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 – III

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Language has also sometimes played the role of unifying two nations or ethnicities. The Latino countries of Mexico and Spain are a classic example. The Mexican language is actually a derivative/dialect of the Spanish. The two varieties are rather similar in their syntax (by and large), but with more noticeable differences in the phonology. The reason for the Latino culture and values still being alive and observed in the Latin countries is the role which language is playing in sustaining these cultural ties. Their cultural ties have been so strong that the differences between Mexican and Spanish individuals are almost indiscernible. Mexico and Spain, through language, have kept the Latino cultural values alive. The Latin-American countries have a very rich set-up of cultural values. The Spanish language has served to bring the cultures closer (Fighting for faith and nation by Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).

While English is not spoken as a native language by the largest number of people, it is the most worldwide in its distribution, being an official language in 52 countries as well as many small colonies and territories. America and Britain claim to be the real ancestors of the language. English language has come to them naturally as the native language. America and Britain also have a similar set of cultures too. The two facts mentioned might compel one to think of a cause and effect relationship existing between them, but actually it is not so. Having the same language has not been the deciding factor for the similar cultures and ethnicities in Britain and America. It might have played its limited role but there is a range of other factors too, such as the geopolitical situation of the two countries, the same religion Christianity, and the political standpoint of the two countries. Religion has played a major role in the parallel cultures/ethnicities of America and Britain as Christianity rules most of their beliefs, attitudes and values (England, their England, by A. G. MacDonell, The Macmillan Company, 1933).

“England and America are two countries separated by a common language” — George Bernard Shaw. Had language been the contributory factor for the similar cultures between different countries then how could the 52 countries, having entirely different ethnicities and nationalities, be explained where English is the majority and official language of the country. We have seen that English has become the second language of choice around the world for ordinary people as well. About a fourth to a third of all humanity now understands and speaks it to some degree. But visibly, all these people have exclusively different cultures and ethnicities.

Study of the development of democracy, the role of the state, the emergence of new nationalisms and new xenophobic and racist behaviours and of the role of ‘ethnico-national’ or ‘linguistico-cultural’ minorities are the core problems faced by a majority of the states today. But taking the case of Canada, it can be said that it is a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual state. There are several languages spoken in Canada by different ethnic groups. A multi-national state usually requires a great deal of work to keep together. Success or failure may be due to the success or failure at creating a functional multi-ethnic society. There are also people or nations united by something other than ethnicity, for instance religion. Language is not always a reason for uniting as well as dividing people or societies. Societies like Canada prove that different languages, cultures and ethnicities can and do co-exist within a dominion. Foreign nationals are living in Canada from about 50 member countries of the Commonwealth, including Indians, Pakistanis, South Africans, Jamaicans, and Trinidadians, etc.

Apart from the immigrants, even among the local Canadian nationals, languages other than English are also spoken, for example French, Czech, Dutch, and Haitian, etc. An entirely different ethnic group and a different language within Canada is in the Quebec province and the French language is spoken there. But this Quebec culture and language also exist within the larger united Canada. Canada, unlike Pakistan, is one of those nations that have accepted the reality of being a multi-national and multi-lingual country and gives the right to every ethnic or linguistic minority to observe their cultures, languages and ethnicities freely and that has saved them from facing a breakup of their country.

The multi-dimensional, relational and contextual nature of identity will be demonstrated through the case of Punjab. In the Indian subcontinent, before partition, the province of Punjab was ruled by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. The common language that was spoken in the whole of Punjab then was Punjabi. It was the language of the Muslims as well as of the Sikhs of Punjab. Prior to partition, Punjab extended across both sides of what is now the India and Pakistan. West Punjab became part of Pakistan and the eastern wing went into the boundaries of India. The two wings were not equally blessed with natural resources. West Punjab was more fortunate and blessed in the sense that it had most of the rivers flowing through this side of the Punjab.

Due to the people ruling at that time, West Punjab was given preferential treatment in terms of development, growth and advancement. Therefore, there was fostering of hatred and malice towards western Muslims by the Sikhs who felt deprived on certain issues. These issues included a settlement of a longstanding dispute over the apportionment of Punjab’s river waters and the question of the allocation of the city of Chandigarh as the joint capital. Pakistani Punjab started becoming more urbanised and advanced and with this followed the development of the culture. The Muslim Punjabis and the Sikh Punjabis have resultantly become quite different from each other with regard to their cultures, values and standards in spite of the same language spoken in both the states, i.e. Urdu (Punjabi identities before and after the 1947 partition of Punjab by Ishtiaq Ahmed).

Having assessed all the cases in great detail, the conclusion that language (although one of the fundamental needs of a society and a marker for the delineation of different cultures and ethnic groups) is not itself the sole or even most powerful creator of ethnic divides becomes irresistible. Humanity is geared towards segregation and identity. Therefore, it is human nature to be identified with some ideal or some representation of who one is. Efforts to suppress these identities and differences can only lead to a never-ending discord within a society.

This is exactly what is seen in the case of Pakistan. Pakistan once constituted a rather impressive area with four provinces in the western part and one large province in the east. Now, due to our own narrow-mindedness and inability to see what was even then obvious, we have lost a major part of this.

The need of the hour is to shed our denial of problems and issues. As Muslims, we do not have one language. We do not have one geographical commonality. And we certainly fail to project the same religious outlook; a testament to which is the presence of sectarianism within Muslims themselves. Pakistan is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual political state. Therefore, it is high time we learn from our mistakes and in doing so help alleviate the linguistic suppression of our fellow Pakistani brethren.



Written by redtribution

April 20, 2008 at 10:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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