Aspects of Culture: Language

[Originally posted on January 20, 2015]

By Jacob Toman

"Just as doctrine only needs to be defined after the appearance of some heresy, so a word does not need to receive this attention until it has come to be misused" -T. S. Elliot 

Welcome to Gospel & Gaming's series on Culture.


"Culture is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts." -Quote from Livescience.com


Why is this a high priority discussion for Gospel & Gaming right now? Answering this question could be an entirely separate topic with several pages dedicated to it. For the sake of brevity I will say that many we have interacted with, both gamers & non-gamers have not had a firm grasp on the distinctive nature of gamers as a people group. One church Session (the leadership composed of elders & pastoral staff) that I was working with about a year ago asked if working alongside me was an endorsement of gamer culture. This was a fantastic question, but I'm afraid the men who asked it didn't realize what the words they spoke were conveying. They were worried about communicating something that would promote all the negative stereotypes about the people group of gamers, because that was the stereotype they had of gaming culture (this is one of the reasons I wanted to work with this particular church, to educate on the people group- of gamers, not just the "boogie man" or "monster" phenomena that is often prevalent when engaging in cross cultural exchanges).

We here at Gospel & Gaming do not endorse any culture-be that nationalistic such as American, or religious such as Christian (or any distinctive subset: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc). We serve Jesus Christ who came, lived, died, and rose again, and seek to bring him into the cultures that we enter into. 

In this study we are going to examine the distinctive aspects of people groups (which, when speaking of multiple aspects will be referred to as culture) & compare various facets of gamer culture. This public informational study is for the purpose of highlighting gamers as a distinctive people group and the need for gamer culture to be recognized, respected, and reached by Christians globally. 

T.S. Elliot has some helpful comments here on two major uses of the word culture

"In general, the word is used in two ways: by a kind of synecdoche, when the speaker has in mind one of the elements or evidences of culture-such as 'art'; or, as in the passage just quoted, as a kind of emotional stimulant-or anaesthetic" -Notes Towards the definition of Culture

Culture can often mean just one part or aspect of culture, and it can also act as a summary or symbolic totality of a people group. Culture is the grand distinctive in distinguishing people groups. Culture is the distinct traits and features of a group of people. In comparison this is different from that which makes you unique as an individual person: characteristics, traits, quirks, ambitions, oddities, experiences, memories, dreams, etc. The things that make an individual unique also make cultures unique-but on a much larger group level.

Language is one pillar of culture.

There are several reasons that language can be argued as the foundation of culture. While there are several of aspects and parts of culture that are foundational-they are not the foundation of culture. For our mission work at Gospel & Gaming language serves as the central definitional piece of a people group or culture. It is thus essential that we learn the language of the people groups we serve, else we are lacking in a foundational piece of understanding. 

Language establishes recognizable patterns for groups to mutually create meaning.

In the process of engaging another person, shared commonality is essential for generating mutually agreeable interactions. When there is no recognizable patterns between groups or individuals, chaos ensues. Mutually shared patterns-such as language (either oral, written, or other) allow for the exchange of thoughts which would otherwise be stuck inside one's head. Language allows an idea to materialize from a mental exercise, into a sharable message for others to engage with. 

Can you read this?  Chances are you aren't part of this people group or culture.

Can you read this?  Chances are you aren't part of this people group or culture.

Language forges trust between groups. 

Without common language, suspicion looms large in the arena of shared interaction. Recently I was at an event that included about a hundred or so international students, primarily from China. I know only a few words from Mandarin, mostly due to watching Chinese shows that have English subtitles. I was able to have a (albeit very limited) broken conversation with a father of one of the students who performed Tai-Chi for the group. I was able to communicate my thanks for his great performance, and that I was honored to meet him. He in turn, was able to communicate to me his appreciation for my attempt at Mandarin and honor in meeting me. The trust that was forged in both of our attempts at the other's language allowed us to continue in broken conversation about our families, where we were from, and raising children.

From the smallest group (2-3 people) to the largest group (billions) language demands & creates mutual trust. I don't mean trust in a sense that no one could be dishonest using language together in the same culture-but rather that language presumes shared meaning. Even those who are dishonest use the trust that language forges in order to take advantage of others for the sake of dishonesty.

Can you read this?  Chances are you are a GAMER!

Can you read this?  Chances are you are a GAMER!

Language creates a distinctive set of communicators

I am suspicious whenever a missions team comes forward and says they are reaching a particular people group, or culture. These are words that are bandied about with incredible frequency. Often I catch myself wanting to say to these individuals:

Often we think in terms of secondary or tertiary factors that are a part of our regular activities-as if by filing out preferences of certain types of music, movies, or other media on a facebook defines a people group or culture. These activities often help define a culture that someone is a part of-but here at Gospel & Gaming when we say we (both the staff, Jacob as lead missionary & volunteers) minister to the people group of gamers, it is primarily because they (gamers) have a particularly unique language that makes gamers a culture and people group. It is NOT primarily because of an activity-recreational or otherwise that a group can be defined as a people group-it IS primarily because of language.

I'll leave you with this quick story from the Old Testament on the importance of language as a distinctive of a people group-language was so important in this particular historical event, that it determined if a person lived or died!

Judges 12:1-6

The Ephraimite forces were called out, and they crossed over to Zaphon.They said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We’re going to burn down your house over your head.”Jephthah answered, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn't save me out of their hands. When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave me the victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?”Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.