Reflections on language, culture and social identity

John Peacock

The Buddha repeatedly points out in the course of his teaching career that all languages are cultural constructs and that the relationship between the signs that constitute a language, and what is signified by those signs is purely conventional. He also recognized the role that language plays in conditioning what we might refer to, as ‘ego consciousness’ and creating the illusion that reality, like language, is composed of fixed and unchanging (unchangeable) elements. This was the theory of language and of being that was current in the Buddha’s day, and was rejected by him.

The Buddha’s treatment of language would perplex scholars trained in Brahmin philology and offers an entirely different perspective on our relationship to language. One of the discoveries I have made in the course of my own study of the Buddha’s Dhamma is that it is distorted when not understood in its own terms. This applies very particularly to his understanding of language. For example, T.W. Rhys Davids and Maurice Walshe in their respective translations of the Aggañña Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 27 – a text that deals with the socio-genesis of human societies), observe in footnote comments that the Buddha had in many instances resorted to ‘fanciful etymologies’ to debunk the Brahmin system of social hierarchy.

In the first place the Buddha was neither a Brahmin grammarian nor an etymologist interpreting an ancient ‘text,’ lexicon in hand. He was engaged in face-to-face discussion with people about their real life-world. Many of the changes he was talking about, like the expansion of the agricultural economy, the forceful induction of forest-dwelling people into agricultural labour and the disintegration of tribal society, was taking place under the very eyes of his listeners. The Buddha’s concern was with the emancipation of people from an oppressive ideology, not with presenting an abstract dissertation.

The ‘Copernican’ revolution in the understanding of language formulated by the Buddha is rooted in his discovery of the conventional character of language. The meaning attached to sounds as acoustic symbols is purely a social or cultural convention. Language like everything else is a construct and has to be related to the changing conditions of human activities and perceptions. It is not, as the Brahmins thought, a pre-given transcendental reality, it is an historical development. On this view, signs do not fall from the skies pregnant with signification. Each culture ‘invents’ its own system of signs – non-verbal and verbal. For him, language and speech are equally constructs – saṅkhātas. When language is deconstructed – visaṅkhāta – it reveals itself as empty of transcendental signification. It is anicca and anattā. Non-recognition of this fact spawns dukkha and as he points out:

A bhikkhu whose mind is liberated, neither concurs nor disputes with anyone; he employs the current phraseology of the world without clinging to it.

This is something we should take cognizance of in our secular approaches to Buddhism. The intrinsic relationship between language and consciousness is elucidated in an exposition given by the Theri Dhammadinnā (Cūḷavedalla Sutta, MN. 44). She distinguishes between three forms of saṅkhāras, human life-activities or constructions: kāyasaṅkhāras (physiological); vaci saṅkhāras (verbal); and citta saṅhkāras (mental).

Kāyasaṅkhāra – physiological activities

Dhammadinnā begins with the bodily before proceeding to examine mental activity. The Buddha, in various discourses, classifies as physiological, those activities, which occur more or less independently of the conscious mind – autonomic or motoric activity, breathing in and out for example. When asked what she understood by physiological activity, Dhammadinnā gives breathing as an example. These are physiological activities, she explained, because they are ‘conditioned by the body.’

Dhammadinnā begins her exposition of saṅkhāras at the physiological level in a direct reversal of some speculations found in the Upaniṣads. In Upaniṣadic thought, the personified and divinized wind element Vāyu, had become a philosophical concept – Ātman-Brāhman or Absolute ‘Spirit.’ Humans according to (male) creation myths have ‘life’ because the life breath is blown into a ‘dead form’ by a supreme being (male) to create a ‘living entity.’ Dhammadinnā overturns this fantastic fabrication: breath enters and leaves the body because humans inhale and exhale: inhalation and exhalation are physiological processes. Breathing ceases when vital processes run down. Breath comes and goes because humans breathe, and not because the lungs, as it is claimed in some Upaniṣads, are worked like a pair of bellows by a spiritual or wind-like being.

Vaci-saṅkhāra – verbal activity

Dhammadinnā’s definition is here quite startling – ‘reflection and reasoning’ (vitakka) and ‘discursive thought’ (vicāra) are verbal activity. Perplexed by this extraordinary classification, her interlocutor asked how she arrived at this conclusion. She replies: pubbe kho vitakketvā vicāretvā pacchā vācam bhindati – first one applies thought and sustains thought, and subsequently one breaks out into speech, that is why (they) are verbal formation. Dhammadinnā appears to argue back from speech to discursive thought. In order to systematically present a point of view, a speaker must express her/his thoughts using words arranged in logical and coherent sequence. This indicates that she/he had already been thinking things out using language.

