the historical core of English-speaking peoples, those relatively “unmixed” populations that still reside in England and its colonies, represent a race, pure and single? I cannot see that the evidence points that way. The English people are an amalgam of many distinct strains. Besides the old “Anglo-Saxon,” in other words North German, element which is conventionally represented as the basic strain, the English blood comprises Norman French, Scandinavian, “Celtic,” and pre-Celtic elements. If by “English” we mean also Scotch and Irish, then the term “Celtic” is loosely used for at least two quite distinct racial elements—the short, dark-complexioned type of Wales and the taller, lighter, often ruddy-haired type of the Highlands and parts of Ireland. Even if we confine ourselves to the Saxon element, which, needless to say, nowhere appears “pure,” we are not at the end of our troubles. We may roughly identify this strain with the racial type now predominant in southern Denmark and adjoining parts of northern Germany. If so, we must content ourselves with the reflection that while the English language is historically most closely affiliated with Frisian, in second degree with the other West Germanic dialects (Low Saxon or “Plattdeutsch,” Dutch, High German), only in third degree with Scandinavian, the specific “Saxon” racial type that overran England in the fifth and sixth centuries was largely the same as that now represented by the Danes, who speak a Scandinavian language, while the High German-speaking population of central and southern Germany is markedly distinct.

But what if we ignore these finer distinctions and simply assume that the “Teutonic” or Baltic or North European racial type coincided in its distribution with that of the Germanic languages? Are we not on safe ground then? No, we are now in hotter water than ever. First of all, the mass of the German-speaking population (central and southern Germany, German Switzerland, German Austria) do not belong to the tall, blond-haired, long-headed “Teutonic” race at all, but to the shorter, darker-complexioned, short-headed Alpine race, of which the central population of France, the French Swiss, and many of the western and northern Slavs (e.g., Bohemians and Poles) are equally good representatives. The distribution of these “Alpine” populations corresponds in part to that of the old continental “Celts,” whose language has everywhere given way to Italic, Germanic, and Slavic pressure. We shall do well to avoid speaking of a “Celtic race,” but if we were driven to give the term a content, it would probably be more appropriate to apply it to, roughly, the western portion of the Alpine peoples than to the two island types that I referred to before. These latter were certainly “Celticized,” in speech and, partly, in blood, precisely as, centuries later, most of England and part of Scotland was “Teutonized” by the Angles and Saxons. Linguistically speaking, the “Celts” of to-day (Irish Gaelic, Manx, Scotch Gaelic, Welsh, Breton) are Celtic and most of the Germans of to-day are Germanic precisely as the American Negro, Americanized Jew, Minnesota Swede, and German-American are “English.” But, secondly, the Baltic race was, and is, by no means an exclusively Germanic-speaking people. The northernmost “Celts,” such as the Highland Scotch, are in all probability a specialized offshoot of this race. What these people spoke before they were Celticized nobody knows, but there is nothing whatever to indicate that they spoke a Germanic language. Their language may quite well have been as remote from any known Indo-European idiom as are Basque and Turkish to-day. Again, to the east of the Scandinavians are non-Germanic members of the race—the Finns and related peoples, speaking languages that are not definitely known to be related to Indo-European at all.


We cannot stop here. The geographical position of the Germanic languages is such as to make it highly probable that they represent but an outlying transfer of an Indo-European dialect (possibly a Celto-Italic prototype) to a Baltic people speaking a language or a group of languages that was alien to Indo-European. Not only, then, is English not spoken by a unified race at present but its prototype, more likely than not, was originally a foreign language to the race with which English is more particularly associated. We need not seriously entertain the idea that English or the group of languages to which it belongs is in any intelligible sense the expression of race, that there are embedded in it qualities that reflect the temperament or “genius” of a particular breed of human beings.

Many other, and more striking, examples of the lack of correspondence between race and language could be given if space permitted. One instance will do for many. The Malayo-Polynesian languages form a well-defined group that takes in the southern end of the Malay Peninsula and the tremendous island world to the south and east (except Australia and the greater part of New Guinea). In this vast region we find represented no less than three distinct races—the Negro-like Papuans of New Guinea and Melanesia, the Malay race of Indonesia, and the Polynesians of the outer islands. The Polynesians and Malays all speak languages of the Malayo-Polynesian group, while the languages of the Papuans belong partly to this group (Melanesian), partly to the unrelated languages (“Papuan”) of New Guinea. In spite of the fact that the greatest race cleavage in this region lies between the Papuans and the Polynesians, the major linguistic division is of Malayan on the one side, Melanesian and Polynesian on the other.

