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March 30, 2019

The myth of preserving a language


March 30, 2019

The myth of preserving a language has its roots in the idea of ‘nationalism and cultural superiority’ which is common to all postcolonial societies. When a language is deemed as sacrosanct or pure, it produces literature, poetry and music to create and glorify its own heroes – very much like ancient religious devotional ballads. Well intended as it may seem, the art and poetry emanating from the purity of language create the ‘other’ out of all those who do not share this self-proclaimed purity.

When we talk about culture and language in a generic writing of public consumption, we use these notions loosely as distinguishing factors between human societies. Culture and language in this sense become a way to differentiate between people and their ways of life. When culture and language are reduced as the primary determinants of social relationships and identity, they become political instruments of control and subjugation. Like religion, culture and language are exploited to diffuse political resistance against a given system by pitting people of one culture and language against the other.

Culture and language as political identity have been the hallmark of colonial rule in Asia and Africa. Colonialism produced some firebrand culture and language chauvinists as a countervailing force against the progressive icons of anti-colonial movements. In Africa, all postcolonial conflicts were led by culture and language chauvinists while in the Subcontinent religion was used as a key divider to undermine the possibility of a unified anti-colonial movement.

Religion was used as in the Subcontinent as a cultural divide between two people living together for centuries by exploiting difference rather than appreciating diversity. Postcolonial conflict continued to plague the Subcontinent on religious, cultural and ethnic lines in a political discourse of ‘native and settler’. The conception of Arya Samaj, and the rise of the RSS in India were different movements as far as their genesis is concerned but they were essentially framed in a native-settler political dichotomy. The Arya Samaj’s reversion to the vedas and the RSS reference to Hindutva is founded on a political ideology of the birthright of the native to rule India.

In Pakistan, the native-setter dichotomy continued to define the political landscape of regional and provincial conflicts which tend to challenge the legitimacy of state ideology. The official ideology of the ‘Two-Nation Theory’ – which provided the basis to define Muslims and Hindus as two separate nations – presumed religion to be a cultural identity. In Pakistan, the Two-Nation Theory could not prevent further cultural cleavages across different regions of the country. The political dichotomy of native and settler continued to divide Pakistani society on sharp ethnic lines rather than cementing the idea of nationhood on a religio-cultural ideology.

The culture and language chauvinists gained political power and a strong following across all regions of Pakistan, the most extreme example being the separation of East Pakistan. The Pakistani state strived to use religious ideology to counter the competing cultural narratives but it turned out to be a political fiasco.

The nationalist movements within Pakistan were seen by many as secular and liberating ideologies against religious persecution but in reality these movements are as conservative as religious ideology. The preservation of culture and language is a retrogressive idea because it goes back to the notion of a ‘pure’ and ‘incorruptible’ language. The idea of purity is intrinsically linked to asserting cultural supremacy and glorification of the past as a ‘golden age’, similar to religious puritanism.

In reality, all languages are corruptible and fluid in nature and their only function is to communicate out of a social necessity of expression and exchange. Languages are born, evolved and become redundant if they fail to serve the social necessity of meaningful expression of complex ideas and mediation of transactional relationship across cultures. There is nothing like the ‘purity’ of a language and there is no need for the preservation of a fast-dying language – very much like the mummies of Pharaohs which can best be used only to decorate a museum.

From this perspective, the nation-building project in Pakistan and India seems to be an unfinished business of continued division between politically-defined identities of local and non-local. There is a process of disintegration of all rational political ideals of democratic transition from cultural chauvinism to citizenship. The ongoing local movements in the Subcontinent for the preservation of the culture and languages of peripheral communities can also be seen on this continuum of politics of local and non-local. For many of our proponents of the preservation of culture and language, this may look like a noble cause to reassert the fast-receding peripheral cultural identities. But the very process of preserving peripheral and endangered languages can isolate them from the process of their mainstreaming synthesis into a broader and functional medium of communication.

In our neoliberal world the notions of culture, politics and economy have become three distinct spheres of human interaction across national borders. The indigenous patterns of socioeconomic and cultural life have been replaced by a global appeal of a universal value system. This system is driven by those who have resources, economic production capacity, political dominance and technological edge.

The universal value system under neo-liberalism is not a pluralistic set of interactive ideas and fair exchange of views across all the nations. The world we live in today is not shaped by the values of equality, participation and inclusion; it is a product of destructive wars for control over resources. The world has seen a transition from the physical acquisition of the weaker nations to economic and political control through local and regional proxies. The universal value system, therefore, is not an equalitarian idea of knowledge-partnership and exchange of cultural and political meaning as a process of building an inclusive global culture and language.

The neoliberal universal value system has intensified disintegration rather than cementing the varying cultures and languages across the world. What is the fundamental conception of neo-liberalism? It is an ideology which promotes a market-based global system of political, economic and cultural exchange beyond the national borders. It advocates minimal or no interference of the state in the economy, which in turn renders the role of political governments redundant in economic and political affairs. The role of the state become subservient to the forces of the free market – the giant transnational corporate entities that define and drive the global system. In the process of gaining full control over the ideological and functional dimensions of the political and economic spheres of the globalised world, the corporates invest to create a conducive consumerist culture.

Culture is disintegrated into some incongruent parts of a creative industry to promote brands and corporate insignias which commodify the intrinsic value of a culture as a process of integrating the body and soul of a society. In reality, the universal value system under neo-liberalism is a process of the homogenisation of indigenous cultures into a global brand of profitable business propositions. The ability of local cultures to reassert is submerged in the ocean of fetish products which are presented as symbols of free will and individualistic choice.

This is, however, not a simple and linear process of subduing local cultures as it produces a countervailing local resistance against the homogenisation and commodification of the local culture and value system.

The universal value system becomes a supermarket of varying cultural expressions and each local and peripheral culture strives to reposition itself as a package of some niche product of creative industry. In the age of globalisation, all we need is a rational global language to communicate equitability with the outside world. Even within national borders it would be sensible to minimise communication barriers rather than devoting creative energies in preserving the fossils of some archaic culture.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76

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