What does ‘your’ language mean to you?
Imagine English, the lingua franca, was changed. Imagine that from today, it was declared illegal to write the English alphabet, and that English was to be written with the Russian alphabet (Cyrillic script). Even reading this article, written in the English alphabet, would get you, the writer, the editor and the publisher, everyone involved, in trouble.
Think about this. Why would this happen? What political, psychological, societal and cultural impact would it have? What would it mean for the existing body of English literature 10 years from now?
Years on, understanding this hypothetical period of history — our stories, our lives and life changing events — would be a task left to the scholars. Scholars who would use all kinds of big words to write books about us, which would then gather dust on shelves. The average English speaking person would be left disconnected from their history. Where would that leave them? Maybe this will give you some idea of this hypothetical dystopia:
“History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals.” — Malcolm X
“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”- Martin Luther King, Jr.
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” — James Baldwin
“A man without history is like a Man without roots.”- Malcom X
But this is an absurd dystopia, even Divergent makes more sense, you think. It’s impossible.
In reality, the politicization of history and language has long been a textbook tool to promote ideologies, propaganda and popularize political narratives. This seemingly absurd dystopia is a lived reality of less than just 100 years ago.
On the night of November 11, 1928, it was announced that the Turkish alphabet, written with the Arabic script that was used for hundreds and hundreds of years, was to be changed to the Latin-script alphabet — literally overnight!
By January 1, 1929, national schools had been opened for teaching this script and eventually those between ages 16 to 40 years would be fined if they couldn’t read or write the new alphabet and had not attended school1. By 1932, they began to “purify” the Turkish language from the Arabic and Persian influences 2.
In India, Urdu (with a touch of Persian) used to be the symbol of educated and elite class. This tradition can be traced back to the 14th century and predates Hindi, which can be traced back only to the 1800s3. With the majority of prose and poetry being in Urdu, it had always been the language of Indians, not just Muslims4 — much like English is today, but more organic. Hindi became the distinct register spoken by those who sought to construct a Hindu identity in the face of colonial rule5. In the late 19th century, a movement to further develop Hindi as a standardized form of Hindustani separate from Urdu took form6. In 1881, Bihar was the first state to accept Hindi as its sole official language, replacing Urdu7. Since Partition, Urdu has faced a hostile political environment in north India8, and Hindi has been made the national language with the intent of uniting yet succeeding only in dividing.
Another example, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, is the revival of Hebrew after it had been a long dead language9. The efforts to revive this ancient language began in the late 1800 after last being used in 135 CE, after around 2000 years10 (!!!).
Politicization of language was a strategy also used by the colonists. Enforcing colonial languages, condemning and sometimes even prohibiting the use of local languages11 was a political ploy to erase cultural identity and ensure full submission to the colonial master. The effects of this linger even today; local languages and culture are looked down upon with disdain — except on religious holidays, weddings and funerals, of course. Western culture is glorified as the progressive way forward and a story of advancement and discovery. Other cultures and languages are brushed off, centuries of knowledge and societal experience dismissed as irrelevant and better left behind. Centuries of successes, followed by years of struggles against oppression, wiped clean.
You see, even your sympathies are for the dominant narratives, whatever they may be; conservatism, liberalism, chauvinism, feminism, atheism, theism, capitalism, socialism, etc. Unless you’re in touch with your own history and arrive at your own thoughtful judgement and stand for them, you fold under the pressure of it. And when you’re subject to such popular ideology that you don’t even really understand, no matter how much you may twist and change yourself to conform to it, you will never be one of them because you are you. You and your Islam supersede, are more encompassing of anything these ideologies will ever amount to.
We are what we think, and what we think is what we make of history. So in this stranger-than- fiction reality where we have been turned into all but robots, let’s be the heroes that revive our languages, connect to history and be stronger in our self-identity. This doesn’t mean we stop speaking the lingua franca. What this means is that we balance our approach and bridge the gap in our psyche that dissociates culture and progress.
As long as a language lives, the people will not perish — A Czech Proverb
1 Wood, Margaret M. “Latinizing the Turkish Alphabet: A Study in the Introduction of a Cultural Change.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 35, no. 2, 1929, pp. 194–203. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2766122.
2 Yilmaz Çolak. “Language Policy and Official Ideology in Early Republican Turkey.” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 40, no. 6, 2004, pp. 67–91. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4289953.
3 King, Christopher. “THE HINDI-URDU CONTROVERSY OF THE NORTH-WESTERN PROVINCES AND OUDH AND COMMUNAL CONSCIOUSNESS.” Journal of South Asian Literature, vol. 13, no. 1/4, 1977, pp. 111–120. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40873494.
5 Ahmad, Rizwan (1 July 2008). “Scripting a new identity: The battle for Devanagari in nineteenth century India”. Journal of Pragmatics. 40 (7): 1163–1183. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2007.06.005
6 Paul R. Brass (2005). Language, Religion and Politics in North India. iUniverse, Incorporated. ISBN 9780595343942.
7 Parthasarathy, Kumar, p.120
9 Fellman, Jack. “Concerning the ‘Revival’ of the Hebrew Language.” Anthropological Linguistics, vol. 15, no. 5, 1973, pp. 250–257. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30029347.
11 Shakib, Mohammed. “The position of language in development of colonization.” Journal of Languages and Culture Vol. 2(7), pp. 117–123, July 2011. Available online at http://www.academicjournals.org/JLC. ISSN 2141–6540 ©2011 Academic Journals