Language and Culture

by Steve Lancaster    3/25/14

This week two events not related and unplanned but comparable in essential matters. On Saturday I escorted my wife to a friend’s house for meeting of the Daughters of the Confederacy. The friend’s husband, 88 is suffering from Alzheimer’s and his memory is fading. He is a Marine and thus we shared some common history. While the ladies had their meeting I conversed with the husband. He is cognizant that his memory is fading and related some of the same stories several times. However, I am sure that he will not remember our conversations today, and will tell me the same story again the next time we visit.

On Sunday my wife’s ex-mother-in-law and good friend passed away at 93. She was surrounded by family and friends and while the occasion was solemn the family will relate for generations the stories of her life. The common thread is the stories of life.

Since anatomically modern Homo sapiens appeared perhaps 200,000 years ago language and the stories conveyed by that language are an important part of human culture. The ability of language to transmit knowledge and later written language is the epicenter of human knowledge.

Over the last 4000 years thousands of languages have ceased to be spoken. The voices of the people are silent and their stories are now unknown. In recent history, say over the last 3000 years, much has been recorded for posterity. We know many of the stories of the latter bronze age of Greece and the grandeur days of Rome. The plays of Sophocles and Euripides are well known as are the histories of Herodotus, Claudius and Pliny. In a fashion we can converse with our predecessors even argue with them. Language rather than an abstract becomes vital to the continuing conversation. We can debate with Caesar in Gaul on the wisdom of tactics.

The remarkable thing about the Bible is that it is a continuing conversation between the generations. No other document in human history has the scope. We can after all these generations feel the pain of Job, and the glory of Joseph. We know intuitively that Ruth must have said to Naomi, “wither thou goest, I will go” it fits the rest of the story too well. We can feel the passion of Christ even if we are not Christian and understand the travails of Paul. Perhaps even stare into the horror and glory of Revelation, which John of Patmos saw.

Thus, our ability to communicate in ever increasing and more perpetual forms increases and expands the conversation for the generations. Our children and grandchildren will not only have our words, now written on an electronic page, but our voices in the same medium. Imagine, if today we could hear and see Antigone performed on stage with Sophocles as director. Perhaps, in some distant future when the children of the stars visit ancient earth they will marvel that we got so much right with so little understanding.
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One Response to Language and Culture

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    We have a lot of old material, but we’ve lost even more. Tacitus’s and Livy’s histories are incomplete, and most of the plays of the Athenian playwrights (who usually wrote one or two plays a year) have disappeared. Jack McDevitt in his novel Time Travelers Never Die included a section in which time travelers went back to the old Library of Alexandria and made photocopies of a lot of old works. (I can think of a lot of old histories I wish they’d included.)

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