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 – II

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In this column it will be highlighted how language dictates and enhances ethnic divides. Three cases will be considered, first of Arabic. How it distinguishes between South-Asian people as Hindus and Muslims. Secondly, the Urdu and Bengali controversy and thirdly the case of Rhineland separated into different ethnicities.

Arabic is the language of identity for the Muslims. All Muslims, regardless of where they reside on the globe, find an intimate relation to Arabic. It binds all the Muslims throughout the world close together despite the differences. At first, it was thought that Arabic should be made the national language since it was not only the language of the Quran and Hadith but all Muslims were familiar with it through their religious practices.

“Arabic played a very important role in South East Asia to distinguish between Hindus and Muslims. Hindi and Urdu are both similar in many ways. A lot of words are common between the two languages. Urdu is derived from Hindi along with a galaxy of other interior Asian languages, including Turkish. An Urdu speaking individual can easily understand Hindi and vice versa. But as far as ethnicity is concerned, both languages are different in many respects. Arabic is a beacon for the ethnicity of Muslims. Hindus and Muslims are bearing questions regarding the relationship of language to ethnic identity and ethnic group membership” (Language and Ethnicity in South and Southeast Asia by Harold F. Schiffman).

Fisherman says that far beyond being a mere means of communication, language is the “quintessential symbol” of ethnicity since it is “the recorder of paternity, the expresser of patrimony and the carrier of phenomenology”. Paternity, patrimony and phenomenology are for Fishman the three forces that constitute the essence of ethnicity (Language and Ethnicity among a Group of Pentalingual Albuquerque, Greg Thomson). In the case of Hinduism and Islam, ethnic differences come to be reflected in linguistic differences as with of Hindu Hindi and Muslim Urdu. But Arabic is a dividing factor between Hindus and Muslims, otherwise, despite different ethnicities both languages are somewhat the same. And Arabic highlights this difference in ethnicity further.

With the creation of Pakistan, there was an overall desire in the country to implement a language that would secure the integrity and ethnicity of Pakistan. At this time, the Urdu-speaking population voiced their demands for Urdu to be implemented as the national language, arguing that Urdu had been the lingua franca during the freedom movement of India and the language of the Muslims of India. A lot of people supported this demand. “Others were of the view that the majority language, i.e. Bengali, whose speakers comprised 56 percent of the total population should be introduced as the national language” (‘Ethnicity and Linguistic Diversity’, the US library of Congress). The adoption of only Urdu, it was argued, in a multinational and multilingual country would contribute to the emergence of a sense of nationhood. It is important to point out that, among all the five provinces of Pakistan, Urdu was not the language of any of the ethnic nationalities.

The introduction of Urdu as the national language caused a series of problems that could not be easily solved. There was agitation, protests and grievances from the side of the Bengalis. In the western part of Pakistan the official language of Bengali was not preferred and, likewise, Urdu in the eastern part was given a secondary status. Hence, the tension continued to grow and problems festered. It was due to this that the Bengalis believed that they were ethically misrepresented and misinterpreted. The important thing to observe here is that ethnicity, which is very important to a nation and language, again played an important part in separating a community as the state of Bangladesh emerged. To the Bengalis, losing their language was like losing their ethnicity. Language is a legitimate claim for every nation as it is a representative of the ethnic values of a nation.

In a meeting of Tamaddun Majlis held at Fazlul Haque Hall of Dhaka University on November 12, 1947, Mr Amin said, “It is not logical to enforce the use of any language other than Bangla on the people of East Pakistan. I firmly believe that there is no barrier to declaring Bangla as the state language of East Pakistan” (Daily Azad, November 15, 1947). The differences in language continued regardless of similarity in other ethnic factors. The differences in languages simply drove East and West Pakistan away from each other.

The European grouping has seventy million inhabitants, and more now. “Friedrich Naumann’s much-debated book Mitteleuropa interpreted the term as a Central European Union that would have included the western part of the Russian Empire, Poland and the Baltic states, as it contained so many various ethnicities” (Democracy and Ethnic war, Michael Mann) A feature of his concept was that it was aimed at establishing a supranational political order in which various nations and ethnic groups would have been permitted to live according to their own legal systems. “In Central Europe, unlike, for instance, in the Rhineland – as the Jewish migration became intense – the ethnicity in Rhineland got affected further due to different culture and languages. By the end of the Middle Ages, as the result of a long process, Rhineland had become a multi-ethnic region. The different people living in Rhineland were ethnically mixed. The cultural role of the various larger ethnic groups and their languages resulted in a peculiar convergence that was independent of national frontiers and, indeed, cut across them” (Central Europe: Myth and Reality, György Granasztói).

Inspired by different ethnicities of Rhineland one of Milan Kundera’s essay called attention in a very powerful manner to the special yet deeply European roots of the region’s culture. “Denying ethnic uniformity, Kundera put emphasis on cultural similarities on sensitivities, on languages and coincidences” (Central Europe: Myth and Reality, György Granasztói). He said that the role of language led to a rethinking of the notions of a community and of society and to a new emphasis on related ideas based on various ethnicities.

(to be continued)


Written by redtribution

April 20, 2008 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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