The Rebel Road…

I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man. – Ernesto Che Guevara

The phenomenon of language – I

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We live today, surrounded by technological marvels, in an age dubbed the ‘information age’, but this was not always so. Since the beginning of time, man has tried to better himself, to move beyond his limits, to prove that he is more than a simple combination of inorganic atoms. This effort has always proven to be very intimidating for any individual in his life. From the time of the primitive cave dweller who had to sustain himself by battling off predators, to modern times, where the race to success is more competitive than ever before. But one finds that such efforts have to be communal. One cannot hope to excel without the cooperation of others. Therefore, the most important question pertaining to language and any ethnic identity creation is whether language differences foster, within communities, sentiments of commonality and/or separation? Or is it such that language has no real impact on social class structure and nations?

Cooperation between individuals may be in the form of parental guidance, a teacher’s supervision or a peer’s assistance. For any successful cooperation, one needs to communicate effectively with their partners. It is here that any form of language comes into play.

‘Language’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a method of expression”. In more sociological terms, language is “a set of symbols, that expresses ideas, enables people to think, and communicate with one another”, as described by Diana Kendall (Sociology in our Times: the Essentials, p. 51).

The most important question one can ask about language is how it started.

There are many hypotheses for the origins of language among human beings. These range from natural-evolutionary origins, to religious accounts of language construction, to genetic justification for the Human Language Instinct (HLI). I shall explain a few of these here. The Ding-dong Theory, according to Dr. C. George Boeree (The Origins of Language), states that language originated as a consequence of human interaction with the environment. In this interaction, man learnt to ‘mimic’ sounds, which the environment created. For example, boom even now, is used to convey the concept of thunder. In religious accounts, God assigned man the duty of naming each and every aspect of his creation, and through this process, Adam, and his subsequent generation was able to not only identify, but relate about those objects. Soon, a language system emerged. In the case of the genetic justification of language, it is believed that human beings are unique in the way they possess a special attribute. Noam Chomsky in an interview says that, “Language is not taught, not even learned. It is something that your mind grows in a particular environment, just the way your body grows in a particular environment.” This view has been expanded now by the discovery of a gene in human DNA, which encodes for language construction and usage. This explains one of the reasons why homo-sapiens were the most successful in the evolutionary struggle, as opposed to other hominid species. It is, therefore, language that is said to be the basis of our collaboration and success. This view is in tandem with the modern sociological significance of language. It is also why language still proves to be an important factor in the modern world.

The second aspect of the topic is about ethnicity. It in turn is described as the set of characteristics shared by a set of people. According to Wikipedia, “Ethnicity is sometimes used as a euphemism for ‘race’, or as a synonym for minority group.” As described above, man had to work together through out history to achieve common goals. This led to certain groups of people coming closer as a community. As time passes, any group of people tend to depend more on each other. This leads to a condition where due to shared experiences, inter-personal boundaries are blurred and social cohesiveness sets in. Along the ages, new phenomena are encountered. These may be invaders, natural calamities, philosophical ideologies or other natural events. Each event increases or decreases social cohesiveness according to its own nature and time of occurrence. A distinct and unique culture emerges, therefore, an ethnic identity is established. This can be seen in the distinct cultures around the world. The Japanese oriental culture is very different in form and values from an aboriginal one. The Middle Eastern culture emphasises on religious identity and social cohesiveness, whereas Western culture emphasises on importance of individual views and liberty. These differing values and norms are a product of a nation’s culture, and in turn these norms reinforce a society’s culture in a never ending cycle.

The most important consequence of the development of an ethnic identity is the emergence of ethnic divides between different societies and nations. This leads to an ‘us versus them’ approach towards people of opposing ideals and norms. This is the beginning of nationalism within a society.

It is here that the main concern regarding the inherent potency of the idea of ethnicity resides. The idea of nationalism has three stages. At the first stage, the members of the nation believe that they are special and unique. Due to feelings of alienation or oppression from an outside source, a group of people are made aware of how they are different. Native characteristics are revived and now the people gain what is termed as ‘national consciousness’. At the second stage, this idea is taken a bit farther and the people rise up against any oppression they are facing. This is a stage of struggle. This sows the seeds, for the third stage of nationalism, though not all nations get to this stage. At the third stage, consolidation occurs and the nation comes together in a political and economic manner to constitute a now organic nation. This view is supported by the writings of Mr K. R. Minogue, who describes these three stages in his book titled Nationalism.

The main problem with this model is that since the people acquire ‘nationdom’, they are imbued with the idea of them being unique. This concept of uniqueness is such that soon the people may believe their uniqueness is in and of itself unique. This is what contributed to the concept of the Uber-Aryan German race, according to the distortion of Nietzscheian ideas by Adolf Hitler and the lumpen elements of German society, which later comprised the Nazi army in the pre-World War II era. One can understand what the idea of nationalism, left unchecked, is able to breed. Fascism is, therefore, a natural consequence of nationalism. This is not to say that all nationalistic ideologies become fascist, but only that fascism is the logical extreme. This is the biggest drawback of nationalism and a debilitating failure as an ideology in the contemporary world.

In the Clash of Civilisations, Samuel Huntington incorrectly suggests that all the conflicts within the world from this point on will not be based on ideological imperatives, rather on cultural differences. However, there is no doubt that language plays an important part in our cultural heritage and fostering a feeling of ‘belonging’ to some community. If this is so, then any rift in society emerging as a consequence of linguistic differences should pose a grave concern for us all. Conflicts emerging between nations can have disastrous effects. A society may become xenophobic as is the case with the Muslims today, or oppressive as is the case with imperialist US. Next week we will examine two opposing points of view about language.

(to be continued)


Written by redtribution

April 20, 2008 at 10:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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