The hybrid narratives on the ash soap and the orange wine bring two social languages intertwined. This game of languages is reinforced in the activities showing semantic relationships and movements of joining and severing words and phrases. Thus, the linguistic signs of the community were placed side by side with the linguistic signs of science establishing a form of dialogue that approaches the following remark of the philosopher and Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin:
After all, to comprehend a sign is to approximate the perceived sign to other signs already known; in other words, the comprehension is a response to a sign by mean of signs. (Bakhtin, 2004, p. 34)
In Bahktin’s view, any language or system of signs, in principle, can always be deciphered or translated by other systems or languages (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 106). The language depicts experiences and actions undertaken in social and culturally determined environments and is both linked to signification as communication. When two people speak the same language, they communicate more easily. Language, knowledge, social environment and culture are thus intercrossed and as knowledge is always knowledge in context, the same can be said for language.
In his studies Vygotsky associated language to a phenomenon of thought, as its concrete reflex:
The meaning of the words is a phenomenon of thought only to the extent that the thought acquires body through speech, and it is only a phenomenon of speech as it is connected to thought, being illuminated by it. It is a phenomenon of verbal thought or meaningful speech – a union of word and thought. (Vygotsky, 1991, p. 104)
Lucien Lévy-Bruhl was a French philosopher and sociologist who devoted himself mainly to the study of the so-called “primitive” societies, where he sought to develop a science of their mores. He was interested in to distinguish the mental functioning of primitive people from that of people in modern societies. Vygotsky progressed on this way distinguishing “rudimentary” and “advanced” mental functions in which “abstraction” and “decontextualization” became parameters of demarcation. The relationship between thought and speech is thus a relationship that involves cognitive abilities also.
According to Bahktin each language represents a peculiar speech of a particular social group (professional, age etc.) at a given time. Social dialects, professional jargons, the discourse of science and of the soap and wine producers are examples of social languages and within them we find the speech genres. While social languages belong to specific groups of individual speakers, the speech genres include kinds of communication or types of enunciation expressed in communicative situations, which involve themes and particular contacts between the words and the concrete reality (Wertsch & Smolka, 1994 p. 130).
Cruikshank (1981, quoted in Snively & Corsiglia, 2001, p. 16) observed this in other terms referring to the existence of an intellectual mode of knowledge epistemologically distinct in the traditional societies and communities, which has both scope and limitations. Among the limitations, the author pointed the literary style and symbolism and that each culture has a specific literary style. A singular difference regarding the scientific knowledge is that the spoken language is dominant in these communities and there is no written documentary sources usually. This is somewhat confirmed in the practices of making the ash soap and the orange wine as the only written documents were the recipes.
Thus, by being predominantly oral, the language of these local knowledges is more spontaneous and it is true that it has distinct levels of construction and sophistication in comparison with the written language of Science also. These forms mobilize different cognitive and communicative skills. In the reading of the hybrid narratives, it must have been awkward to observe the literal transcription of the individuals’ speech to written language as the textual construction is often aligned with the conventional standards of language, while the spoken language flees these rules. On the other hand, if this had happened the community’s language would have been modified drastically.
Some examples of the social language and speech genres or literary style of the ash soap makers can be observed in the speeches of Mrs. Rosa related to procedures carried out by her:
– “First I put the ash there in the bucket. After I, I pound it down with a socket. Therein after that I have pound it very well down, then I put the water. Therein, after I drip the dicuada. And after that that I put here into the pan. Put the dicuada there and put the tallow. The tallow or the fat, and go, and go mixing. Therein after… then that depurates the soap”.
– “I spoke, aaah, wait a little. I had a butter there, then I put on it. Aaah, therein it became good, I took advantage”.
These utterances describe sequential steps or operations in an economic way and lead to think that they are performed easily and quickly when, in fact, they refer to longstanding and laborious procedures, but the speech does not show it. Its economy reveals, in the other hand, a domain of the operations. It must be observed also the use of a particular verb by Mrs. Rosa to refer to the soap’s production: “then that depurates the soap“. Was she thinking that the ashes and the animal fat, for being rude, crude and useless materials, are converted into “purest” one as it serves for health, hygiene and cleanliness? Was she suggesting that the final product has a higher degree of purity in comparison with the starting materials?
In some cases, the meaning of words requires the help of the speakers themselves. Then we would have to ask Mrs. Rosa what she meant when she said: “then that depurates the soap“. In other situations the statements are not very clear to whom is not familiar with the contexts of enunciation, as for instance: “therein, after I drip the dicuada”, “It is from ash and cannot let the ash pick it up”, “the dicuada can take the fat away”,“is the dicuada that cuts the fat” and “we don´t put alcohol in the wine, it turns there inside”. These utterances express speech genres used by the producers of the soap and the orange wine to describe and explain how they see and interpret some phenomena of their practices.
