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The ethos of February

  • Published at 12:00 am February 24th, 2019
Book Fair
Books can bring us together MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

Has the tendency to juxtapose English and Bangla assumed sad proportions?

February marks for all of us a milestone in our lives. It reminds us of our struggle for establishing our unique socio-cultural identity and how this helped us to move forward towards our freedom as a community and also our independence. 

The 21st day of this month has also been acknowledged by the world as our people’s commitment towards defending and promoting our language. It has also gained special status after having been termed as “International Mother Language Day” by UNESCO in 1999. 

Since then, this date is being celebrated by Unesco, its member states, and worldwide as annual observance to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and mother-tongue based multilingual education. This dynamic has now also become associated with being important for sustainable development.

In this month, I recall with great reverence all language martyrs including Rafiq, Salam, Barkat, and Jabbar, who sacrificed their lives for the cause of our mother tongue.

At this point, one also needs to remember with respect the role played by Bangabandhu in facilitating the international recognition of Bangla throughout the world. Immediately after our independence in 1971, Bangla was declared our state language in 1972. Bangabandhu also drew world attention by delivering his maiden speech in Bangla on September 25, 1974 at the 29th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The first language one learns is the one from one’s mother. After this, one may pick up a second language -- either to function more effectively within one’s environment or even a third language that can assist one in being more inter-active in terms of professional needs. This process was evident in India when the people of this country came under different forms of colonial rule. 

During the time of the Mughal Empire, one grew up speaking one’s mother tongue from his region. Those who wanted to climb the administrative tiers also made special efforts to learn Persian -- the court language. During the period of British colonization, everyone spoke their mother tongue as practiced in that sub-region, but those who wanted to climb the administrative ladder or sought greater recognition learned English, and also wore the kind of clothes that were worn by Britishers. Language in this spectrum had an impact on social and cultural parameters. This was evident even in the case of Rabindranath Tagore.

The language policy, according to Dr DP Pattanayak, was consistent with the education system promoted by the British. They wanted a dynamic which would produce a limited number of educated persons who would help them in governance. As far as they were concerned, the rest could remain illiterate and school drop-outs. As a result of this policy, the multilingual base of the country began to shrink. In this regard, Macaulay predicted that this system would produce generations who would be Indians by birth but English in manners and moral. This subsequently proved true.

This physical and metaphysical metamorphosis has also taken place in our Gangetic region. The people living in this area, in verdant natural surroundings, with agriculture as an integral part of their lives have relied for knowledge on collective experience. In most cases this was conveyed and shared through adages and proverbs. Rural sayings, folklore, proverbs and Bachans gradually over the years have become part of our tradition. They were the kernel at the core of local culture and still continue to enjoy that status.

Gradually, adages have evolved as distinct expressions, more like milestones, indicating to the local population what they might do or abstain from if they are to succeed in their lives. Almost similar to almanacs (published in European countries), these traditional sayings have become an important part of our heritage.

In this month of February, I am drawing the attention of the readers to an important aspect of our evolving culture. It has been quite natural that there has been growth in the use of English within our growing young functionally literate and educated population. They also read, speak, and understand Bangla, but at the same time, there is a growing tendency because of social media for most of them to unfortunately quite often lapse into “Banglish” -- a juxtaposition of English and Bengali. They sometimes continue to use their improper version of functional adages at the expense of proper Bangla. This has now assumed sad proportions.

Bachans and proverbs have historical associations and have evolved through time. They need to be respected both in terms of their denotations and connotations. They represent the gradual evolution of civilization.

It may be mentioned that all proverbs, in all languages including Bangla, however short they might be, have a singular characteristic -- they generally have a philosophical content and connote a special meaning. Such expressions are usually formulated on the basis of broad experience and not on emotion. As a result, some authors refer to proverbs as being crystallized forms of human experience. This makes it that much more important that there is no corruption in its use.

Adages normally have two meanings -- one literary, and the other, an inner meaning. Normally, the importance of the Bachan lies in the significance of the symbolical meaning. This is what distinguishes it from an idiom. It consequently becomes that much more important for it not having to suffer because of constructional fallacies. 

In February, when the whole world is honouring Bangla and Bangladesh through the observation of the International Mother Language Day, our younger citizens also need to honour the cultural paradigm by not creating corruption in linguistics through social media or with the help of digitalization.

Use of digital facilities, one has to remember, has several positive dimensions and they need to be used for expanding the recognition and respect for Bangla and the International Mother Language Day. It has opened up the possibility of digitalization of manuscripts and classical texts. This will help us and the relevant authorities associated with our Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture to preserve research scripts. 

Research can also be carried out on matters related to cultural evolution from text to speech and from speech to text. Capturing oral, folk literature, folk music -- digitizing and storing them -- can help us to disseminate them throughout Bangladesh as well as in other parts of the world. It can also help information retrieval and extraction, web search, text summarization, text categorization, sentiment analysis and machine translation, spelling correction, speech recognition, speech synthesis, and general research.

Bangladesh, through its biggest ever book fair this February, has again shown the rest of the world how literature and books can not only bring us together, but also persuade us to find out what others are seriously thinking, and how they hope to overcome the challenges that we are faced with. It is particularly an iconic time for children and a stage where they can share the lighter side of life.

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]