Pre-1600: Communications: Overview

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Pre-1600: Communications: Overview

Communication. Although the word communication may be used to identify activities that do not involve peopleanimals or even machines can be said to communicateit is usually defined as the means through which people exchange feelings and ideas with one another. Communication is a process rather than a thing; it begins when a person feels a need to express an idea, a message, or a feeling. In other words, it begins with a purpose: to convey information, to express feelings, to imagine, to influence, or to meet social or cultural expectations. Unlike objects, feelings and ideas are difficult to exchange because they have no physical substance. Since they have no concrete existence, they cannot be handed directly to another person. Instead they must be exchanged, or communicated, through the use of symbolsthings that represent or stand for other things. In order for meaningful communication to take place, people must share the same symbol system or language.

Oral Communication. The earliest form of human communication was probably spoken, or oral, communication. In oral communication, sound patterns represent other things, whether objects, ideas, or feelings. Early humans made contact with the outside world and with each other through their five sensesthrough sound, sight, touch, smell, and tasteand they used sounds, gestures, and touch as symbols to convey information. Over time, a language developed that stood for the objects and actions common to their daily lives and necessary for survival. In addition to words and phrases, however, oral communication also involves the vocal characteristics of rate, pitch, loudness, and inflection (sometimes called paralanguage) and nonverbal elements such as facial expression, gestures, and eye contact. Even pauses and silences carry meaning in spoken communication. For example, a pause makes a difference between careless and care less. Finally, to communicate effectively, people must share not only a symbol system and paralanguage but also knowledge about how to use a language properly in various social situations or contexts. Communication contexts consist of a blend of the audience being addressed and the social settings in which the communication occurs, and social expectations can differ greatly from culture to culture. Humor is especially difficult to translate across cultural and linguistic boundaries because without clear understanding of the cultural and social context of the joke or faux pas the source of merriment will not be apparent or make sense. Choice of language can also have social meaning. Informal language or slang that might be appropriate at a party or among friends would be inappropriate in a more formal setting and would normally be replaced by standardized language. Among many American Indian groups, council oratory, which is heavily laced with metaphor and allusion, is completely different from ordinary conversational speech, and few natives mastered it. Those who did held a special position as orators and were respected for their talent.

Language. Above all language is meaning. Meanings are attached to pieces of words, entire words, or groups of words as well as to the spoken signals of languages and to the shifts and changes of grammar and the way in which words are put together to form phrases and sentences (syntax). The sounds of words have no intrinsic meaning to begin with; people attach meaning to them, thereby creating language. Written language is a substitute for spoken language. The various symbols, or letters, stand for the main sounds in the language. When combined, sound patterns representing words are formed, which can in turn be used in combination to form phrases and sentences. In addition to using letters to represent sounds, punctuation marks convey information about the paralanguage required to clarify a particular meaning. Commas, for example, indicate a slight pause; question marks signal a rise in pitch or inflection; and an exclamation point represents an increase in volume or intensity. Although the nonverbal aspects of oral communication cannot be represented by written language, the infinite variety of combinations allows for great flexibility and complexity of communication.

Translation. Languages, paralanguages, nonverbal symbols, social contexts, and rules regarding usage vary from culture to culture. In order to communicate across cultural boundaries, then, some form of translation or interpretation of meaning is necessary. Since the words of one language seldom mean exactly the same as the words of another, however, translation is, at best, an approximation of meaning. Translation requires that the translator attain at least rudimentary bilingualism, or knowledge of both languages. Mastery of two languages is difficult and time-consuming, so in many contact situations specialized substitutes, called contact languages, often evolve. Some, such as sign language, are completely nonverbal while others are hybridized combinations of the two languages in contact. In early North America a variety of contact languages were in use both before and after European contact.

