The omnipresence (& denial) of culture
Settlement dwellers smell Covid corruption

The importance of language in culture


TUMBY BAY – In his essay, Tok Pisin, Tok Motu na Tok Ples, Michael Dom starts with the question, “If Tok Pisin is the language expression of our lifestyle and our intermingled cultures” then what does this language say about us as a people?”

Later in the essay, he writes: "We are educating the native languages out of our societies and along with them entire visualisations and expressions of the human experience.

"We’re in danger of getting dumber the duller our conversations become when everyone thinks in the same way.”

Reading Michael’s words, I wondered if the language we are speaking at any particular time influences our thinking processes at that time.

Is someone speaking Tok Pisin at a particular moment thinking like a ‘universal’ Papua New Guinean?

Is a Papua New Guinean speaking English thinking like a Westerner at that time?

I know that when I flip from English to Tok Pisin something happens to my brain, a kind of gear change.

The same thing happens when I read Tok Pisin.

It takes a little while but when reading something like Opisa Pokep, OBE: Laip bilong wanpela polisman by Bernard Minol, my mind gets into the swing of it and my comprehension gets much better, thus making the book easy to read.

I used to be marginally fluent in Hiri Motu and the same thing happened then. Unfortunately I've lost that language due to lack of use. Same again with the Australian Western Desert language, Pitjantjatjara.

If this is true then losing one's Tok Ples means you are also losing a unique way of understanding and interpreting the world and what's in it.

It is known that language expresses and reinforces culture and influences the identity of people living within a particular culture.

Author Lane Wallace has written in The Atlantic magazine: “Because language discloses cultural and historical meaning, the loss of language is a loss of that link to the past.

“Without a link to the past, people in a culture lose a sense of place, purpose and path; one must know where one came from to know where one is going.”

Maybe that's what has contributed to the overall loss of culture, especially in urban Papua New Guinea. Lose your Tok Ples and the rest of your culture follows.

We were moved around a lot as kiaps and there was a good reason for doing that. The Administration didn't want us to turn into Papua New Guineans.

In retrospect, however, it might have been better if we'd stayed in one region and thoroughly learned the customs and language, as did many missionaries.

It might have made our jobs easier or conversely a lot harder, it's hard to tell.

A thoughtful essay from Michael Dom (yep, 'tis a dinki-di essay).


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Bernard Corden

The rapid expansion of technology and the exponential increase in the use of artificial intelligence inadvertently believes that the human brain is merely a computer on top of your body.

The mechanistic black box psychology of Watson and Skinner's behaviourism, which emerged in the 1920s, is an otiose attempt to square the circle and turn our 3.14159* subjective minds into one objective brain via operant conditioning.

It was parodied by Aldous Huxley via 'Brave New World' and disregards the phenomenology of the mind and any concept of embodiment.

Black box psychology is almost as bizarre a cultural product as phrenology or sorcery and it disregards the existence and dynamic power of the collective unconscious.

Nonetheless, there has been extraordinary growth in the research of human behaviour, which includes psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, behaviourism, cognitive behaviour therapy, cybernetics, sociobiology, ecopsychology, neuropsychology, neurolinguistic programming and neuroscientific imaging plus several shards or crystals of neurochemistry.

Theodore Dalrymple critically evaluates how psychology undermines morality and provides further interesting observations and extensive comments on this vast, arcane and dynamic discipline:

Notwithstanding these recent remarkable developments and despite the logorrhea, it would be a bold person who claims that our self-understanding, with the forlorn hope of an existence free of inner and outer conflict, is now greater than that of Swift, Montaigne or Shakespeare.

Here are several more interesting links:

"The human brain does not make decisions it merely hosts conversations" - Guy Claxton

* "Computers have calculated pi to the trillions of digits. But pi isn’t really solved and doesn’t appear to be solvable. That makes it a fantastic philosophical tool, a reminder to both the mathematically and mystically inclined of all that cannot be finally understood despite great effort" (Ephrat Livni) - KJ

Garrett Roche

Pilib Mac Giolla Phádraig, (the Gaelic for Philip Fitzpatrick) and Philip Kai Morre - I think local languages are still important and hopefully many will be preserved.

Philip Kai, do not be discouraged by the fact that not many seem to be interested in Kuman. The fact that you have helped to produce a translation is important and it is there for future generations. Younger generations will appreciate what you have done.

