With love for all languages

Muhammad Habibur Rahman
....................................................... mori Bangla bhasa!

What a wonderful Bangla language!

Lovers of mother tongues all over the world express similar views.

A natural bias plays an important part in likes and dislikes of languages. No one will say, "My language is backward and inexpressive." We often tend to regard other people's language as we regard their culture with disdain, if not with downright animosity.

There is no reliable way of measuring the quality or the efficiency of any language.

In The English Language, Robert Burchfield writes : "As a source of intellectual power and entertainment the whole range of prose writing in English is probably unequalled anywhere else in the world."

It is most likely that Mr. Burchfield would not have made that assertion had he been a born Russian or German or Chinese.

Chinese writing possesses one great advantage over other languages. It can be read everywhere. People can read their literature of 2500 years as easily as yesterday's newspaper, even though the spoken language has changed beyond recognition. It is has been said ,"If Confucius were to come back to life today, no one apart from scholars could understand what he was saying, but if he scribbled a message people could read it as easily as they could read a shopping list."

The French like to say that "what is not clear, is not French." The Germans are convinced that their language has mystical powers of clarity of expression.

In many countries people use more than one language . In Bangladesh apart from our mother tongue we use English in higher courts and in communications with foreign countries. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists use Arabic, Sanskrit and Pali respectively for religious purposes. There are about twenty languages spoken by our indigenous peoples. In East Africa, apart from local languages and English, a large number of people speak Swahili. In West Africa apart from local languages and English or French a large number of people speak Hausa.

In Luxemburg the inhabitants use French in school, German for reading newspapers, and Luxemburgish, a local German dialect, at home. In Paraguay, people conduct business in Spanish, but make their jokes in Guarani, the native Indian tongue.

Charles V of Spain once said that English was the language for conversing with merchants, German with soldiers, French with women, Italian with friends, and Spanish with God.

Hebrew was once considered the perfect language, because it was "obviously the language that God spoke". For more than a thousand years Latin held a position of honor in Europe.

Amongst the Hindus Sanskrit is regarded as the devabhasa, the language of the gods. The sudras, the lowest caste, were even forbidden to hear Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas. Punishment was prescribed for the violators. Hot lead would be poured in the ears of the careless listeners .

The ancient Greeks felt that any language but Greek was nothing but mere babbling, the literal meaning of word barbaroi, "barbarian". During the heyday of their Empires the English, the French, the Spaniards and the Portuguese felt the same way about their languages.

In the present-day world American English speakers outnumber British English speakers by almost four to one and all speakers of English variants around the world by nearly two to one. American and not British English has come to dominate the global linguistic scene. Comparisons and contrasts of the two versions of English have gone on for years. To most Americans British accent is "Highfalutin". To most British American English is crass.

Language conflict occurs when there is a competition between languages for exclusive use in the government or as the medium of instruction in educational institutions. In countries where two or more languages coexist confusion often arises. In Belgium many towns have two quite separate names, one recognised by French speakers, one by Dutch speakers. Language is often an emotive issue in Belgium and has brought down governments. In Canada the Anglophiles and Francophiles are fighting a long drawn battle for identity and supremacy.

After the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics there has been a linguistic rejuvenation in some of the former Soviet republics . The languages like Armenian, Estonian, Georgian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian became the source of inspiration and assertion for the new nations. In central Asia Muslim republics like Azerbaizan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan abandoned the Cyrillic script of Russian and opted for the Western script of their Turkish kinsmen. Tajikistan adopted the Arabic script.

In former Yugoslavia the Serbs started to call their language Serbian rather than its earlier name Serbo-Croatian and opted for the Cyrillic script of their Russian kinsmen . Croats now call their language Simplyn Croatian and is engaged in purging itself of Turkish and foreign words. Bosnians tried to avidly borrow Turkish and Arabic words.

It is for their intense love for their languages that the Czechs and the Slovaks got themselves separated.
In Turkey there was an attempt to cleanse that language of Arab- Persian words. When that plan was found to be difficult Kemal Ataturk gave the Sun-God theory and explained that the Turkish language like the sun was the fountainhead of all languages and the borrowed foreign words were Turkish in origin.

Professor Joshua A. Fishman has suggested that a language is more likely to be accepted as lingua franca or a Language of Wider Communication (LWC) if it is not identified with a particular ethnic group, religion or ideology. Like Akkadian, Aramaic, Greek and Latin English has recently been de-ethnicised. Professor Joshua has said, "It is part of the relative good fortune of English as an additional language that neither its British nor its American fountainheads have been widely or deeply viewed in an ethnic or ideological context for the past quarter century or so."

