Pragmatics of culture


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Discussing language as a system may initially strike us as a strange endeavor, given the huge importance language plays in all cultures and means of communication. Inherently, the way we study subjects in school separates languages from mathematics, so combining the two seems a bit odd – after all, we have spent our entire lives studying the two realms separately. However, given the ever evolving digital culture and the importance computing plays in our lives, linguistics bridges the gap between the two subjects and allows us to think more broadly about the faculty of language.

Noam Chomsky’s influence in linguistics seems to be more applicable to the initial stages of computer coding. His studies and sentence structure mapping allow sentences to be considered grammatically correct, regardless of whether or not the sentence itself makes sense. The mapping aspect of Chomsky’s take on linguistics makes sense universally because people do not arbitrarily speak for the sake of speaking, and do have patterns in what they say, regardless of culture or language. This concept is demonstrated in the universality of computer coding, since virtually all computers tend to follow the same coding language and command breakdown.

However, given the vast amount of multimedia communication existing online, the pragmatic aspect of linguistics seems to be more relevant in the digital sphere. It would be difficult to interpret what a meme is saying without knowing the relevant context. Additionally, it would be equally difficult to understand what a #hashtag refers to without knowing the cultural source of its reference. As Searle wrote, “Chomsky’s picture … seems to be something like this: except for having such general purposes as the expression of human thoughts, language doesn’t have any essential purpose, or if it does there is no interesting connection between its purpose and its structure.”

It is possible to question whether the purpose of language is even necessary, as long as the patterns described by Chomsky are expressed and received, but in the digital sphere (especially in social media), purpose seems to be the essence of communication. There is so much information, that we are constantly interpreting its purpose of existence, this purpose is what allows some social networking sites to flourish while others are looked at less favorably and lose users. The context and the pragmatics of a site entirely are what make Facebook the huge success it is, and what made Myspace re-work its user focus.

On another note, as an immigrant who had to learn a different language largely through immersion, the concept that struck me as most interesting in this week’s readings was the “head first” and “head last” language distinctions. The sentence mapping patterns (albeit less formally taught) were the main way my family and I learned how to communicate in English. However, personal experience still leads me to feel that the pragmatic element of linguistics plays a huge role in the structure of sentences. For example, in Russian and in many other languages, we use a formal “you” to address strangers, professors, people in high-ranking positions and generally people who are older than we may be. This structure does not exist in English, and although both versions of “you” serve the same purpose, the sentence’s intentions and the intentions of the communication are completely changed if the versions of “you” are interchanged.

Therefore, structurally, Chomsky’s version of language is successful in demonstrating the fact that patterns are what allow languages to be formed, but culturally, language seems to be the essence of all human intention.