The Birth, Death and Re-birth of Language [International Mother Language Day]

By Aditi Annapurna:

Today, the 21st of February is the International Mother Language Day. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) established this as an observance as an effort to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by the peoples of the world”.

indian languages collage

True, language holds a great cultural value and acts as a means of preserving a community’s heritage and beliefs to persevere through the test of time. The writer Alphonse Daudet himself said of the importance of Language, “when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison”. The Government of India, for that matter, also takes equal care in protecting the languages spoken in remote regions of the country, it realises that India’s Diversity Dividend is an indispensable thing, one that needs to go hand-in-hand with progress of the social, political and economic order.

But what of the English language? True, only 3% of the total population of the country speaks it, but it survives as an equally important language, for the very fact that knowing it promises in some way, an upward mobility, something that can very obviously be attributed to the reason that it is spoken by most of the “developed” world. English by itself has various forms of expression, and within it lies a diversity that spreads across different civilisations and historical contexts. However, that would lead us to the question- Does an “original” English exist- one that is purely unaffected and “unpolluted” by localised slangs and informal usages? And if so, what is the so-called “correct” form of the language?

The answer of these questions lies in the very essence of the topic of this article. Language, like every other thing in this world, undergoes Birth, Death and Re-birth. In order to provide a simple answer to the above questions, I’d say that yes, there did exist an English that was completely in possession of the people of The United Kingdom, that was relatively “pure” in the sense that it existed in an isolated environment, unaffected by other communities and races. However, this English has rendered itself rather obsolete, it ceases to exist in its original form, and in other words, has seen its death. But wait, through the flames of the dying language, like a phoenix, emerges a form that, through its newly-acquired variations, enters into re-birth and adopts new ways and rules to suit the community that it, like a piece of bacteria, breeds in.

Salman Rushdie, in his essay, “Commonwealth Literature” Does Not Exist, says that “the English language ceased to be the sole possession of the British some time ago” — If the purpose of language is to facilitate communication between human beings, if it is to truly become a tool in progress of the social sphere, then English, in whichever form that it takes, must be accepted by people of a community as a medium that is “correctly” written and spoken in itself.

I revert to the earlier issue around the need for the preservation of Language. Protection and Preservation is a need only when a language continues to exist as an indispensable medium of exchange of ideas, when its prevalence and presence means to a population a key to its entire history and heritage. However, in the words of Karl Marx, Change is the Only Constant, and language is no exception to this. A language needs only this — the support to have the ideas existing within its framework to withstand and ultimately survive changes of manner of thought and expression.


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