An aspect of the speech genre of science is the elimination of the subject from the sentences. Instead of saying as Dona Rosa: “First I put the ash there in the bucket. After I, I pound it down with a socket”, the scientific writing say: put, add or it must be put or added or it was put and it was added. Once incorporated, the words no longer refer to their original authors and acquire a kind of universal validity which tends to be more independent of where it came from or who uttered them: it is science who is talking!
In the analysis of both knowledge and languages there are words or “technical” terms that are used to name the materials and some phenomena. Some examples are: dicuada, barrilero, lye, fermentation, anaerobic glycolysis, chemical reaction, solution, reagent, salt, acid, etc. In both cases, there are also words which serve to define a state or condition in which an object is, as for instance: weak/diluted, stronger/more concentrated, sour/acid oranges and well hurt/without the fruit pericarp.
The use of analogies is also common to both languages. In the knowledge of the women and Mrs. Ná and Mr. Zé some examples are: “if it passes doesn´t grow”, but if it´s missing doesn´t grow either “, linking the relative proportion requirement between the ingredients used in the soap´s making with culinary (baking a cake or a bread); “It´s like salt, right? Cause the salt too, the climate changes, it gets wet“, associating similar characteristics between the ash soap and table salt; “it boils inside the demijohn to turn wine. It releases a gas that bubbles like when water boils to make coffee“, to describe the boiling aspect of fermentation in the orange wine making.
Some utterances exhibit a factual basis or are grounded on what can be seen and felt, but that is/was not analyzed or interpreted. An example is to say: “it turns a salt” and “it gets white the salt” after drying the dicuada. It is interesting to note that when a group of high school students interacted with these words they had many doubts and various interpretations were uttered: “sodium chloride”, “is it really salt?”, “should be like a salt, but it is not a salt”, “something salty”, “it is the salt of the ash hydrocarbon”, “it is not salt”, “it is an organic compound”, “it´s like a sand so… you know, something”, “it´s salty too”, “it must not be salty no”, “it must be salty”, “it has more chance to be salty than any other thing”.
In the scientific interpretation, this “salt” contains a chemical compound which identity is known: potassium carbonate. This information is more accurate compared to “it turns a salt” and tends to do not raise doubts; on the other hand, it presupposes a knowledge that accompanies it or which was previously used to determine it. The chemists identified this substance and observed its presence in wood ashes making laboratory experiments, its isolation, purification and chemical analysis and used theoretical backgrounds as well, those related to chemical reactions, bonds, atoms, molecules and others. The identity of the compound evokes a series of relationships with other knowledge. Mrs. Aparecida and Mrs. Rosa know that if the dicuada is heated it will result in a “salt” and that it “gets white“. Their knowledge is also relational otherwise they would not observe that “you can put that salt in other soap“. However, the relation was established within the empirical context and did not evoked any other knowledge such as those involved in the identity of the substance in the ashes.
It is very common in science to assign specific names for objects and living beings following certain rules. The effect of this in school science is that students are asked to memorize many of these names and end to consider science and nomenclature as synonyms, creating great confusion. Beyond of being unusual denominations compared to those found in everyday life, the scientific names, as mentioned above, invoke relations with other knowledge or facts not accessible directly. Potassium carbonate, for instance, also means a chemical compound formed by defined quantities of potassium, carbon and oxygen atoms which are associated through specific interactions spatially distributed; Saccharomyces cerevisiae refers to a microorganism which can only be seen in the microscope, which has specific features and is situated within a wide chain of living organisms; sucrose and glucose are names of sugars/carbohydrates which have a specific composition and molecular and structural formulas and so forth. Other examples of factual language observed in community’s knowledge were “the soap sweats” and “it releases a gas inside the demijohn“. It must be observed again that factual knowledge means finding the facts without any interpretation or explanation associated.
When they use the verbs “depurate”, “cut”, “take” and “weaken” to refer to the interaction between the dicuada and the animal fat in the soap’s making (“then that depurates the soap”, “the dicuada can take the fat away”, “the dicuada cuts the fat” and “It is that therein it weakens the dicuada”), the women seek to explain the phenomenon. Even though using different verbs they try to express the same meaning. From the point of view of a chemist, none of such verbs makes sense because they are not part of the social language of Chemistry. To say that the dicuada cuts the fat suggests that it is literally cut using a knife or a scissor, for example. In the speech of the women, however, the verbs can mean that there is a change in the materials just as when people say that a particular tea or medicine is able to “cut” a cold or fever in ordinary language. One of the ash soap makers said that to cut means “to transform” the fat, but what actually does it mean for her?
In the light of the chemical knowledge, the use of the verb “cut” can be seen as a semantic coincidence for the alkaline hydrolysis of the esters present in the fat under the action of dicuada. According to this reaction, large molecules of the esters are “cut” or reduced to smaller pieces as can be seen in the following equation:
Equation of alkaline hydrolysis of an ester present in the animal fat
To avoid confusion, the scientific explanations tends to eliminate verbal variations and define specific words to refer to phenomena like to say that what happens is the “alkaline hydrolysis” of the fat esters or a “decomposing reaction”. In this case, the meaning can become obscure for an ordinary person because it requires the mobilization of other knowledge within a theoretical frame of reference and is more abstract therefore.
