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Dhaka Tribune

In so many Words

Update : 20 Feb 2014, 08:44 PM

Languages are fascinating, living things. They grow, evolve, become structured, compete, plunder, devour, survive and then thrive. Some get called prestige languages other dialects. Some go extinct. Many have scripts, others use the scripts from the ones that do. Some don’t ever get written down.

There are regional languages, national languages, international languages, even UN languages. There are composite languages, like Esperanto and language isolates like Basque.  Many live in families with their relatives. All borrow words from one another and most get caught up in the politics of power and class. This happens across the globe and South Asia is no exception.

The politics of the 1947 Partition of British-administered India left indelible scars on our diverse linguistic landscape. For one, it solidified the positions of Urdu and Hindi as the representative languages of two “nations” in an ill-fitted two-nation theory.

Trouble is, South Asia has never hosted just two nations. It is a multinational entity in the truest sense so when Urdu was chosen as the national language of Pakistan, it was an unnatural occurrence, as the national language of a state is determined, if anything, by its number of speakers. In Pakistan, the majority spoke Bangla.

To be fair, it’s not entirely incongruent that Urdu was chosen as the language of Pakistan. In national terms, the state of Pakistan is an unnatural occurrence to begin with. It had two disconnected wings, various ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, and disproportionalities of resources and power that vastly favoured the minority.

Urdu as a language is not native to any region in Pakistan, in fact it is not a natural language at all but one that was cobbled together to facilitate communication between foreign rulers and Indian subjects in the 15th century, when it was called Hindustani. Even now, 93% of Pakistan’s population has a mother tongue other than Urdu.

Urdu was chosen as the linga franca of the new state, so as not to give any native Pakistani language preference over the other. But it inadvertently gave the minority that spoke it as their native tongue, a privileged position, which was further reinforced by the very power dynamics that brought Urdu into being in the first place. It also carried absurd religious overtones, particularly in its script, which was adapted from Farsi, itself adapted from Arabic.

But a connotative value is seldom more powerful than an intrinsic one, and languages are much more than instruments of communication or vehicles for political expression. They are the catalogue of a nation’s temperament, and carry within them the sum total of a people’s journey through time and thought.

Languages are the expression of a culture’s soul; they preserve values, philosophies, stories, parables, proverbs, humour, priorities and traditions that reflect the history and sociology of the place in which they occur, and the people who carry it on their tongues. Their very grammars and vocabularies are encyclopaedic, and contain clues about a culture’s evolution and path, along with the way in which it interprets its world.

Languages give vent to emotional, social and spiritual experiences that can only be described in the very unique ways these experiences are felt and understood by different cultures. Translations never quite carry those feelings across, as they (the feelings) occur within the same context as the original language, which is designed to accommodate them.

And then there is context itself, which languages give us, by giving us a sense of place and of belonging. Beyond these are the aesthetics of individual languages, which possess their own unique beauty and charm, and the privacy they afford us by virtue of their exclusivity.

There will never be enough space to expound the value of language and how it helps construct our consciousness, as this is something that can be felt far better than it can be explained. But its worth can be understood in the way people cling to their own language, and in the way power is exerted over a people by trying to separate them from it.

Time and again, people have been forbidden to speak their own languages by forces that sought to dominate them. The Irish, the Kurds, Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, the Moors of Spain, African slaves, the Tamils of Sri Lanka and countless other people have had the unfortunate experience of being forcibly distanced from their linguistic heritage in an attempt to subjugate and divide them.

Even today, immigrants are frowned upon for preserving their language in countries where the call for linguistic homogeneity dominates the debate. But people have resisted these attempts equally consistently, and numerous languages around the world are experiencing powerful revivals. The most successful of these is of course Hebrew, which was once relegated to ceremonial use, but is now the national language of Israel, spoken widely and freely.

In Bangladesh, we could do much more to support and encourage the numerous languages that are spoken by non-Bengali people like the Shaotal, Chakma, Garo, Marma and others, whose love for their own language is no less than ours. Even Urdu, as the language of the Bihari community, has a place in a country that believes all languages are beautiful.

On the 21st of February, 1952, we signed a contract in blood to remain faithful to ourselves and to our heritage. We eventually succeeded in establishing Bangla as an official language of Pakistan, where it was once regarded by religious and linguistic chauvinists as an inferior, “tainted” tongue.

Today, the date belongs not just to Bangladesh but also to the world, as it marks International Mother Language Day, the day when the world pays tribute to its rich diversity of languages. This may well be our most enduring contribution to the family of nations, and the sacrifices made by those young men 62 years ago will go on to inspire generations of language-lovers who believe in the old Persian saying that goes:

‘A garden with only one kind of flower is no garden at all.’

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