Linguistic Diversity. Paleolithic peoples migrated from Asia to North America and spread through unglaciated regions of the continent sometime between 40,000 b.c. and 10,000 b.c. The final retreat of the ice sheets, which began about 7000 b.c., created a mosaic of new, rapidly evolving environments and ecosystems and initiated a period of migration into previously inaccessible interior regions of North America. Paleolithic groups, as they encountered these new environments and changing ecosystems, were forced to readjust their subsistence patterns and lifestyles. Eventually the new environments stabilized, and by about 700 a.d. these free-wandering peoples settled into regular patterns of movement within more-restricted territories. As they adapted to specific local conditions and exploited their new environments, a variety of Archaic cultures arose throughout the continent. Increasing cultural differentiation and specialization among these peoples, in turn, led to increasing linguistic diversity. By the eve of contact some four hundred distinct languages were spoken in native North America.

Intercultural Communication. Most native North American languages can be grouped into families of similar languages that apparently evolved from a common ancestral language stock, or protolanguage, in the distant past. Within these language families there is often some degree of mutual intelligibility between pairs or small groups of closely related languages. Still, the languages of native North America are extraordinarily diverse. They do not belong to a single family or conform to a single type; there were at least 221 mutually unintelligible languages in precontact North America. Despite the existence of such language barriers, however, the discovery of exotic, nonlocal goods and materials at precontact archaeological sites and associated with prehistoric burials make it clear that long-distance, intercultural trade occurred before the arrival of Europeans. Neighboring groups that engaged in such exchanges undoubtedly shared at least a limited amount of bilingualism. Intermarriage probably helped promote bilingual communication while also fostering the formation of trade and military alliances. At greater distances, native middlemen skilled in a variety of languages or knowledgeable in a shared lingua franca, or common language, may have specialized as long-distance traders. These native trade and communication networks later formed the basis for intercultural trade and communication between Europeans and the indigenous inhabitants of North America.

Nonspeech Communication. In addition to bilingualism and the use of linguae francae, Native Americans also employed several nonspeech communication systems. At least one of these, sign language, apparently facilitated intercultural communication among precontact native North Americans. Sign language is not a secondary system based on a particular language or languages but a completely independent system for communicating ideas directly. Since Indian sign language is often used by people speaking different languages, the signs cannot stand for words; instead the signs themselves have meaning. Each person translates the meaning of the hand signals into the words of his own language. Similarly, various kinds of picture writing and longdistance signaling may also have served as the basis for intercultural communication across linguistic boundaries.

Postcontact Communication. When Europeans and Native Americans first confronted each other on the North American continent, they faced communication problems similar to those faced by Europeans of different linguistic backgrounds in Europe or by precontact native groups speaking different languages in America. Despite linguistic differences, however, all Europeans shared similar material lives, religions, economies, gender roles, polities, and worldviews that could serve as the foundation for the development of communication across language boundaries. Similarly, all Native Americans experienced certain common underlying features of North American life. The difficulty of finding a common basis for meaningful intercultural communication between Europeans and Native Americans was considerably magnified by the vast differences between the lifestyles, economies, kinship systems, belief systems, worldviews, and cultural systems on either side of the Atlantic. To make matters worse, Indian languages bore little syntactic, morphological, or phonological resemblance to European tongues. At first, then, communication between Europeans and native North Americans probably took the form of rudimentary gestures and signs, leaving a great deal of room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. As contact between European explorers and the indigenous inhabitants increased, specialized jargons and pidgins emerged. Unfortunately these specialized contact languages, while useful in limited exchanges focusing on trade, were ill-suited to communication of abstract concepts and ideas. Finally, by about 1600, more intensive, long-term contact had led to the use of linguae francae and some European-American bilingualism, at least in certain areas.

Effects of Contact. Although postcontact intercultural communication bore many similarities to pre-1492 communication among native North Americans and among Europeans, contact wrought many changes in North American communication systems. Most obvious, perhaps, were the many new and borrowed words and phrases that appeared in both Native American and European languages to describe the unfamiliar peoples, places, flora, and fauna encountered by both sides as a result of transatlantic contact and exchange, such as canoe, moccasin, and toboggan. Less obvious, though more significant, were the entirely new language communities that formed as refugee and remnant groups combined in the wake of devastating epidemics and warfare. In other cases the sharp decline in indigenous populations resulted in the extinction of some native North American languages following contact. Finally, as Europeans slowly came to dominate regions of the continent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their languages and modes of communication assumed dominance, too, displacing older, indigenous systems.

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Pre-1600: Communications: Overview

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Pre-1600: Communications: Overview