Language can be a source of great beauty, and can allow us to share our story as we experience and contemplate the mystery and void of human existence. Of course, it also allows trade as well as maintenance of knowledge systems, and is probably a cornerstone of civilization. This is not a scientific or neurological analysis of the human phenomenon of language, nor a catalog of its richness, nor of the history of its evolution. Many mighty tomes have been filled with these topics. Instead, this is an examination of how language can be perverted from being a tool of communication to one of segregation, ostracism and mass-murder, and a perspective on what lovers of personal freedom and human dignity might wish to consider as they make their choices around the use of languages.
Consider the word shibboleth. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggests that it is “a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people..” Its origin is, however, blood-soaked. The incident is from the Bible (Judges 12:6) as the Gileadites warred against Ephraim and captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim.
And it happened when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Say now, ‘Shibboleth.'” But he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.
That is quite a lot of people who were killed just because they could not pronounce a certain word correctly. That was a long time ago; but we have heard rumor that the practice was followed in modern warfare, as spies in Holland less than a century ago were made to speak the word “Scheveningen” with fatal consequences for getting it wrong.
In any case, language has remained a key attribute of human identity. One major factor in the bloody break-up of East and West Pakistan was the insensitivity shown towards the Bengali language by Punjabi- and Urdu- speaking politicians. Language proved stronger than religion, in this case, and Bangladesh emerged, in joy and marigolds, but not without grief. Consider also the staggering achievement of Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda, who rejuvenated Hebrew, and caused his son Ben-Zion to be the first person in many centuries to grow up speaking it as a first language, laying the framework for the modern state of Israel. These are just two examples out of many from recent history, which illustrate how the choice of language can affect millions of human lives – and the conditions of those lives.
Language is an emotive issue. Let us look at two, fairly common, scenarios of people refusing to speak a language even when they can – either because of their relationship with the language, or because of their perception of their interlocutor.
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
What the now-deceased Führer declares here in Mein Kampf, his mass-reproduced magnum opus, is:
“It is however an almost incredible fallacy to believe that a Negro or a Chinaman, say, could become a German because he has learnt the German language and is ready to evermore speak it.”
Many of Hitler’s theses are no longer widely accepted, and this one too would not find resonance in today’s Germany, the preamble to whose constitution starts off with the notion of human dignity. But perhaps you happen to be a German ultra-nationalist whose proud soul shudders at the notion of speaking the sacred German language to an Outsider, someone of swarthy complexion, or strangely-shaped eyes, or of the Jewish or Slavic persuasions – someone for whom you have little more than rabid hatred or cold contempt? Consider then the curious case of Friedrich the Great, King in and from Prussia, admired by generations of patriotic Germans, and, crucially, one Russian – he too struggled with the German language, preferring the tongue of France. Consider also that some of the greatest stylists of the German language were open to and tolerant of other cultures and languages: Heine, Goethe, Kafka and Nietzsche. Two of these were, quelle horreur, Jews. Perhaps it is time to move beyond Hitler. The idea extends, of course, to all über-nationalist tendencies in language, and the German case is only an illustrative example.
A similar, less violent example is from Nepali history, when some powers were taken away from the monarch in the 1900s. He was expected to use the polite form of the second person pronoun with his courtiers, but could not bring himself to adapt to his changing world, and solved the problem by speaking English with them, which language has in “you” its only form of the second person direct pronoun. During the same time, it so happened that the Indian ambassador to Nepal was a retired General of the Gurkhas, who therefore spoke fluent Nepali, and, given his rank, was happy to be addressed with the informal form of the second person pronoun. Thus, the Nepali King spoke Nepali with a foreigner, and a foreign language with his own courtiers. The other scenario has to do with people who refuse to speak a particular language for it has connotations of repression, as evidenced by a Catalonian, on occasion or in general, feeling uncomfortable speaking the Castilian language, as Castilian represents the modern Spanish monarchy some Catalonians wish to break away from; or by an African in a post-colonial world not acquiescing in speaking English or French, the language of the formal colonial oppressors; or by a survivor of the Holocaust in Israel not wishing to speak German, even though it might be his or her “mother tongue”, because the language is associated with memories of pain and degradation.These examples focus on Castilian (Spanish), English (or French) and German, but the rule is obviously general. Would it be anything other than churlish or cruel to compel persons to speech in languages they command but have chosen to disdain?
To sum up, refusing to speak a language one can speak, may well be fuelled by a political philosophy. Such a refusal must remain the individual’s choice, although it is, generally speaking, easier to respect the act when done out of solidarity with the weaker side or out of a desire to integrate into the community, rather than when it derives from anachronistic racism.
Mother tongue: The language that a person has grown up speaking from early childhood. (OED)
Not only is the term sexist (why not father tongue, or, for that matter babysitter tongue?), it is obsolete, for the OED assumption that people grow up speaking only one language is not true for many millions, and globalization is making it increasingly false. Also, it is largely irrelevant, as many people do not speak their mother tongues as adults. This is one of the reasons why languages die out. The related term “native language” too is defective, for it has come to indicate a high level of proficiency, rather than accident of birth. There are many who have been born and brought up in the fair land of England, and know no other tongue, and who must therefore be considered native speakers of English – yet, many of these are not precisely connoisseurs of the English language, and routinely make errors in usage. Also, how many words of Thai must one know to be regarded as a speaker of the Thai language, and must one be able to satisfactorily explain ten thousand of them if one is not to be prosecuted for perjury? Can we not simply formulate the bureaucratic demand as “Languages comfortable with”?
The issue of language is further complicated by accents, and by the phenomenon of code-switching, wherein a speaker alternates between two or more languages or dialects, in the context of a single conversation. If the occasional use of foreign words for “computer” or “internet” causes pain to the National Committee for Pure Language, imagine how aghast they must be when people employ whole sentences and phrases from outside. Both accents and code-switching have been used to identify classes of people and to discriminate against them. Perhaps we are slowly moving beyond killing, or being killed, on account of a language, but social and economic discrimination based on how people speak, independent of the content of their ideas, remains a reality.
Language is an important marker of human identity, and perhaps even defines or heavily influences how its adherents think about the world, through the concepts it makes available to them, and those it does not provide. However, it can also be a tool used to bring people together. In this spirit of human community, perhaps it might be an idea to tolerate other languages being spoken in the boulevards of our cities; to tolerate our own language being spoken with a strange accent, or perhaps not quite in the most polished of manners; to tolerate some refusing to speak a language even when possessed of the ability to do so. This tolerance in the emotive domain of language can only increase the pleasantness of human interaction and pave the way for a greater exchange of ideas.