• Jeresh Charles

Of language

Dead Clade Walking or extinction debt is a common phrase used in biology to describe the inevitable outcome of a species whose habitat has been fragmented or destroyed and the remaining individuals cannot survive long enough for their population to grow. The result often is extinction or in rare cases a sudden burst in diversity which helps the species adapt and eventually procreate and multiply. A similar evolutionary pattern can be observed in the case of languages. They are born, they evolve and eventually they die or give birth to a new set of languages which carry their essence forward. In this respect a language can be seen as a living, breathing entity, capable of every function a living organism can perform, apart from the obvious biological ones. In fact, apart from breathing, most functions can be seen in languages, their evolution is inextricably linked to adapting new phrases to describe new phenomenon, or discarding words that no longer serve their original purpose, which is akin eating and excreting. They also perform the vital function of being guardians of ancient knowledge and culture, serving as denizens of an era gone by or as sentinels of the present.

Language serves to enhance the thinking of a human being. How we communicate and think is deeply entrenched in the language we speak. We assign genders to objects for this purpose too, for example, vehicles are mostly female and hence there exists an eternal fascination of men with cars and planes and ships describing them as beautiful and graceful, ascribing more feminine qualities. We use thoughts to generate ideas, accumulate knowledge, birth wisdom and eventually share them with the world through language. In essence, language holds the ability to create and to destroy, to hurt and to heal, to uplift and to debase, to define and to understand. Its invariably an essential component of what it means to be human as set apart from animals whose communication is limited, repetitive and largely driven by instinct. To be viewed as such should elevate our gratitude for language however its misuse is equally prevalent.

Language was seen as a tool to promote national interests and the very idea of a nation rested upon the averaged dialect of a region elevated to a defining characteristic which eventually deprived some people of their identity via language. Since the advent of colonization, it was a tool used to exert control and destroy seemingly lesser languages in the interest of another. This leads me to ask what have we lost in the course of this conquest apart from the obvious consequence of language attrition and linguicide (the death of a language). The extinction of a species is mourned but hardly is the death of a language grieved because we have forgotten what profundity it carries. The world is still home to about 7000 native languages yet we have lost a lot when none remain to remember a language by. It marks the death of a culture, the death of a civilization even, and we face the threat of losing more in a globalized world.

George Orwell in his seminal work 1984 proposes another danger language poses in the hands of the governing class. He talks of the use of language to control the thoughts of the population by restricting the vocabulary available and essentially perpetuating a continued governing of the people. Noam Chomsky also talks of a similar idea in his book Manufacturing Consent: the political economy of the mass media whereby there is a propaganda model of communication by powerful ideological institutions. This warrants a closer look at the necessity to preserve and protect language in the interest of free speech everywhere.

The idea of protecting a language is similar to protecting a species, starting with the most basic task of habitat definition and then proceeding to document its evolution for additional clarity concerning its growth. It is the richness it holds for the future that makes it priceless, the lessons learnt from a unique perspective make it invaluable in anthropological studies. Moreover, the heritage it imparts also adds to its value, it is the DNA of a civilization serving the purpose of better understanding the history of our forefathers and learning from them. Without the Rosetta stone our Egyptology would still be in its infancy, the British colonizers understood the value of using language to better govern colonies, translating ancient texts and using that information to define native preferences. How much more should our zeal be in protecting language and nurturing it, learning its intricacies and doing a comparative analysis to understand what our predecessors did. It thus stands to reason we need to promote the study of language alongside our curriculum to enhance our cognitive abilities at the least while trying to enhance its legacy. I understand that there are departments in universities to do this but even these are a dying breed with need for a fresh infusion of enthusiasm. Our culture is defined by its overwhelming tolerance and to deny an extension of the same to a language would be a great disservice indeed.

We as intellectuals of a democratic world may very well stand as the last bastion of hope against the forces that seek to ravage our essential freedoms. If we seek then to protect language, let it be in our minds and in our hearts, let us cherish the opportunity thus, to promote it with fellow speakers and let us, above all, be not ashamed of the language we speak, for it carries our history and more essentially our identity. In the words of the Roman Emperor Charlemagne, I conclude my thoughts on language thus, “to have another language is to possess a second soul.” And to have another soul is to have lived another life.

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