The word culture has become too common a word these days, and more often than not we tend to take its meaning for granted. We use it for professional purposes and for personal purposes, we invoke it whenever we feel threatened by others, but also when we’re searching for reasons to initiate conflicts. But how much time do we really spend trying to understand it, to define it? This is my attempt to define culture based on my personal research. Here is my answer to the question ”What is culture?”
Culture [is] Language
Nothing defines better culture than language. Because language IS culture in the strictest sense. It synthesizes every aspect of a culture. All words with no exception have a cultural load because they are the product of culture. Language is the most accurate mirror for culture. Besides, no-one can pretend to be part of a certain culture unless that person actually speaks the language of that particular culture.
Culture [is] history
All humans are historical beings, in the sense that they internalize the tradition/history of a culture through their language, way of thinking and their world view. Their cultural identity has been shaped by the many previous generations and their actions. This does not mean, of course, that one needs to have all his/her ancestors of a certain origin. As said earlier, culture can be acquired through language or, to be more precise, through proper communication using a language with people belonging to the same culture.
Culture [is] History
History with capital H. This time History refers to all the past events, personalities, works of art etc. of a culture. They make up the heritage of a culture.
Culture [is] Communication
In her book English Meaning and Culture (2006) (a book that I recommend to everyone), Anna Wierzbicka tells the story of Abraham Rihbany, a Syrian linguist who moved to the United States and who studied the different patterns of communication according to culture. The main thing he noticed when he compared American (Western) culture to Arab (Eastern) culture was that while the Western world cherishes a straightforward, direct communication – never meaning more or less than they say -, the Arab world uses a different approach. In their acts of communication they always say more than they mean. Thus, for instance, they have the tendency to exaggerate whenever they wish to compliment someone (which might seem quite embarrassing for a European or an American).
What I am trying to say is that all cultures have a different approach to communicating efficiently. What for some might seem highly inappropriate, for others it represents normality.
Culture [is] Geography
The territory inhabited by a culture has without any doubt a strong influence on the latter. It influences greatly the activities and the way of life of a culture. A good example is the way in which certain concepts are reflected in language. For instance, since the activities of Romanians were highly linked to nature due to the relatively mountainous landscape of the country, Romanian language perceives the elements of nature in a very complex manner. Thus, while the majority of languages have only one word for the concept [tree], Romanian has three words for the same concept: [arbore], [copac] and [pom]. The word [arbore] refers to the general category of tree, [copac] refers to all the trees which do not bear fruit, while [pom] refers to the trees which bear fruit. This is only one of the many examples.
This represents only a small list of the elements that I consider essential for defining culture. The list is of course open for other suggestions…
*Photo by posterize