Samuel P. Huntington in The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order said that "English is the world's way of communicating interculturally just as the Christian calendar is the world's way of tracking time, Arabic numbers are world's way of counting and the metric system is, for the most, the world's way of measuring. The use of English in this way, however, is intercultural communication; it presupposes the existence of separate cultures. A lingua franca is a way of coping with linguistic and cultural differences, not a way of eliminating them. It is a tool for communication and not a source of identity and community."

There is no reliable evidence to show that the increasing proportion of the world's population speaks English. Even today English is foreign to 92 per cent of the people of the world. Our Anglophiles must pay heed to the linguists like Joshua. Fishman who has highlighted the importance of local languages thus: "Local tongues foster higher levels of school success, higher degrees of participation in local government, more informed citizenship and better knowledge of one's culture, history and faith….. the world's practical reliance on local languages today is every bit as great as the identity roles these languages fulfill."

Fishman did not forget to emphasise that "Nevertheless, both rationalisation and globalisation require that more and more of local languages be multiliterate."

In the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing,

Edited by Stephen A. Wurm, published by UNESCO, it has been pointed out that for various reasons the fate of languages took a turn for the worse in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The geographical explorations and the expansionist tendencies of some European powers like Dutch, English, French, Portuguese Spaniards and Russia and introduction of new diseases like small pox in North America, Siberia and later Australia were responsible for the death and disappearance of hundreds of languages over the past three hundred years. According to one estimate about half of the approximately 6,000 languages in the world are now endangered to some degree and other. According to another estimate every two weeks a language is getting extinct.

Ethnicity embedded in the love for a particular language may be dangerously self-centred, intolerant and malevolent and cause immense miseries.

There are two views on the disappearance of languages. One view is that the differences between languages are only superficial as they are ultimately saying the same thing in different forms and that the disappearance of any one language is a minor occurrence. The other view is that different languages emphasise and filter various aspects of multifaceted reality in a vast number of different ways. Every language reflects a unique world-view and the linguistic diversity is an invaluable asset and resource rather an obstacle to progress.

There is no primitive language any more than there is any superior language. Every language proves to be as sophisticated and complete as any other. No language or dialect is better or worse than any other. Each language is much like a "linguistic ecology "as it were. Since 1970s the latter view is gaining ground and it has been reflected in several international instruments.

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 provides " In those states in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with other the other members of their group to enjoy their culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language."

Inspired by the provisions of that article the Declaration of the Rights of Persons Belonging to the National or Ethnic , Religious or Linguistic Minorities proclaims that States should take appropriate measures so that wherever possible, persons belonging to minorities may have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue.

In the Draft Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples 1995 it was affirmed that all peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilization and cultures which constitute the common heritage of human kind.

Following a proposal made by Bangladesh ,UNESCO created International Mother Language Day in 1999. Twenty- First February was chosen in commemoration of the language movement in which five students died on this date in 1952 defending recognition of Bangla as a state language of the former Pakistan, the eastern part of which became Bangladesh after the war of liberation. It is now acknowledged that a culture of peace can only flourish where people enjoy that right to use their mother tongue fully and freely in all the various situations of their lives. With love for all languages we assert today that in the galaxy of languages, every word is a star.
The author is former Chief Justice and head of caretaker government.

Preserving and rejuvenating the heritage

Dr. Syed Saad Andaleeb
Each year February 21st arrives with a flourish; and it awakens something special in many of us. Some suddenly become conscious of their distinct identity and proud heritage of being a Bengali; some don the traditional kurta or the taant sari to "feel" Bengali; some prepare pithas and panta bhaat for that fleeting Bengaliness. Others make the effort to go to the Shahid Minar early in the morning -- flowers or garlands in hand -- to pay tribute to Rafique, Barkat, Salaam, Jabbar and others who immortalised a day that is, or should be, dear to Bengalis all over the world.

Some join the procession of men and women, young and old singing a sombre Amaar Bhaiyer Rokte Rangano…, while a few of the last remaining stalwarts stand back from the crowd remembering that special day, misty eyed -- perhaps a teardrop rolling down their cheeks to be briskly wiped away -- as they are overwhelmed with an emotional surge for simply having been there as part of a metamorphic event on that fateful day that is now symbolised as International Mother Language Day.

