Language, identity, its loss and what it means

Anika Mahin | Published: 00:15, Feb 21,2018 | Updated: 20:19, Feb 20,2018


LANGUAGE is the carrier of civilisation, the mode of self-expression and self-determination and identity; both political and cultural. According to Ngugi WA Thiong’o, ‘Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world.’ This is why throughout history language has come under attack and censorship time and again as a way of controlling, oppressing, marginalising and subjugating a populace. The most burning example of this is the 1952 Language Movement of Bangladesh — a movement that developed in demand for the right of self-actualisation of a nation, the legacy of which gave birth to 1971, a movement in which the seed of liberation sowed. Therefore, by stifling a language, a people’s cultural and political identity is stifled. A people’s voice is robbed. In the arsenal of politics of subjugation, attack and repression on language has always been an effective tool.

While speaking of language and politics of subjugation, Harold Pinter’s one act play Mountain Language (1988) comes to mind. The play deals with a repressive regime whose repression and subjugation is reflected in the imposition of a ban on speaking the mother tongue. The play takes place in a prison where a mother and a wife come to visit their son and husband. What follows is a brutal depiction of violence. This violence is played out on a physical level, sexual level and ultimately on the level of language. By preventing the mother, an old woman from speaking to her son, a prisoner, in their own language the regime robs her of her freedom to speak her mind and express herself. At the end of the play the ban on speaking the mountain language is finally lifted and she is encouraged to speak up. But, the mother does not speak a word. She has lost her language, lost her voice. She has been rendered silent.

Question rises, what does this silence mean? There is an estimated seven thousand languages spoken in the world today and according to linguists approximately half of these are in danger of extinction and will perhaps disappear by the end of the century. According to UNESCO, since 1950s, on an average three languages every three months has been disappearing. According to this calculation since 1950s about two hundred forty languages has become extinct or is on the verge of extinction. This means that since the 1950s, two hundred forty linguistic groups, cultures, or people has disappeared or is in the verge of disappearance in one sense of the word or the other. Loss of language means the extinction of language and this extinction of language takes place when a language loses all its native speakers. This commonly happens when the remaining members of a community stops using the native language due to lack of social and economic recognition. However, when a language is lost a people’s cultural identity is lost alongside which in turn means the loss of political and cultural self. Even when a language is not lost, the loss of self or rather say significant shift within the paradigm of identity — with undesirable repercussions — may take place. This happens when a second language which is the dominant language of the state or an international dominant language overtakes and intrudes within the spheres of the native language. This loss of self by means of the loss of language or otherwise means that the voice of hundreds of identities has been extinguished. Hundreds and thousands of people has lost their voice, their right and freedom of self-expression and self- determination.

Thiongo wrote in Decolonising the Mind (1986) that ‘Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.’ Thiongo who began his career writing in English later riveted to his mother tongue Gikuyu. He wrote his book in context of the debate of language and what place English has as a language in the sphere of art and literature in the formerly colonised nations. He stressed the fact that right to self-definition cannot be recovered without decolonising the mind first. Although debate exists around this, for example writers such as Salman Rushdie regard English as one more language in India, a land of numerous languages. Although, loss of language and vis à vis the loss of self has been taking place all over the world, it cannot be denied that this phenomenon is most visible and concentrated in the formerly colonised nations.  This colonial legacy has been in continuum in new faces, under new regimes in these liberated nations. Gone are the days when whole populations were wiped out in matter of decades to make the ‘newfound’ or newly conquered territories more pliable for exploitation. But the slow death of language continues due to direct policies or lack of policies of nations, and cultural subjugation by means of conscious will of regimes or the indifference of regimes is a reality of our contemporary world. Languages today are being lost or are being diminished through the overtaking of what Bob Holman called bully languages that is the prevalent dominant national and international languages. As stated above, this loss also indicates towards the loss of self. This loss of self occurs though education system, what one may call the mainstream national culture, entertainment, art, media, technological innovation, social media, communication, etc. As a result, the world is slowly and gradually becoming more and more homogenous in nature. In an age where multiculturalism is revered and considered a national treasure, the international and national state mechanism or political mechanisation working underneath is achieving the exact opposite.

What does this homogenisation or loss of multiculturalism which essentially means loss of voices mean for Bangladesh? There are a number of endangered languages in existence in Bangladesh. According to UNESCO definition, there are four levels of language endangerment between safe and extinct, among these are vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered and critically endangered. In Bangladesh, there are over three severely endangered languages and many more fall within the range of vulnerable to definitely vulnerable. Admittedly while the scenario to an outside observer may not seem as severe as that of the African, Australian continents,  or the Amazonian region, where entire branches of language has become extinct, the repercussions of this statistics for Bangladesh is very severe and in a sense fatalistic indeed. This threat to these languages means threat to the cultural identities of these communities and a threat to multiculturalism. At the core of the 1971 liberation war was the right to self -definition of a people. Hence the issue of cultural identity became the principle case in point both during the war and in the aftermath of liberation. It would have been desirous and natural that a nation who fought their liberation war standing on the firm ground of cultural identity would also extend the same values and principles while dealing with cultures other than Bengali in the post independent period. In reality, it did not happen. The legacy of 1952 which gave birth to an independent Bangladesh was not reflected in the policies towards cultures other than Bengali in the newly independent nation. In the zeal of wiping off the shadows of cultural oppression and subjugation the nation suffered prior to liberation, in the act of exalting the struggle of the subjugated nation, it forgot to show equal respect and reverence to other cultures. The newly formulated constitution stated all citizens living in Bangladesh to be Bengali. Bengali which is a cultural identity was thrusted upon other cultures. A later amendment during the period of Zia stated that all citizens of Bangladesh will be Bangladeshis. However, this only aided in attempting to weaken the legacy of 1971 as this was also the period that the Islamicisation of society which stands against the legacy of 1971 very slowly, gradually and covertly began.

It is beyond all arguments that society today has become a lot more intolerable, conservative and Islamicised than before. A prevalent example of this is the abundance of women wearing hijabs in our society today. Islamicisation is reflected in our clothing today. Even a decade or two before this was not seen in such a massive scale. This precedence is being set in our language as well. Earlier, children’s’ grammar books read Aa te anarosh, but today there are grammar books in the market that reads Aa te ajan. While ajan does start with the consonant Aa, including this in children’s text book indicates towards a deliberate attempt towards construction of a different sort of hegemony. This is a conscious attempt of undermining the secular Bengali national identity which was the bequest of 1971. As a result of political mechanisations of late 1970s, 80,s and there on, this secular Bengali nationalist identity is being challenged. This attempt to challenge or threaten the national identity can be foiled with much ease if the endeavour to create a new discourse by means of which a certain homogenisation of the society can be halted. One way of this attempt towards homogenisation of society can be by the means of strengthening the ‘other’ voices in the nation. Today to safeguard Bengali nationalist identity, multiculturalism needs to be protected.

There are policies of government in existence that aims towards flourishing the other cultural identities through incorporating their language in the education system and other such measures. However, there is no extensive reflection of these policies in deed. More extensive steps both in terms of policy and practical outputs need to be achieved. It is not only a question of protecting cultural diversity and protecting the rights of communities who are a minority in number but also the question of protecting and safeguarding the very core principle on which the nation was founded. Speaking from both a global and national perspective protecting cultural diversity is not only humane but of utmost significance. Continual loss of cultural diversity will have grave tragic consequence all over the globe.  


Anika Mahin is a performer, playwright and theatre activist.

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