Resisting the tantalising tongue of the master

by Oliur Sun | Updated at 02:23pm on February 23, 2020


The fantasy of the native is precisely to occupy the master’s place while keeping his place in the slave’s avenging anger.

– Homi Bhabha


TO OCCUPY the colonial master’s place means to occupy the master’s tongue that commands inflicting servitude subsequently reinforcing the mastery. And have we not got lured by the idea of possessing the master’s tongue over and over again in our slavish correspondence to colonial modernity — coloniality?

‘Negotiated settlement’ with the British navigated our ways to another subjugation by the Pakistanis — the Urdu tongue replaced the English tongue only to be replaced by the Bengali tongue — abolition of the domination of the tyrannical tongues seems to be a collective struggle that wars cannot win but words can in their infinite reiteration by the people. The re-placing or the reclaim of the linguistic place by Bengali as a struggle against the colonial masters toward self-governance and actualisation was to be continued. And, as we unidentified ourselves with the West Pakistan forming a linguistic ethnicity, it initiated the abnegation of the masters of the West or so it was supposed to be. However, the terrain and technology of the Modern state remained in reinvigoration being a product of the ‘master’ itself — western modernity that sustained due to lack of opposition. Consequently neo-masters assumed the role of the previous Masters now speaking the same language and sharing the same colour of skin, of course of the majority. The monolingual ethnic identity which forms the majority deeming the rest of the people as well as their language, ethnicity and religion as the inferior other — not included in the superior(ruling) class of the majority (though the national bourgeoisie are a few in number, they belong and represent the same ethnicity) forecloses the possibility of a pluralistic multilingual future hindering the emergence of a nation state inclusive of the diversity that lies across geographies and cultures within the national border expressed through many languages.

The disparity between Bangla as the vernacular tongue and English as the master’s tongue is yet to be overcome with English being the language of the country’s elite and threatening their status quo by renouncing the slavish tongue is an economic and political ‘catastrophe’ (or a revolution?) that they are not willing to afford.

Although such parsimonious poverty depriving the uncouth Bengali speaking peasants of higher education, the academic elite are willing to brandish themselves as postcolonial poets or very economically translate a few texts from Bangla to English and rarely the otherwise that earn them either political power or academic kudos or both. In a postcolonial fashion, they relevantly quote Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s modest proposal that favours an appropriated English,

The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out a particular version of English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.

While Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo’s decolonising proposal is appreciated but not as much as to articulate that into practice. Glimpsing the country’s elite academic horror, the entitlement of a particular dialect as the state language might seem to facilitate mutual intelligibility among people of different ethnicities, cultures and languages but the implied hegemony in this process of entitlement and its execution jeopardises the ‘desired’ intelligibility. Apart from the problematic monolingual fixation that pervades the making of a lingua franca, the arbitrariness of linguistic symbols and language variation which is almost always intersectional adds to the incomprehensibility without the acknowledgement and sharing of multi-experiences.

The sense of utopia that is attached to this task is not unfounded with Bengali still not being the language of higher education and institutions. The coloniality engraved in privileging English as the medium of higher education and imposing Bangla as the language of primary education among the indigenous people have been much discussed in the non-elite academic, intellectual and activist’s circles without its materialisation in politics as a political struggle. While it is important to create access of the masses to higher education, institutions and state services through the language/s of the masses (inclusive of both the majority and the minority), the vernacular language/s, it is equally imperative and sometimes even more to cognise the methodology through which the vernacular language/s are being identified and selected for institutional establishment and in order to be inclusive how many people we are excluding or even worse how many languages we are endangering and subjecting to extinction.

Bangla with all its local variations — Barishailla, Sylheti, Noakhailla, Chattgaiyan and so on as well as over forty other languages add to the linguistic diversity of the national territory we named as Bangladesh. To assume a country with one linguistic ethnicity runs counter to the idea of a nation-state which in its imagined communities should be incorporative of different ethnicities and languages not just in acts and articles but in the state affairs and institutional practices. And that would mean to overcome the dichotomous language conception and strive for a radical multilingualism that can render the linguistic stratification of such kind as the vernacular and the master obsolete and let us all rediscover the real language of humankind as Ngugi wa Thiongo calls it — ‘the language of struggle. It is the universal language underlying all speech and words of our history. Struggle. Struggle makes history. Struggle makes us. In struggle is our history, our language and our being. That struggle beings wherever we are; in whatever we do.’

‘To the world of to-morrow I turn with my strength’, language.

Oliur Sun is a non-philosopher