In the name of the mother tongue
We are celebrating the International Mother Language Day, on February 21st. Our Mother Language creates and identity for us, giving us a sense of belonging, but at the same time it erects a barrier around us, keeping those who are using their own Mother Tongue away from us.
The language identity alienates others living in the same geographically or politically identified region, where International Mother Language Day has to be celebrated separately by each group.
The only country on Mother Earth who has a right to celebrate a Mother Language Day is Bangladesh, because they won their independence through the struggle for their language. They can also take pride in the fact that almost all Bangladeshi people speak Bangla, though they have nearly forty languages used by the people and thus they do not need a link language, because there are no language barriers.
Mother Language has two interpretations, the language spoken by the mother and the language of the Motherland, which is not the same at all times. Bangla is the language of the Motherland to the people who live in Bangladesh, while it is the language spoken by the mother and her ancestors for the people who live in West Bengal, separated from their brethren by a political barrier. They have to identify themselves as Indians. For the Bangla speaking Indian to cross the border, to visit his cousins speaking the same mother tongue, he needs a visa, and so does the Bangladeshi needs a visa to enter West Bengal.
Language identity becomes confusing in the Global Village today. When a Sinhala family migrates to England, some children of the second or third generation would start speaking in English, if their Sinhala mother speaks to them in English. At school they learn in English. Then his mother tongue becomes English, though he would try to identify himself as a Sinhala, and he does not become an Englishman. It would be the same for a Bangla speaking family too. But the choice was theirs, unlike what happened in the country named by the British as East Pakistan, when the West Pakistan rulers tried to force the Bangla speaking Bengalis to adopt Urdu as their official language. And that decision triggered the struggle for the right to use their mother tongue, leading to the independence struggle. That is why the Mother Language is of such high significance to the people in Bangladesh.
Borders were created and barriers erected by man against man, and man only. The early man did not have a problem of crossing the only borders they came across, the rivers, oceans, mountains and deserts, or even language. It is history that created all barriers. Apparently Buddha had not faced a language barrier, nor had the traders travelling to distant lands, the Chinese pilgrims to South Asia, and the monks who travelled with the traders.
History of mankind had always been distorted. It was always recorded by those who were in power at the time of the happenings, or those who took over power later. In the past historians always wrote to please their masters. Today too, some of them write to please their masters, some to advance their academic career, and others to make quick money by writing history for the entertainment business, like in films and television serials. History uses language to create divisions, conflicts and cause violence.
Oral and later written legends, epics and history had always contributed to the erection of barriers of nation, race, creed and language. Every conflict, every incident of aggression or violence was recorded and perpetuated to keep the fires of enmity and vengeance burning, while literature very often added more oil to the fire. Poetry and song were used to whip up hatred, incite vengeance leading to unimaginable violence. Language was the medium for all these evil actions. A very good example is the partition of India and Pakistan seventy years ago. It is true that many children women and men suffered and died during the partition violence. It is the Mother Languages of those who suffered, Panjabi, Urdu and Hindi, which keep the memories alive feeding the fires of hatred.
The barrier of language was also a curse left with us by the British. In pre-historic South Asia language had never been a barrier. The unification of regions or countries had almost always been forced upon people, by greedy power hungry rulers, except perhaps in the United States. However when it comes to partitions, sometimes it is initiated by power hungry others, who wanted to become a king or ruler of his own kingdom, rather than under another. Then he would incite a group to which he gives a separate identity and getting the people to struggle for a separate rule. At other times the struggle for separation arises spontaneously, by an oppressed minority, when a link language breaks down, as it happened in Sri Lanka, where language identity developed into a thirty year armed conflict. In East Bengal it was a spontaneous struggle by the majority against a despotic minority rule and they were successful in creating their own country, Bangladesh.
Where a nation consists of people using different mother languages we need to develop trust among all our people, reconciliation comes inevitably. Poetry and all forms of literature could bring the trust among us, because poetic language is common to all of us, whether we write in Bengali, or Hindi or Urdu or Divehi, or Sinhala, we share the same thoughts and feelings. We also have so many words in common, that it is not so very difficult to understand the other tongue to some extent, we have the opportunity to translate from one language to another.
Language is one barrier we could overcome. We have to occupy Babel and work towards a universal language, or at least bring down the six thousand odd languages to at least six. Once we occupy Babel, we should be able to share all the knowledge on earth, and all the literature on earth, with everyone, everywhere, without any barriers of language between us. We have people using the same mother tongue, but separated by borders, like our Bangla writers and poets from Bangladesh and West Bengal, like Urdu speaking writers and poets from India and Pakistan.
We have the language barrier, but which has not been hindered by the political and geographical barriers. The South Asian Tower of Babel is not as complicated as the global Babel. We have managed to communicate with each other to some extent, within our Babel, for several thousand years, because most of our languages have grown from same origins and we share so much in common. We have so many of the South Asian nations communicating across borders in the same language, or which could be understood by many.
We do not have to develop a common language, though at present we use English as our link, and as our Lingua Anglia. And we can continue to do so, because there is a revival of the English language in our schools and universities, and we should be able to manage with it till such time as we could develop translations by our computers. Once we have instant translations of our South Asians languages into English, which could be accepted as a neutral language, our language barrier would disappear completely. By then also we could all meet in cyberspace, and we need not worry about all the geographical and political borders.