11415401116_54bdfd6d34_m.jpg As with race, so with culture. Particularly in more primitive levels, where the secondarily unifying power of the “national” ideal does not arise to disturb the flow of what we might call natural distributions, is it easy to show that language and culture are not intrinsically associated. Totally unrelated languages share in one culture, closely related languages—even a single language—belong to distinct culture spheres. There are many excellent examples in aboriginal America. The Athabaskan languages form as clearly unified, as structurally specialized, a group as any that I know of. The speakers of these languages belong to four distinct culture areas—the simple hunting culture of western Canada and the interior of Alaska (Loucheux, Chipewyan), the buffalo culture of the Plains (Sarcee), the highly ritualized culture of the southwest (Navaho), and the peculiarly specialized culture of northwestern California (Hupa). The cultural adaptability of the Athabaskan-speaking peoples is in the strangest contrast to the inaccessibility to foreign influences of the languages themselves. The Hupa Indians are very typical of the culture area to which they belong. Culturally identical with them are the neighboring Yurok and Karok. There is the liveliest intertribal intercourse between the Hupa, Yurok, and Karok, so much so that all three generally attend an important religious ceremony given by any one of them. It is difficult to say what elements in their combined culture belong in origin to this tribe or that, so much at one are they in communal action, feeling, and thought. But their languages are not merely alien to each other; they belong to three of the major American linguistic groups, each with an immense distribution on the northern continent. Hupa, as we have seen, is Athabaskan and, as such, is also distantly related to Haida (Queen Charlotte Islands) and Tlingit (southern Alaska); Yurok is one of the two isolated Californian languages of the Algonkin stock, the center of gravity of which lies in the region of the Great Lakes; Karok is the northernmost member of the Hokan group, which stretches far to the south beyond the confines of California and has remoter relatives along the Gulf of Mexico.

Returning to English, most of us would readily admit, I believe, that the community of language between Great Britain and the United States is far from arguing a like community of culture. It is customary to say that they possess a common “Anglo-Saxon” cultural heritage, but are not many significant differences in life and feeling obscured by the tendency of the “cultured” to take this common heritage too much for granted? In so far as America is still specifically “English,” it is only colonially or vestigially so; its prevailing cultural drift is partly towards autonomous and distinctive developments, partly towards immersion in the larger European culture of which that of England is only a particular facet. We cannot deny that the possession of a common language is still and will long continue to be a smoother of the way to a mutual cultural understanding between England and America, but it is very clear that other factors, some of them rapidly cumulative, are working powerfully to counteract this leveling influence. A common language cannot indefinitely set the seal on a common culture when the geographical, political, and economic determinants of the culture are no longer the same throughout its area.

Language, race, and culture are not necessarily correlated. This does not mean that they never are. There is some tendency, as a matter of fact, for racial and cultural lines of cleavage to correspond to linguistic ones, though in any given case the latter may not be of the same degree of importance as the others. Thus, there is a fairly definite line of cleavage between the Polynesian languages, race, and culture on the one hand and those of the Melanesians on the other, in spite of a considerable amount of overlapping. The racial and cultural division, however, particularly the former, are of major importance, while the linguistic division is of quite minor significance, the Polynesian languages constituting hardly more than a special dialectic subdivision of the combined Melanesian-Polynesian group. Still clearer-cut coincidences of cleavage may be found. The language, race, and culture of the Eskimo are markedly distinct from those of their neighbors; in southern Africa the language, race, and culture of the Bushmen offer an even stronger contrast to those of their Bantu neighbors. Coincidences of this sort are of the greatest significance, of course, but this significance is not one of inherent psychological relation between the three factors of race, language, and culture. The coincidences of cleavage point merely to a readily intelligible historical association. If the Bantu and Bushmen are so sharply differentiated in all respects, the reason is simply that the former are relatively recent arrivals in southern Africa. The two peoples developed in complete isolation from each other; their present propinquity is too recent for the slow process of cultural and racial assimilation to have set in very powerfully. As we go back in time, we shall have to assume that relatively scanty populations occupied large territories for untold generations and that contact with other masses of population was not as insistent and prolonged as it later became. The geographical and historical isolation that brought about race differentiations was naturally favorable also to far-reaching variations in language and culture. The very fact that races and cultures which are brought into historical contact tend to assimilate in the long run, while neighboring languages assimilate each other only casually and in superficial respects , indicates that there is no profound causal relation between the development of language and the specific development of race and of culture.

