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When a language dies

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Language emerges as a powerful manifestation of a culture that acts as an identity-marker at the individual and societal levels, writer Professor Dr Shahid Siddiqui.

Linguistic map

Dr Shahid Siddiqui

Language and society constantly influence each other. Social factors, such as age, gender, class and religion, influence language; conversely, language impacts society in a relatively subtle way.

Path-breaking research conducted by American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf suggests that we perceive the outer world with the help of our minds, which are largely controlled by the language we speak. The findings of this study reassess the role of language by suggesting that language is not merely a passive tool but is also actively involved in creating perceptions of the outer world and constructing social reality.

Therefore, language emerges as a powerful manifestation of a culture that acts as an identity-marker at the individual and societal levels. There is a strong link between a language-user’s beliefs, language and understanding of the world since the world is perceived, understood, interpreted and represented through thoughts that are unique to each language.

Keeping in view the significance of language at the individual and societal levels, it is disturbing to learn that a number of languages are facing the threat of extinction. If we examine the human history, we find incidents where languages have practically disappeared. But it is alarming that the rate of extinction has accelerated in the contemporary world.

According to Ethnologue (2009), an encyclopaedic reference work that catalogues the world’s living languages, over 7,000 languages are spoken in the world, but the distribution of their speakers is far from even. For instance, linguist David Crystal claims that just four percent of the world’s languages are spoken by 96 percent of the global population. A Unesco report estimates that about 2,471 languages are endangered.

Historically, we have seen two approaches to the issue of protecting languages. The first can be referred to as the melting-pot approach whereby there is no justification for the existence of a number of minor languages. Under this approach, these languages should be put into the ‘melting pot’ of the dominant language that represents power. This approach was advocated and practised by imperial powers when they tried to impose their own language on natives and ignored local languages.

In this approach, there is a sense of positional superiority, as Edward Said might suggest. Different dominant groups in a given society try to promote and impose their own languages on marginalised groups. Language is the main constituent of discourse that plays a vital role in the dynamics of power. Various scholars – from Gramsci and Derrida to Foucault and Fairclough – have focused on the role of the discursive approach in obtaining and sustaining control over others.

Competing schools of thought oppose the melting-pot approach and maintain that there is beauty in diversity. Therefore, every language has the right to exist. According to the adherents of this school, linguistic diversity is as important as biological diversity.

But this diversity is at risk now because languages are dying fast. This can be attributed to a series of natural, cultural, social, economic and geographical factors. A major factor that has dwarfed others is the pragmatism that forms the basis of modern globalisation. Social, cultural and geographical reasons are linked to the process of globalisation in a subtle way. In Pakistan, English – which is viewed as a symbol of power – is associated with the elite. In order to align themselves with the elite, people tend to use English. At another level, Urdu is at a similar vantage point as compared with the local languages of the country, such as Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Saraiki, etc. We must understand that no language is superior or inferior in itself. It is the socio-economic status of the speakers of a certain language that bestows its strength.

According to Ethnologue, the number of individual languages listed for Pakistan is 74. All are living languages. Of these, 66 are indigenous and eight are non-indigenous. Furthermore, seven are institutional, 17 are developing, 39 are vigorous, nine are in danger of extinction, and two are dying.

Most languages that are in danger of extinction or practically dying are spoken in the mountains. With the advent of globalisation, compact community systems and their languages are at risk. Young people who belong to these linguistic communities are moving to large cities to study or work and have to use Urdu or English in order to assimilate. Another important factor is the attitude of policymakers towards certain languages. This complacent attitude is prevalent among authorities at the local and federal levels. No serious measures have been taken to legitimise these languages.

The extinction of a language doesn’t just imply the disappearance of a cluster of words and expressions. It translates into the loss of identities and viewpoints, and the extinction of social histories.

We need to act now. Serious measures need to be taken to save Pakistan’s dying languages. These steps can be taken at the local level by concerned groups and organisations that ought to be supported by the state. As Ezra Pound said: “The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension”. This article was first published in The News International on January 26, 2019


The writer is an educationist. Email: shahidksiddiqui@gmail.com

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