Reflections on a contemporary phenomenon
In a true sense, language speaks us. Since language is culturally located in human relationships, it is inherently salient to social action. It can also, and usually does, perform a political role in reinforcing and challenging power.
Both these aspects of language demonstrably had manifested themselves in the lead-up to, and the occurrence of, Ekushey February in 1952. Ekushey February was a spontaneous and emotional outburst of the Bengalis against the dishonour of their language that, over time, became a political expression for a sovereign independent Bangladesh.
One must not lose sight of the fact that, before the issues of politics and economics, language, an integral part of a nation's culture, was the starting point of the Bengalis' struggle for an independent homeland.
Therefore, Ekushey February will always remain an integral part of the Bangladeshis' psyche side by side both the Independence Day and Victory Day.
Language lies at the heart and soul of a nation. In this sense, the International Mother Language Day, which has been recognised as such by the international community by way of acknowledging the sacrifice of a nation for saving the honour and dignity of its language, and duly allotting the same day as Ekushey February for its observance, is the symbolic representation of every nation's breath of life.
A nation's culture is best expressed through the medium of its language. In this essential context, a nation does not have to be reminded of the vitality of language to its life. Therefore, International Mother Language Day is purely symbolic -- an ode to all the languages of the world; as it were.
I will wager that a good number of high-level political functionaries of countries, including chief executives of governments, let alone the general citizenry, are not even aware of a special day of observance known as the International Mother Language Day, but that is beside the point. The point is the primacy of language in a nation's life.
Language speaks us, a scholar once wrote. Among other implications, this cryptic sentence conveys the message that language represents the written and verbal expressions of the generation writing and speaking in its particular tongue. And we will limit our discussion on this day's Ekushey February to the topic of "language speaks the generation."
Culture is, or should be, dynamic. A static culture, to all intents and purposes, is a moribund culture; hanging on to an extended thread of life that, unless given a spark of dynamism, will inevitably extinguish itself. Any generation may lament the metamorphosing culture of the following generation, and that would be a natural reaction at the passing of norms and values that one grew up, and aged, with.
However, man's civilisation is not identical with our civilisation, as Jacques Barzun once famously stated, and new generations will continue to define their lifestyle and values to suit their expectations and needs. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as they do not drastically alter, compromise, or entirely do away with their particular nation's core values and traditions; the very essence that defines who and what they are as a distinct group of people making up a nation.
Language, being a cultural factor, may, and often does, change, maybe not as quickly or pronouncedly as generational norms and values, but change it does, at least in the major languages of the world. Again, as in cultural transformation, there is nothing inherently wrong in a particular language undergoing change over time, whether through usage or deliberate intervention. In fact, as with culture, if the change occurs without drastically altering the form and content of the language, then it would likely enrich it, possibly making it even more vibrant and expressive.
To its great credit, English undergoes changes more visibly and frequently than any other major language, adding new words by borrowing from other languages, constructing new words, evolving new ways to pronounce them, and using them in the construction of sentences, while the manner of expression also undergoes periodic evolution.
English is lucky to have its diasporas and ancestors who established countries such as the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, among others, by first colonising, and then proliferating in them as they became independent. All these countries, in the course of time, have become multi-ethnic (although, in South Africa's case, the black population has continued to outnumber the whites, in contrast to the others' white colonisers to native population proportion), but the English language (except in officially bilingual Canada) has firmly established itself as the mother tongue in each.
And, now, not only does English have its variations in vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation from country to country, but England itself can, and does, enrich its own English by drawing upon those variations in vocabulary and expression.
Bengali, essentially limited to Bangladesh and Poshchimbongo, even though unable to draw on, or offer, as rich a diversity, still manages to introduce changes. It is already possessed with a rich input of words from a wide range of other languages, although some purists displaying an antediluvian mindset would love nothing more than to rid Bengali of all those foreign words and phrases and take it back to its pristine form. Talk about dinosaurs! And I very strongly underscore the word dinosaurs -- the last time I checked, that kind was extinct.
To its credit, Bengali has continued to evolve, introducing new words, novel expressions, and even significant changes in spelling. The language, as is spoken in Bangladesh, has its own rich variations, including in the regional dialects. It has always been a language that lends itself to evoking an array of colourful and rich expressions. And the Bengalis are adept at expressing themselves expansively and with rich regional variations and wit (none more so than the legendary Dhakaia kutti).
Nonetheless, over the last few years, a noticeable change has come about in the speech patterns among some of the current generation of Bangladeshis. Nothing massive, nothing to be alarmed about, at least not yet, but a trend is slowly creeping in, with what lasting impact on the language -- only time will tell.
Yet it is not uncommon to hear young people these days speaking Bengali with a distinct American accent. They sound rather strange, to say the least. Most seem to come from an English-medium educational background, but a number of them have Bengali-medium schooling. Then there is the curious phenomenon of people quite frequently interspersing spoken Bengali with English words, often spoken with a poor intonation and/or wrong usage.
Thus far, neither of the two phenomena has prevented the speakers from communicating their views, and, if language was restricted to a function of just communicating, then the newfangled speech patterns are doing their job; albeit in a form not familiar to people of even a generation back.
However, language is more than an instrument of communication. It is just as much a symbol of a nation's culture, tradition and values. Just how, and to what extent, if at all, will the newfangled speech patterns affect Bangladesh's culture, tradition and values remains to be seen.
It could be that they would have some kind of positive impact, and that would only enrich the country's culture, or would have an adverse effect, with what dire consequences for the nation can be left to ones imagination.
Or, it could just be a current fad that would soon fade, and the old ways would be reverted to, or new ones found.
One, however, is not quite sure how the American-accented Bengali has come about. Let me elaborate, keeping in view my own educational background, I had my primary and secondary-level schooling and college education in Dhaka from institutions taught mostly by American missionaries, with a smattering of British VSOs (Voluntary Service Overseas) and a few locals thrown in: Holy Cross (oh yes, then the boys were allowed in from KG I to Class III), St. Joseph's High (then exclusively a school offering Cambridge University O-level education) and Notre Dame College.
Essentially, we were taught by Americans in Dhaka. There were three other similar schools in Dhaka, although two of them catered to matriculation under the local education board. The interesting thing is that I, or, for that matter, any of my classmates or, to my knowledge, any of my school alumni of those days ever spoke Bengali with an American accent.
In fact, many of us spoke Bengali with a regional intonation, unless the occasion demanded that we use "proper" Bengali.
The curious aspect about many of the present-day American-accented Bengali speakers is that they were born in Bangladesh, and have had their schooling in this country from institutions where no American has taught, at least for any great length of time. Even St. Joseph's, now a matriculation-oriented school, has no American teachers.
One might legitimately wonder, then, just how the Americanised Bengali has crept in, if this is a new cultural phenomenon evolved out of globalisation, if it is here to stay and spread and, if so, with what putative and real effect on Bangladesh's culture and values.
Globalisation has introduced some noticeable changes in this country's tradition, customs and cultural patterns, with mixed results. Some have been positive, a few others iffy, while the rest awaits the test of time. As does the changes, now comparatively small, to the use of the Bengali language.
Being at the core of a country's society and culture, Bengali has to serve the cause of Bangladesh's essential cultural patterns, traditions and values even as the relentless and unavoidable pressure of globalisation induces changes.
Ekushey February, language speaks us.
The writer is Head, Media and Communication Department,
Independent University, Bangladesh.