If she had assumed a body/consciousness dichotomy, she would have classified conscious thought as mental activity and speech as physical activity. But Dhammadinnā is arguing that conscious activity is already, or initially verbal activity. Speech is merely the exteriorization of linguistic activity which had begun in the mind. So, what then is mental activity according to the Buddha and the early Buddhists?


‘Perceptions and feelings are mental activities (constructions).’ These she explains ‘are mental things, dependent on mind and therefore [they are] activities of the mind,’ whereas, discursive thought and reasoning are dependent on language.

Metaphysical thinking assumes that language and thought inhabit a realm of their own. It is on the basis of these unquestioned assumptions that they argue that both are traceable to a metaphysical source. In contradistinction, Dhammadinnā traces thought to its earthly matrix. Language and thought, on this view, are situated between physiological and mental activity. Conditioned by physiological activity there is breathing; conditioned by breathing there is speech. When breathing ceases, not only speech but the ability to make a sound cease.

The Buddha’s understanding of language, understood in its own terms, provides insight into the socio-genesis of individual consciousness. Language, as has already been stated, is a social construct. The conscious mind thinks via the medium of language. When a growing child learns a language it is, by that fact, inducted into the representative or symbolic world of language. The child, as the Buddha put it, begins to live ‘with a mind that is limited,’ and this limitation is not wholly of the child’s own making. The limits are prescribed by culture, which determines the thinkable from the desirable, and the unthinkable and the not-to-be-desired. These delimitations and the precarious balance that the ego or self achieves are from their inception, symbolic transactions.

The verbal signs a child learns governs what is exorable and inexorable. A growing child does indeed perceive difference, but the differences it learns to speak of, and be silent about, are culturally conditioned. Through a common language a growing child is initiated into a collective delusion that perceived differences are ‘signs’ of substantial differences. But as the Buddha observed, ‘the differences spoken of among humans are only conventional’ (Sutta Nipāta, 611). By covering up the social origins of language historically and personally, metaphysicians can attribute it to a transcendental signifier, such as a god.

The social production of identity

In a debate with the Buddha, a Brahmin scholar called Assalāyana (‘he was a master of the Three Vedas with their vocabularies, liturgy, phonology, and etymology, and the histories as a fifth; skilled in philology and grammar, he was fully versed in natural philosophy and the marks of a Great Man’ Assalāyana Sutta, MN. 93), reiterated the standard claim that children are born with pre-fixed natures, which determine their social identity, position and consciousness. The Buddha in reply, asked pointedly: ‘Do you know whether the foetus (gandhabba) in a womb is noble, a Brahmin, a peasant or a sudda?’ Assalāyana has to concede that he has no way of knowing that. If this is so, the Buddha asked, pursuing the matter further: ‘Do you know who you are (by nature)?’ “No, we do not,’ Assalāyana admitted.

The radical implication of this admission is an inspiration to all those who may be committed to ending sexism, racism and other prejudices. Identity, in this sense, is socially imputed and internalized by growing children. The Buddha stressed this in another exchange with Brahmin scholars:

A person’s lineage could be traced on the paternal and maternal sides. Where there is production of individuality in a khattiya family, it is reckoned as a khattiya. (The same is repeated for a child born into a brahmana, a vessa or a sudda family). Wherever it is that there is production of an individuality, it is reckoned according to that. (Ghaṭīkāra Sutta, MN. 81)

It is society, not a pre-existing identity-consciousness, which stamps the child with a name and identity. Signs penetrate the womb and stigmatize the baby, for better or for worse, even before it is born. A child is spoken about, from the moment parents, relatives, and neighbours become aware that a woman is pregnant. The Buddha is not a speculative philosopher for whom ‘self-consciousness’ is an abstract essence inherent in each separate individual. He is an empirical proto-psychologist who diagnoses and discloses the social origins of identity consciousness.

Applying the principle of dependent arising (paṭicca-samuppāda) consistently, the Buddha explains the socio-genesis of social differentiation and its reproduction from generation to generation by cultural factors, foremost of which is language. No one comes into the world, from the Buddha’s perspective, with a consciousness pre-fabricated by a creator or by a self in a previous birth: ‘apart from conditions there is no origination of [identity] consciousness’ and this is an invariable law. Individuality – or identity consciousness is iddappaccayatā – ‘thus-conditioned’ or specifically conditioned.