In Hagen, Summer Institute of Linguistics got all the churches to cooperate and produce translations. And the radio station in Rebiamul was broadcasting bible readings in Melpa.

When I was in Hagen I did try and learn Melpa but I was never fluent in it. Because I could read some Melpa some people thought I knew more than I actually knew. I regret that I did not become more fluent in the language.

Some of the local languages are rich in concepts that are difficult to translate into English. For example the Melpa word ‘noman’. Anthropologist Andrew Strathern wrote that “in different contexts ‘noman’ translates as individual capacity, will, intention, desire, motivation, understanding, social consciousness, and human sociality.”

The Melpa phrase ‘noman tenta’ - meaning ‘wanbel, ‘consensus’ ‘mutual agreement’ - has the equivalent ‘nomane suara’ (?) in Kuman, ‘noman ding’ in Mid-Wahgi, and 'noman tilbuik' in Imbonngu.

Philip Fitzpatrick

As new cultures overtake and replace old cultures it is easy to assume that such developments are for the better.

Indeed, betterment has always been a selling point for the purveyors of cultural change.

Depending upon how you define culture, this isn’t always the case however.

In places like Papua New Guinea there is an argument that it’s possible to accept new cultural norms while still retaining and preserving the good parts of the old culture.

This argument also insists that it is possible to be selective about which parts of a new culture are adopted. The theory being that if the good parts of the new and older cultures are combined the resultant hybrid will somehow be to everyone’s advantage.

History tells us, however, that the progression of cultural change is not necessarily or always positive.

In the first place, new and assertive cultures can be positively detrimental to a large part of the cultures they overrun.

An obvious case is where liberal democracies are subsumed by fascist or authoritarian cultures such is currently happening all over the world.

To a lesser extent cultures based on neoliberalism and aggressive capitalism can be equally detrimental to all but a few elites in the culture being taken over.

The strength of these sorts of cultural invaders is such that sooner or later they become totally pervasive and ultimately snuff out the good aspects of both the old culture and the evolving hybrid culture.

It is at that point that people can become strangers in their own land.

It is suggestible that this is exactly what has happened in parts of Papua New Guinea and especially in the settlements surrounding the capital and the larger towns.

Those aspects of their old cultures, such as language and the sense of community, become effectively subsumed by the new culture’s dominating emphasis on individuality and the importance of material gain.

From the towns and settlements this gradually permeates into rural areas. People whose recent ancestors might have lived in communal long houses or men and women’s houses now live as nuclear families in individual dwellings.

The sad fact about cultural hegemony is that ordinary people can do little about it. They may not like the world in which they are forced to live but they are unfortunately dependent upon it for their survival.

It is a feeling not just confined to people in places like Papua New Guinea but also to people in highly sophisticated western societies. There is no amount of free thinking or hippiness that can counter this depressing fact.

Preserving an old culture in the face of a culture of aggressive modernity may very well be impossible.

Philip Kai Morre

Language is the integral part of our culture, they sort of interact each supporting the other.

I translated from English to Pidgin to Tok Ples, word by word. It was difficult work. I was assisting one of the most difficult bible translations into Tok Ples (Kuman) but did it in vain because not many people were interested to read them.

As Tok Ples changes in urban centres to Pidgin or English, has brought some of our old cultural practices to the point of extinction as people adapt to modern culture.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Can I borrow your brain?

I really like your brain
Do you know where I can get one?
Just the same as yours?
A pretty brown one
With dancing eyes

There’s something wrong with mine
I think I must have pulled a muscle
Trying to think too much
Or something like that
It just kind of snapped

Perhaps I could just borrow yours?
Would that be alright?
If you’re not using it of course
I wouldn’t need it for long
There’s something I need to figure out

And my poor old brain
Is too set in its ways
And just isn’t up to it
It really needs recalibrating
But I can’t afford it this month

Too many bills and I need new jeans
And a pair of cheap trainers
You know what it’s like
Bum hanging out and smelly feet
What do you think?

That’s okay you reckon!
Great, just step in close
And rest your head against mine
Now we’re cooking!
Wow! That’s amazing

How do you do that?
All those pictures and thoughts
All jumbled up
You are me and I am you
If I whisper let’s see what happens

There it is!
That’s my problem all right
And you’ve solved it
Just like that!
What a brain!

You’d better have it back though
Let’s just ease apart
There we go
I am me and you are you again
Just like we were before

That’s wicked man!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)