A significant component of the community’s language that is important in the social language of science is the establishment of cause and effect relations. The community’s people perceive these relationships, but they occur in a level closer to concrete reality, while in science they tend to include other entities and to generalize. Some examples are given below:
– “The stronger is the dicuada faster makes the soap”/When the ash lye is highly concentrated, faster will be the saponification reaction rate.
– “The dicuada can take the fat away”/Substances from the ash lye react and modify those from the fat.
– “If the fat stays or if it passes and if it’s missing doesn´t value nothing”; “If the dicuada passes too, it cannot let it pass either”; “If it passes doesn´t grow, but if it´s missing doesn´t grow either”/Both ingredients cannot be added in excess or lacking; there is a proportional relationship between the reactants called stoichiometry of the reaction.
– “Therein it weakens the dicuada”/The potassium carbonate concentration in the solution decreases because it reacted with the fatty acids from the fat.
– “The fire makes the sugar melt”/The heating helps to dissolve the sugar.
– “It melts more sugar”/It dissolves more amount of sucrose.
– “It is the ferment that makes it”/The yeast Saccharomyces cerevisae.
– “When it´s cold it boils slower”/Lowering the temperature produces lesser amount of gas.
– “The air is very important thing. It cannot come into. If it does it weakens the wine”/ There is the requirement to ensure anaerobic condition to do not prejudice the fermentation.
– “It is the ferment that makes it, it is the bitterness that is there inside”/It is the fermentation carried out by Saccharomyces cerevisiae that converts glucose into ethanol.
In both situations in which the knowledge of the women who make the ash soap and that from Mr. Zé and Mrs. Ná were brought to high school classrooms, the students and teachers commented that their language was closer to them and therefore easier to understand. The scientists would tend to disagree with this statement, since they are more accustomed to the social language of science and have the frames of reference that enables them to understand the phenomena from this point of view and language.
The students in this level of education operate more in the sensorial level and due to their scientific frameworks are still under construction, they are socially and culturally closer to the community’s way of knowing; thus, they considered this social language easier to understand. The words of science, such as anaerobic glycolysis, for instance, do not usually inhabit their everyday language. In the other hand, it is curious to note that the word “fermentation”, which was given by a scientist, is also used by Mr. Zé and Mrs. Ná. How did this word become their own?
When studying the local knowledge, it makes sense to analyze the speech of the people: what, how and why they express words and phrases in a certain way and relate it to the science discourse. There may be semantic intersections, perception of similarities and differences and comprehension of the knowledge. To explain these discourses and their characteristics can also aid to assess the scope and the validity of utterances. The speeches of the community tend to remain confined in their local contexts, while the discourse of science tends to transcend and work beyond them.
Given the difficulty that students have with the language of science, it would fit to ask them: why should we must appropriate the social language of science? In the other hand, due to some teachers’ emphasis on science nomenclature, it would fit to ask them: why to require students to know so many names that are not part of their lives? Would it not be better to stimulate the comprehension of why there are such denominations rather than to memorize them? In the context of the activities involving language games another question would be: what are the implications of this type of activity in terms of mental functioning and development for students? Do they learn more effectively this way? The approach of linguistic signs really helps to understand better the knowledges and their languages? Does it offer more tools for us to communicate with the others?
Bakhtin (1981, p. 271-274) called heteroglossia the authentic environment where our statements live and develop. This means that since birth we are surrounded by a plurality of voices. At the same time, there is a tendency of unification and centralization of a “correct language”, standardized and officially recognized. The language of science taught in classrooms is an example. All language is “ideologically saturated”, is a “world view” and a “unified language” helps to unify and centralize culture and society. However, heteroglossia operates continuously in our midst, as a centrifugal force that decentralizes, disperses and stratifies the language. The “unitary language” imposes limits on it, but cannot be closed to dialogue otherwise it will be contradicting the essentially dialogic nature of language.
Back to: The knowledges and their contexts
Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays. In: Emerson, C.; Holquist, M. (Eds.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bakhtin, M. (2004). Marxismo e Filosofia da Linguagem. 11. ed. São Paulo: Hucitec.
Snively, G. & Corsiglia, J. (2001). Discovering indigenous Science: Implications for Science Education. Science Education, 85(6), 6-34.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1991). Pensamento e Linguagem. São Paulo: Martins Fontes.
Wertsch, J. V.; Smolka, A. L. B. (1994). Continuando o diálogo: Vygotsky, Bakhtin e Lotman. In: Daniels, H. (Org.) Vygotsky em foco: pressupostos e desdobramentos. Campinas: Papirus.