Independence of language

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Independence of Language

True independence can be achieved only when we become “language independent”. In order to escape from Linguistic Colonialism we should aim to build new bridges for a trilingual Sri Lanka

Man can be truly "Independent" only when he has Independence in communicating with all mankind. We would have enjoyed this independence millions of years ago, when our ancestors first developed the capability of speech as a means of communication.

We lost this capability sometime along the ladder of evolution, as man started spreading out from Central Africa to every corner of the world. Perhaps it was a cruel joke played upon man by nature, or an experiment which went wrong, as Homo sapiens was trapped in a 'Tower of Babel' where they could not understand each other. It happened only to man, because all other animals appear to be communicating in a common voice among their kind. A dog anywhere on earth barks in the same way, and so does a lark when it sings.

When each tribe, clan or ethnic group developed a different language for their own use, and identified themselves by the language, they began to talk of a 'Mother Tongue'. When one such group became a 'majority' in a geographical region and considered the region belonged to them, then all other smaller groups using other languages became 'minorities' and that is when everybody lost their independence of communication, both the majority and the minorities. Everybody who did not use our own language become strangers, outsiders, foreigners to us. A native of one country became a foreigner the moment he stepped into a country where his own language was not understood. When people of different language groups gathered in one place, they remained as far apart as when they had been geographically.

For man to achieve true independence in communication, he has to develop a Universal Language, a language common to all human beings, all over the world. It is not just a distant dream, but a vision we could make a reality in the near future, by making use of all the electronic technology now available. It could be a computer generated language, to be read and understood by people all over the world, making instant communication with everyone, by phone, by text messages, by electronic mail, or video. The first step could be the simultaneous translation of such communications.

This universal language would not need a written script, the computers can use their own language independent systems, because by this time man would be in his tertiary orality, where he would not, and need not be able to read and write.

As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, even today. The necessity is here, because of the easy and spontaneous global communication systems available, but with the frustrating handicap of all the different languages in use globally, in our 'Global Village'.

There are 6900 different languages listed around the world. 800 different languages used in New York. In our neighbouring India, 398 listed live languages, with newspapers published in 87 languages and 58 languages taught in schools around the country.

In our country we are fortunate that we have only two languages to contend with. We teach only three languages in schools and read news papers in three languages. Yet unfortunately only ten percent of the Sinhala community can speak Tamil while only thirty percent of the Tamil community can speak in Sinhala. Once we had a link language, which is today understood only by fifteen percent of the Sri Lankans. So we do not have a language common to all of us, and we do not have a link language either. We do not have the freedom for communication with people in our own country.

India is more fortunate, more independent in a way, because they use English as their link language, giving freedom of movement and communication to a man from Tamil Nadu traveling to Delhi, or a man from Kolkata moving to Mumbai. The rapid development of Hinglish is making it far easier, though people who still want to cling on to a 'Mother Tongue' keep on complaining. Hinglish has become a national language in India, crossing across all language, social and economic barriers, establishing itself in almost all electronic mass media, films, advertising, and even into official records.

There is also a fallacy backed by a few misguided or politically opportunistic people that a person can be proficient only in his mother tongue. They carry this argument further by saying people should do their creative writing in their mother tongue only, that a successful poem can be written only in one's mother tongue. But this has been disproved in our country, first by Ven. S. Mahinda himi, who was born in Sikkim, who probably used Tibetan as his mother tongue, but became more proficient in Sinhala than most Sinhalese of his era. In India R. K. Narayan did not write in his mother tongue.

Merger of two or more languages is not a new phenomenon in India. Before Hinglish it was Khar Boli, the language used around Delhi which later developed into modern day Hindi and Urdu. Long before that it was the Indo-Aryan which gave rise to all North Indian languages. But when the British "granted" independence to India, they left a multi-headed monster in the form of a partition. The further separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan was mainly on the language issue of Bengali when Urdu was forced on the Bengali people.

