The Dawn: 2nd February, 2013

Language: threat of diversity

Mushtaq Soofi 

Language is power. ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’ declares the Bible. And what is God if not power? God gave Adam language which made him powerful. Adam’s descendents, according to the Bible, conscious of the power the word bestowed on them, lusted for greater power. ‘And they said: …let us build a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven’ .

God disapproving such an ambition scattered the people across the face of the earth and confounded their tongue as a punishment. Such are the messy origins of confusing multiplicity of languages of humankind. God dispelled the fear of threatening potential of one language by creating many which proved to be a source of a greater threat for those who subsequently assumed the responsibility of organising the human society in his name.

Single language threatened God, multiple languages threatened rulers. If God’s intention was to stop man from realising the full potential of one language, he ended up creating better prospects for him with making many languages. God through his act of confounding the speech of man made him more powerful by creating multiple languages which have divided the human beings but at the same time it has made the humankind immeasurably richer.

All the oppressive systems not only refuse to recognise this immense richness but rather resist it with the force of arms, declaring it a grave threat to the so-called social unity in the name of religion, nation and state. Philosophers by and large failed in appreciating the intellectual treasure the linguistic diversity promises which lies hidden beneath its apparently scraggy surface.

All the so-called major languages which dominant human groups in history propped up stand tall atop the pile-up of slaughtered tongues of the people who unfortunately happened to be socially and politically less powerful.

Linguistic imperialism has been invariably one of the functional requirements of empire building. Examples of the Akkadian, the Aramaic, the Greek, the Latin, the Sanskrit, the Persian, the Arabic, the Spanish, the French and the English tell us the same story. Empire and its language rise together.

It is only in twentieth century that some of the linguists came to grip the question of linguistic chaos created by the multiplicity of languages. They made two very important findings.

One, all languages have similar kind of structure i.e., theoretically no language is richer or poorer than other. Each language whether spoken by a few or many, has the potential of expressing what its speakers want to. Two, no language is replaceable because each language is a worldview; specific and unique.

Each language with its specific way of looking at reality becomes a singular tool to be employed by human mind in its functioning. So no language can be dispensed with. Losing a language means losing a way of looking at the world and its reality. If we allow languages to die we will be ultimately left with fewer tools at our disposal to understand ourselves and the world, resulting in the uniformity of thinking and intellectual poverty.

‘Limits of my language are limits of my world’ says Ludwig Wittgenstein. In other words, world for man is what his language makes it out to be. Each language makes the world what it is for its speakers in a way special to it. The act of realising the reality of the world or world of reality through a particular language though unique is shareable. Such share ability implicitly implies a universal link that exists between human mind and the structure of language per se.

But in real world we see what is obvious: dominant and dominated human groups, dominant and dominated languages. As dominated groups are not week because of their some intrinsic deficiency or incapability, so are the dominated languages, their weakness not a result of their inner structural deficiency. Weakness or strength of groups as that of languages is outcome of historical conditions.

Take the case of Indian subcontinent. The subcontinent is a highly-diverse place. It has extremes of weather, a stunning variety of flora and fauna, ice-clad mountains and unbearably hot deserts, frightening marshes and fertile flatland. It has been home to innumerable races and peoples creating socio-cultural and linguistic diversity matching its bio diversity. It has had as many languages as communities inhabiting it. Hitherto nothing worthwhile is known about the language of Harappa people who evolved one of the most magnificent ancient civilisations.

The Harappa civilisation, with its properly planned urban centres and provision of civic amenities, put to shame our contemporary towns. Unfortunately the script of its language is still a puzzle and remains uudecoded.

In the hitherto known history of the subcontinent, Sanskrit was the first to emerge as a dominant language. The story of the rise of Sanskrit is pretty well-known. Generally speaking there are three important factors which make a dominant language what it is: migration (internal and external), conquest and assimilation. Factors such as these played crucial role in creating conditions whereof Sanskrit attained a position of eminence.

Arya from the North or North West came to the Indus valley. Whether they came as invading hordes or as immigrants forced to leave their original settlements is still open to debate.
Anyway what they had to confront was a civilised society far superior to their nomadic way of life. The confrontation, spanned over some centuries, ended in the subjugation of the civilised Harappa which we find mentioned in Rig Veda with pride at several places.

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