Communication, Language, Symbolism and Culture

By Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations

We can communicate in many ways. With gestures and hand signals when we don’t share a common language (as among humans) or don’t even have what humans might recognize as language, as between humans trying to communicate with anthropoid apes or advanced cetaceans, and possibly other non-human species.

Only very rarely does symbolism surpass language as a method of communication among humans. Australian “aborigines” appear to be able to read ancient petroglyphic symbols as we might read last week’s newspaper. Australian aborigines do not possess any form of written language, but they can still comprehend the ancient symbols written on the rocks.

This might all sound rather highfalutin’ but I am not a highflalutin’ kind of gal. The idea for this blog presented itself when I was watching a series of BBC documentaries celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee (“The Diamond Queen”).

On high state occasions, the Queen wears a crown or a tiara. She rarely appears without head gear. When not wearing a jeweled something on her head, she wears a hat. And what hats! How many hundreds of hats have graced her hard-working, wise old head? Big hats, small hats. Hats with flowers, hats with feathers, hats with buttons. Symmetrical hats, asymmetrical hats. Brightly coloured hats and pale pastel hats.
When not wearing a jeweled something on her head, she wears a hat.

On high state occasions, the Queen wears a crown or a tiara. She rarely appears without head gear. When not wearing a jeweled something on her head, she wears a hat. And what hats! How many hundreds of hats have graced her hard-working, wise old head? Big hats, small hats. Hats with flowers, hats with feathers, hats with buttons. Symmetrical hats, asymmetrical hats. Brightly coloured hats and pale pastel hats. Wow.

I myself feel naked if I leave my flat without a hat on my head. I normally wear a discreet topper, usually a beret or a beret-like hat, or a billed macramé paper or wide-brimmed straw hat (in summer) or a billed leather or wool hat (in winter). I have lots of other hats. Confections with silk flowers and ostrich feathers suitable for gay festivals. A green felt hat with a falcon feather when I want to reprise Robin Hood. A gold sequined baseball cap for summer sporting events.

I do not attach any particular symbolism to what I wear on my own head—I just like to have something on my noggin.

But watching the BBC’s documentary of “The Diamond Queen,” I became aware of the symbolism that many societies attach to their head gear. Nowadays, few Americans wear hats. Not so in the past.

Growing up in Post World War II Southern California, one could immediately identify new arrivals from the East because they all wore hats. They soon abandoned them in the hot, dry California climate.

In spite of all the Hollywood hype about cowboys, nobody on the West Coast wore a ten-gallon hat. The only people who regularly wore hats were Hispanic immigrants working in the fields picking lettuce, grapes and all the other crops upon which California’s agricultural wealth was based. Those people wore simple but effective straw sombreros to protect themselves from the burning sun.

Nowadays, most Africans, people from the Middle East and Central Asia (especially the women) have some sort of head covering.

These head coverings are not personal idiosyncrasies, as is my own love of having something on my head. They make statements about cultural, political and religious convictions.

As with the Australian aborigines, these symbols can transcend language.

I love it that the Queen of England usually prefers to wear a hat instead of a crown, as she is certainly entitled to do. I very much do not like other forms of symbolic head-gear.

For example, the turban that Sikh men wear. I don’t mind the turban per se. What I do mind is the fact that they ask for exemptions from wearing normal head gear. They demand to be admitted to the ranks of the police and fire-fighters without being required to wear the usual hard-hats or other protective gear. This endangers not only they themselves, it also puts their colleagues at risk when those colleagues must return to rescue inappropriately attired co-workers.

I have no problem with the flowing head gear of Arab princes worn in their native lands. I object to the necessity of “their” women covering up their heads in inappropriate head coverings in other lands—like here in Western Europe. I’m an expert when it comes to head garb. A hijab is a useless item of clothing or protection in a Jura winter.

It isn’t waterproof. It has no protecting bill to keep the rain or snow off your face or off your eyeglasses. It isn’t warm. An umbrella is useless in a right good storm; it gets turned inside out in the wind.