Since we also believe that we are the only animals on earth who can use speech, who can use language for communication, we should be able to use such communication skills to develop better relations with all human beings on earth. If man is so intelligent, ingenious and can reach out to the stars, we have to ask ourselves why is it that we have failed to develop a universal language. We should be able to use our tongue, instead of our hands, to settle any dispute that may arise among us, and to reach out to all the seven billion people on Mother Earth.
“The English language used by nearly 400 million people has over 600,000 non-technical words. Yet most Americans use only around 800 to 1,000 words in everyday conversation. A typical American college graduate knows only 20,000 – 30,000 by the time he or she graduates, which is less than 2 percent of all English words”.
This data makes it encouraging for all the people around the world, engaged in developing a common language or a translation system, to reverse the curse placed on mankind when erecting the Tower of Babel.
Once we occupy Babel, we should be able to share all the knowledge on earth, and all the literature on earth, with everyone, everywhere, without any barriers of language between us. On occupation, we should also be able to control and contain all the unwanted noise which leads to confusion in communication.
Man can be truly “Independent” only when he has Independence in communicating with all mankind. We would have enjoyed this independence millions of years ago, when our ancestors first developed the capability of speech as a means of communication.
We lost this capability sometime along the ladder of evolution, as man started spreading out from Central Africa to every corner of the world. Perhaps it was a cruel joke played upon man by nature, or an experiment which went wrong, as Homo sapiens was trapped in a ‘Tower of Babel’ where they could not understand each other. It happened only to man, because all other animals appear to be communicating in a common voice among their kind. A dog anywhere on earth barks in the same way, and so does a lark when it sings.
Man has always been a chauvinist. When each tribe, clan or ethnic group developed a different language for their own use, and identified themselves by the language, they began to talk of a ‘Mother Tongue’. When one such group became a ‘majority’ in a geographical region and considered the region belonged to them, then all other smaller groups using other languages became ‘minorities’ and that is when everybody lost their independence of communication, both the majority and the minorities. Everybody who did not use our own language become strangers, outsiders, foreigners to us. A native of one country became a foreigner the moment he stepped into a country where his own language was not understood. When people of different language groups gathered in one place, they remained as far apart as when they had been geographically.
For man to achieve true independence in communication, he has to develop a Universal Language, a language common to all human beings, all over the world. It is not just a distant dream, but a vision we could make a reality in the near future, by making use of all the electronic technology now available. It could be a computer generated language, to be read and understood by people all over the world, making instant communication with everyone, by phone, by text messages, by electronic mail, or video. The first step could be the simultaneous translation of such communications.
This universal language would not need a written script, the computers can use their own language independent systems, because by this time man would be in his tertiary orality, where he would not, and need not be able to read and write.
As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, even today. The necessity is here, because of the easy and spontaneous global communication systems available, but with the frustrating handicap of all the different languages in use globally, in our ‘Global Village’.
There is also a fallacy backed by a few misguided or politically opportunistic people that a person can be proficient only in his mother tongue. They carry this argument further by saying people should do their creative writing in their mother tongue only, that a successful poem can be written only in one’s mother tongue. But this has been disproved in our country, Sri Lanka, first by Ven. S. Mahinda Himi, who was born in Sikkim, Who probably used Tibetan as his mother tongue, but became more proficient in Sinhala than most Sinhalese of his era.
Politically opportunistic people
Another is Anne Ranasinghe, whose mother tongue would have been German or Hebrew, but who won the Sahitya Rathana Award for her poetry written in English. In India R. K. Narayan did not write in his mother tongue. Gurudev Rabindranath could perhaps be the best example from our region, as he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his own translation of Gitanjali into English.
True independence could be achieved only when we become language independent, like already we have language independent computer applications, and cross-platform and multi-platform software. Scientists are discovering that among humans, numerical reasoning and language are functionally and neuroanatomically independent, that grammatical and mathematical syntax are independent. This brings us closer to a language independent communication system.
Looking forward to the day when our children would be able to live in a post-Babelian world, and be truly free and truly independent.
Steven Pinker, who wrote the best-seller, ‘The Language Instinct’ (1994), had said that through language we are enabled to rise authentically to a level of becoming fully human, “because information is a particularly good commodity of exchange that makes it worth people’s while to hang out together”. The problem is, the exchange has to be with different currencies, of different values, making it more and more difficult to hang out together.
However we can still hang out together. Even inside the tower of Babel we can understand each other, because we have found ways to communicate through the barriers. As U.R. Ananthmurthy had written in the SAARC journal ‘Beyond Borders’, “Plurality of languages, cultures and religions has not in the past threatened the unity of our country. …the literature in our bhashas, with their history as well as their potential, has contributed to our sense of a Nation with a difference.” This statement could apply not only to India, but to all SAARC countries, and we should consider all of us as One Nation. The physical and geographical barriers cannot keep writers and poets apart and the modern day transport and communication facilities have helped immensely in this regard. It is only the human barriers we have to breakdown now.
On this day, as Bangladesh really celebrate their well earned independence, as a first step, let us create a platform between Bangla and Sinhala, because we have so much in common between our cultures. Let us translate the great modern Bangla writers into Sinhala and Tamil. Let us introduce great Sri Lankan writers, both Sinhala and Tamil, to the Bangladesh readers.
Ronald Reagan, on June 12, 1987, said in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”. Let us appeal to all mankind, tear down these walls, all the language barriers we have built between us. This is an opportunity for writers of the world to unite, and united we could change the world to be a better place, not only for humanity, but for all life forms.
Let us learn from Gurudev, the greatest Bangla writer, let us sing together and walk together to a better, more humane world. (Daya Dissanayake)