One needs to sit back and think what it all means: We Bengalis have carved out an entire day by making the greatest sacrifice to stand against oppression and injustice, to stand for a distinct identity, and to enjoy a freedom to bask in a soul -- the Bengali soul -- that can be best understood with the Bengali language. Any other language trying to depict the Bengali soul would certainly be weaker in that endeavour because there is something about grambangla, matir manush, godhuli logno or swarnali shondhya that simply cannot be portrayed fully by any other language. This very special language is our heritage, our link to the past.

Today this rich language -- rich in culture, religion, history, absorbing stories, myths, struggles, hopes and dreams, love and hate, family and children, and so much more -- is under attack. Like products and brands vying for customer attention, the Bengali language seems to be losing customers and market share to its competitors. And if we allow our competitors to gain ground, surely we'll cast away our heritage as an obsolete product in the stockpile of embattled products of another era.

The prognosis seems dire for when 21st February will have come and gone most of us will slide back into "reality." The Bangla books we purchased during Boi Mela will begin to gather the first microns of dust, the Z-TV, Star Cinema, ATN, or Kasoti will come back with a vengeance, the rush to admit children to English medium schools or Madrasahs will gather momentum (not that learning another language is undesirable), the desire to impress our foreign friends in their language (Urdu included) will pick up steadily although the reverse is most unlikely to happen, and the desire to learn about other cultures -- Delhi, Bombay, Bangkok, Singapore, London, Paris, New York, or perhaps even Timbuktu -- will take us away for the weekend or an extended sojourn. And on our return we'll have grand stories to tell about the Louvre Museum, the Taj Mahal, the Fontana Trevi, The Empire State Building, St. Peter's Cathedral, or the palaces and castles of Vienna and Scotland, and so on. All the while the keeper of the Bengali soul, its very own language, once vibrant in its classy character and pristine beauty, will languish and diminish in stature, impoverished for want of attention and nurture.

Is this what we want -- to lose such a rich heritage? Do we want to cast this glorious language among the endangered species, perhaps soon to become extinct? I do not know, but we certainly need answers. At the same time we need to preserve our heritage, foster its revival, and see it flourish for our sake, for our children's sake. How are we going to accomplish this?

First and foremost, we must "preserve" what we already have before we lose it to time and relentless competition. That, by itself, is a monumental task and needs a small but dedicated army. I cannot help but observe with envy how the younger generation from neighbouring India -- many of them born outside the country of Indian parentage -- is returning to the land of their ancestors with a burning desire to learn about their own heritage and to preserve what they believe is being lost to time and lack of attention. One such project explores how the Vaisnava thinker -- Ramanuja -- transformed the Vedanta system into a theistic system called Visistadvaita Vedanta. Another explores how Indian women are rewriting history by confronting the legacy of women's silence and voicelessness. A young man is busy researching and creating a series of illustrated children's (comic) books based on indigenous Hindu folktales, while a young woman is busy collecting and documenting Jain miniature paintings in Jaipur from the homes of rich families and private collectors.

Through various scholarship programmes from the Indira Gandhi Foundation, the Fulbright Programme, funds from the University of Chicago, and other sources, India is also encouraging non-Indians to pursue projects such as collecting the works of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, especially how he worked to improve the status of Indian Muslims during the British rule.

We must learn from these initiatives and inspire our own youth to engage in similar journeys to re-discover the Bengali soul, for they are our next generation and will have to become the guardians of the Bengali soul and heritage.

Preservation of what we have, however, is the first step; rejuvenating the language and seeing it flourish so that it can withstand the competitive onslaughts is clearly another vital need. For this to happen we need a clear vision from an enlightened and visionary leadership backed up by a firm commitment to engage in and do what is realistically possible. The vision must include our cultural ambassadors -- the poets, the painters, the scholars, the singers, the musicians, the bards, the artisans, the curators, the librarians, the photographers, the linguists, the historians, the archaeologists, the cinematographers, the playwrights, the actors, the media men and women, the teachers, and related others -- whose stature in society must be upgraded by their own doing and societal intervention. And they must discard petty politics of their own and all that comes with it to form a true partnership to "preserve and enrich the heritage."

Resources will also be needed for such a grand project that ought to be raised from both home and abroad. In India today there are many heritage sites that are being revived by foreign funds "interested" in their preservation or by NRIs (non-resident Indians) intent on "giving back" to their roots. These strategies can be emulated, albeit on a smaller scale initially.

All we need now to begin the preservation and revitalisation project is a leadership that understands the priorities, sets the vision, and implements it in a manner that harnesses all Bengalis in a spirit of cooperation, harmony, and a burning desire to reclaim the stature of a language from a region about which it was once said, "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow."

The author is Editor of the Journal of Bangladesh Studies, and a Fulbright Scholar at East-West University.

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