By M Aamer Sarfraz
Daily times : May 11, 2018
Language is not for hanging next to expensive pieces of arts in the ivory towers. It evolves and moves on
If you are like me, we identify ourselves in our language. It is a measure of our ideas and wishes experienced through poetry and prayers. We subsist at the level of our language as it moulds our emotions and experiences into knowing and naming the world around us. If imagination is thinking beyond language, the medium used to explore it beyond reality, is also afforded by language.
Language is a complex system of communication. It is also a means to signal identity with one cultural group (or sub-group) and be different from others. We had three languages at our disposal up until the late 1970s: mother tongue (spoken at home), national or local language (spoken outdoors/school), and English (spoken abroad or with foreigners). With the rise of Urdu drama serials, local languages took a back seat for being perceived as less sophisticated, and Urdu became the language which the affluent people spoke. It was also promoted by the Zia regime for being in line with his policy of having a uniform national dress, religion and culture. This, unfortunately, set a morbid trend in motion where regional languages gradually disappeared down the pecking order. Urdu has since been replaced by English.
The language we speak influences how we experience the world. For example, a series of experiments demonstrated recently that we perceive colours through the lens of mother tongue. Earlier, mother tongue was alleged to be a ‘prison house’ that constrained our capacity to reason. Once such claims were refuted, social scientists proposed that people of all cultures think in the same way. This is a mistake once again to overestimate the status of abstract thinking, because we still make most decisions by instinct and emotions. The thinking habits that our culture instils earlier on, shape our view of the world and our reactions to the situations. They influence our lifelong beliefs, values and ideologies. Before evaluating their contribution to our social lives, we need to understand one another better, and stop pretending that we all think alike.
It is said that a change in language is often a change in reality. We have developed a rather convoluted way of expressing ourselves. To observe this, put a microphone in front of a common man or a politician and ask for his opinion on any issue. You would hear almost nothing on one end, and an uninterrupted and meaningless jargon on the other. Language used at both ends of the human spectrum in Pakistan, seems full of ambiguities for being a mixture of elusive, modulated and inconsequential. Is this unclear or no-thinking parlance a reflection of pervading intellectual impoverishment? The answer may be in the affirmative. When a society decays, the language is the first to become gangrenous.
As long as my words convey faithfulness of thought, tears flow from a degree of pain, colours are easy on the eye, and metaphor isn’t just decorative, I should keep adding to the national discourse. Not everyone who knows how to write can be a writer
If you live abroad, you are caught in the space between two tongues. You often come a bit unglued during the task of conveying meaning from one to the other. The transfer is never safe as the meanings change in the channel. They also become tinted, adulterated, and even detached when communicating with our children raised abroad. We know the words, but our sentences make no sense to them because after losing our own language, words have become pale shadows of forgotten names. This is the price we pay for the “progress” and “safety” in life. A dead language is not only not spoken or written, you also surrender its culture. It no longer tolerates concepts, shapes our thoughts, tells another story or fills the baffling silences. After all, who are we without our own words?
I still believe that words never fail. As we hear or read them, they become part of us for as long as we live. They have the power to light fires in the minds and bring tears out of the heartless. There are times when we go speechless and nothing comes out except sounds. There is nothing wrong if we accept it as an indulgence with experiencing language as a collection of sounds. This is akin to written words having musical notations. You may encounter that music of language when poetry or a great piece of fiction is being read. We should have faith in our language — if we place words next to each other, they will speak with their own sounds.
My own language limitations are real. I am not uncomfortable because my scientific background is more suitable for writing notes or for professional journals. But I have things to say, and a world language (English) is prepared to pay the price by submission to many different kinds of use. So, why reduce life to a monotone? Language lives on fresh blood, otherwise, experience of life weakens and grows pale. Language is not for hanging next to expensive pieces of arts in the ivory towers. It evolves and moves on. As long as my words convey faithfulness of thought, tears flow from a degree of pain, colours are easy on the eye, and metaphor isn’t just decorative, I should keep adding to the national discourse. Not everyone who knows how to write can be a writer.