The concept of a “social death” is intriguing in that it can be understood in at least two distinct ways. On the one hand, it manifests as the literal death of a society. In other words, this sort of death implies mortality on a grand scale– be it through systematic killing, or evolutionary adaptation and/or extinction. On the other hand, and more to the point, a social death is viewed in a metaphorical sense with a plethora of implications. Moreover, the notion of dying is typically understood to be socially conditioned. This piece serves as an analysis into some of the ways through which language as a social tool can essentially manipulate, and ultimately determine a given cultural group’s perception of death and dying.
To begin, it is necessary to expand upon this aforementioned idea: that a language can determine one’s world-view. In theoretical terms, this notion is called linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Simply put, it suggests that one’s language influences how they are to comprehend their surroundings and experiences. This theory, however, is typically understood as having two distinct definitions– termed “weak” and “strong.” While the former identification of “weak” actually pertains to linguistic relativity, the latter of “strong” in fact indicates a separate category– that of linguistic determinism. In other words, these labels are meant to demonstrate the degrees (weak or strong), to which language can skew one’s perceptions.
It is with these suggestions in mind that our discussion will proceed to an examination of concrete examples of these sort of occurrences. The Japanese language is a good starting point, in that it influences the notion of death to the point that it rouses a sense of wariness, as well as fear, amongst members of Japanese society. The word for death (shi, 死) and the number four (shi, 四) are homophones, and are thus widely considered to be related on a conceptual level. This is perhaps exemplified best in the fact that many buildings in Japan do not have a fourth floor, as the number four is considered unlucky.
It is important to note, however, that this attitude is not uniquely Japanese, as it was most likely inherited from China. Japanese characters (kanji) are in fact descended from those used in Chinese (hánzì), and the Japanese language was not written prior to this adoption. Furthermore, kanji typically possess multiple readings– a native Japanese one (kunyomi) and an approximation of its Chinese pronunciation (onyomi). With the adoption of a new script came the preservation of the several of the words themselves (termed “Sino-Japanese”), as well as their deeply ingrained cultural implications. Additionally, the verb “to die” (shinu, 死ぬ) is often avoided in conversation when describing a person’s passing. Rather, the act of dying is rendered as nakunaru (亡くなる), which also translate as “to be lost.” This is due to the fact that while the former is fairly direct, the latter is more polite in its use of seemingly poetic metaphor and thus, preferred in discourse.
The aforementioned examples drawn from the Japanese language back the idea of linguistic avoidance of the various words for death/words that make some sort of associative reference to death for the purpose of the elimination of sentiments of or anxieties about wariness, fear, bad luck, and discourteousness usually associated with the mention of death. This is in some ways similar to the perspectives of Laos and Cambodian emigrants, as they appear in Langford’s Consoling Ghosts. Though Langford’s ethnography does not focus on the concrete linguistic rules or turns of talk utilized in the speech of Laos and Cambodian emigrants, she still gets at what was found in the Japanese linguistic examples surrounding death and dying.
Langford accompanies a hospice nurse on a visit to a Lao household at one point in the ethnography–the elderly patient had been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. The patient’s family, according to the nurse, doubted the diagnosis, cut the patient off from her medication in the form of a transdermal “pain patch” on the belief that the painkillers were not good for her, and instead gave the patient a regimen of herbal medicines imported from Laos. This scenario is not representative of some idea of the non-Western primitive and their refutation of modern medicine–to make such a claim would be reductive and colonialist in attitude–but instead this scenario reveals something about the Laos approach to experiences of, and conversations surrounding, death and dying. “When the nurse asked the granddaughter if she had told her grandmother her diagnosis, the granddaughter answered tactfully but firmly. ‘This is not a good time to tell her. Both traditionally and emotionally, it would kill her.’” The granddaughter makes the above claim on account of her grandmother’s being set in the ‘old way’–to Langford, the granddaughter with these comments “politely rejected the practice of disclosure as well as the idea of dignified death as one that is self-conscious and free of denial,” not as an anti-modern or primitive counterattack on modern medical practice, but instead, “in invoking tradition she engaged the presumed multiculturalist sympathies of the white nurse, making use of an ambivalence within a medical ethics that is simultaneously committed to cultural competence and patient autonomy.”
This case of the elderly patient diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is representative of a larger sentiment concerning medical language and “truth-telling”: “it is hardly surprising, then, if some patients, attuned to the material power of utterance and the eloquence of silence, hear truth-telling not as an offer of information, but as a gesture of dismissal, a consignment to the community of the dying.” This is conceived of as a practice of truth-telling as social abandonment–which is understood by Langford as a manifestation of the fears and traumas associated with marginalization and cultural displacement and massacre–which happens to operate on the same sort of basis as the Japanese linguistic practices structured to avoid words for/words associated with death. Just as it is polite to speak of a person’s passing in Japanese with the verb “to be lost” (nakunaru, 亡くなる), an obviously less direct and more metaphorical rendering than the straightforward verb “to die” (shinu, 死ぬ), in Hmong, refusing to tell someone they are dying is not lying, nor is it denying, but is instead an expression of care in a “specific ‘idiom of support.’”
The notion of death, or the imagined experience of dying, is indeed conditioned–and, as we have seen in contexts Japanese, Laos, and Hmong, the “bitter medicine for the spirit” in the West–that is, terminal prognosis or truth-telling–is conceived of as a danger to the life of the would-be diagnosed; a poison. To state these medical truths is, in a sense, to will what it is they entail into being.