But surely, the wary reader will object, there must be some relation between language and culture, and between language and at least that intangible aspect of race that we call “temperament”. Is it not inconceivable that the particular collective qualities of mind that have fashioned a culture are not precisely the same as were responsible for the growth of a particular linguistic morphology? This question takes us into the heart of the most difficult problems of social psychology. It is doubtful if any one has yet attained to sufficient clarity on the nature of the historical process and on the ultimate psychological factors involved in linguistic and cultural drifts to answer it intelligently. I can only very briefly set forth my own views, or rather my general attitude. It would be very difficult to prove that “temperament”, the general emotional disposition of a people , is basically responsible for the slant and drift of a culture, however much it may manifest itself in an individual’s handling of the elements of that culture. But granted that temperament has a certain value for the shaping of culture, difficult though it be to say just how, it does not follow that it has the same value for the shaping of language. It is impossible to show that the form of a language has the slightest connection with national temperament. Its line of variation, its drift, runs inexorably in the channel ordained for it by its historic antecedents; it is as regardless of the feelings and sentiments of its speakers as is the course of a river of the atmospheric humors of the landscape. I am convinced that it is futile to look in linguistic structure for differences corresponding to the temperamental variations which are supposed to be correlated with race. In this connection it is well to remember that the emotional aspect of our psychic life is but meagerly expressed in the build of language .

Language and our thought-grooves are inextricably interwoven, are, in a sense, one and the same. As there is nothing to show that there are significant racial differences in the fundamental conformation of thought, it follows that the infinite variability of linguistic form, another name for the infinite variability of the actual process of thought, cannot be an index of such significant racial differences. This is only apparently a paradox. The latent content of all languages is the same—the intuitive science of experience. It is the manifest form that is never twice the same, for this form, which we call linguistic morphology, is nothing more nor less than a collective art of thought, an art denuded of the irrelevancies of individual sentiment. At last analysis, then, language can no more flow from race as such than can the sonnet form.

Nor can I believe that culture and language are in any true sense causally related. Culture may be defined as what a society does and thinks. Language is a particular how of thought. It is difficult to see what particular causal relations may be expected to subsist between a selected inventory of experience (culture, a significant selection made by society) and the particular manner in which the society expresses all experience. The drift of culture, another way of saying history, is a complex series of changes in society’s selected inventory—additions, losses, changes of emphasis and relation. The drift of language is not properly concerned with changes of content at all, merely with changes in formal expression. It is possible, in thought, to change every sound, word, and concrete concept of a language without changing its inner actuality in the least, just as one can pour into a fixed mold water or plaster or molten gold. If it can be shown that culture has an innate form, a series of contours, quite apart from subject-matter of any description whatsoever, we have a something in culture that may serve as a term of comparison with and possibly a means of relating it to language. But until such purely formal patterns of culture are discovered and laid bare, we shall do well to hold the drifts of language and of culture to be non-comparable and unrelated processes. From this it follows that all attempts to connect particular types of linguistic morphology with certain correlated stages of cultural development are vain. Rightly understood, such correlations are rubbish. The merest coup d’oeil verifies our theoretical argument on this point. Both simple and complex types of language of an indefinite number of varieties may be found spoken at any desired level of cultural advance. When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.

It goes without saying that the mere content of language is intimately related to culture. A society that has no knowledge of theosophy need have no name for it; aborigines that had never seen or heard of a horse were compelled to invent or borrow a word for the animal when they made his acquaintance. In the sense that the vocabulary of a language more or less faithfully reflects the culture whose purposes it serves it is perfectly true that the history of language and the history of culture move along parallel lines. But this superficial and extraneous kind of parallelism is of no real interest to the linguist except in so far as the growth or borrowing of new words incidentally throws light on the formal trends of the language. The linguistic student should never make the mistake of identifying a language with its dictionary.

If both this and the preceding chapter have been largely negative in their contentions, I believe that they have been healthily so. There is perhaps no better way to learn the essential nature of speech than to realize what it is not and what it does not do. Its superficial connections with other historic processes are so close that it needs to be shaken free of them if we are to see it in its own right. Everything that we have so far seen to be true of language points to the fact that it is the most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has evolved—nothing short of a finished form of expression for all communicable experience. This form may be endlessly varied by the individual without thereby losing its distinctive contours; and it is constantly reshaping itself as is all art. Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.

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