Why fore, then, wear it here? Because it is a symbol.

As with the Australian aborigines, some symbols can transcend language.
Cultural, historical and religious symbols?

A symbol of what? It is a cultural, historical and religious symbol. The hijab is a symbol that it is important for us in the West to analyze.

We hear about all the “Boat People” who risk their lives on shoddy vessels trying to leave North Africa for a new life in Europe. Once arrived in Europe, once making a few Euros, they send for their families back home. Once those families arrive in Europe they continue to live their lives as before, cloaking and shrouding their women, sometimes performing “honor killings” when their female offspring try to adapt to their new lives in a new land.

It is a useless exercise to leave one’s old life behind to seek a new one, then to try to maintain the old ways in a new place. That’s just taking your tired, useless old baggage with you, it is not the beginning of a new life.

My Grandmother was upset when my Grandfather would only speak English with his children in the immigrant ghetto in Cleveland in the first decades of the 20th Century. “If I wanted them to speak Czech,” he retorted, “I would have stayed in Bohemia.” Grandma didn’t get it, but Grandpa did. He understood that if one is seeking a new life, one must leave all the old trappings and all the old baggage behind. If one was truly seeking a new life, one couldn’t be forever tethered to the old one.

Not that Grandpa abandoned his culture or his traditions. He published books on the Czech ethnic group in North America, for example. He was mindful of the culture from which he came….but more than that, he embraced his new land.

Modern immigrants should take a page from Grandpa’s book. When these so-called seekers of a new life leave their native countries, they should be prepared to actually accept—and embrace!—new living conditions like Grandpa did.

One of those new conditions is abandoning the second-class status of women that is symbolized by their inappropriate head-coverings in a harsh climate in Western Europe.

By the way, I am myself an immigrant in the land in which I live. I left my native California over 30 years ago to start a new life here in Switzerland. I have worked hard to adapt to life in my adopted country. I have learned local languages, local manners, and have tried to blend in to the daily life of my new countrymen.

Lucky for me that the climate here is terrible and it’s almost always necessary to cover one’s head. I cover my own head because it’s necessary and because I like to. There is no symbolism inherent in my choice of head gear, it’s just personal idiosyncrasy.

Usually, head gear doesn’t only cover one’s head, it also symbolizes one’s past—and it might symbolize one’s future. I would like for these blog posts to be timeless, but—alas—I am a news junkie who pays attention to what’s going on.

A large illegal immigrant camp in Calais, France, was recently closed because of disease and violence in the camp. At nearly the same time, a wave of sub-Saharan migrants flooded over a six-meter fence at a Spanish enclave in Morocco. While there were young males in both places, the women had been left at home.

While I get it that these people are seeking a new and better life, Europe simply cannot absorb the flood tide of non-Europeans trying to better themselves by crashing its doors.

And then there is the symbolism of the fact that it is only the males—not families, as was the case when my folks emigrated—who are trying to gain a foot-hold, sending for the shrouded women when they’ve “made it,” and trying to perpetuate the failed values that caused their own societies implode, that caused the males to try to seek a better life.

It is time that modern people who claim to be seeking a “better life” wake up to the fact that a better life is not just a life in a new land, it is state of mind, one that admits change and growth and does not insist on keeping to the old ways that didn’t work in the “Old Country” and cannot work in the new one.

The situation might appear to be intractable, but there actually is a way around it. That way is mutual understanding. When we don’t speak the same language, we must rely upon those who can translate, those who can help us navigate through the troubled waters of cultural, historical and religious misunderstanding.

All the best,

Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland


About the Author:
 Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.

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Published by Adriana Adarve

I’m Adriana Adarve, a multilingual, plurilingual, multicultural and pluricultural English to Spanish freelance translator. My primary interests—besides my passion for languages—are in science, chemistry, and medicine. That is the reason why I concentrate on medical, scientific and technical translations. I am also passionate about cultural diversity, which means that my translations always take into account my clients’ culture, as well as that of the audience for which the translations are intended.


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