In our country, we created our own monster, when British educated politicians who used Sinhala only to address their servants pushed for a Sinhala only policy. We have been able to destroy the monster, and now it is up to all Sri Lankans to ensure that such a monster never raises its head again.

Even though we have a huge language gap, there is much we can learn from our past. We need not go back to the proto-languages which have been used by pre-historic man in our country, but we can begin with the arrival of Vijaya 2600 years ago. When he fetched a Pandya bride from Madhura who was accompanied by one hundred maidens and a thousand families, they had to overcome the language barriers, or Vijaya would not have been able to talk to his wife. A compromise language would have developed, which could be understood by those who used the so-called Aryan languages and the non-Aryan languages and also with the indigenous people. There would have been 'Mutual Intelligibility', not just between dialects, but among different languages too.

This intermingling had continued down the ages, with more Sinhala Kings importing their brides from South India, more mercenaries coming in to fight for our kings, and more invading armies, settling down in this country. We come across references of Tamil merchant guilds in Anuradhapura, of a Tamil monk at Abhayagiri Vihara, of Demala Adikari and land grants for Tamils. Then we hear of the Gold Plate inscription found at Vallipuram, mentioning building of a vihara at Badakara Atana, written in Brahmi Script 1900 years ago, and the Tamil slab inscription written about one thousand years ago describing the donations to God Siva at the shrine named Vijayaraja Isvaram in Kantalai. Either most people were able to read and write both Tamil and Sinhala, or at least understand what was spoken.

In Sri Lanka, there would have been our own Lingua Franca, like the original Lingua Franca used throughout the Mediterranean, which was a mixed language of Italian, Turkish, French, Greek, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish. What we need today is a 'Lingua Franca' of Sinhala, Tamil and English, not just Singlish or Tamilish, but perhaps Tamisinglish!

Building new bridges for a Tri-lingual Sri Lanka has been launched, which has to be successful, because we are on familiar ground and aiming at an easily achievable target. Today among the Tamil Hindu and the Sinhala Buddhist, the language is the only barrier which has to be dismantled. In our culture, our music, our dress and most of our food habits we have much in common. In our religious beliefs and practices we are very much closer, due to the absorption of Buddhism into Hinduism in India and the absorption of Hinduism into Buddhism in Sri Lanka, as described by John Clifford Holt, about the Hindu Buddha and the Buddhist Vishnu (The Buddhist Vishnu: religious transformation, politics and Culture, Coulumbia University Press, 2004)

Holt quoted Martin Wickramasinghe. "The readaptation of foreign elements is a sign of the originality and the virility of a given culture", Wickramasinghe had written as far back as 1952, in 'Aspects of Sinhalese Culture'. It is more relevant today, when we think of independence of language.

Today Kataragama is one of the most popular places of worship for most Sinhala Buddhists, and on any weekend we find more Sinhala Buddhists at Kataragama, than Tamil Hindus, even though God Kataragama is believed to be of South Indian origin, and known as God Skanda, Lord Murugesu, Subramanya, Kandasamy, Kadiradeva, Katiravel and Kartikeya.

The Sacred Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura is another common place of worship, because Ficus Religiosa had been venerated as one of the most sacred trees in India for over 5000 years, and one of the best rallying points for Sinhala-Tamil cultural unity could be under the shade of the Sri Maha Bodhi, on our voyage towards total independence.

We received political independence in 1947, but we have still not escaped the Linguistic Colonialism, and we are still dependent on the Colonial language. Even though Indians believe they are more independent than all other commonwealth countries, English is still a much stronger master over all Indian languages. We need English because it is the only international language familiar to us, but it should be for us to use as we wish, and not allow the language to use us. Let us use English to build a bridge between our languages, instead of letting it ride on our backs.

Trilingualism in India is a complex issue. Hindi and English are the common languages, while the regional language varies from state to state. For us in Sri Lanka, it is much simpler, with only Sinhala, Tamil and English.

Independence in language does no mean that every ethnic group with their own language should have political and economic independence, as it is happening around the world, which would only mean that instead of a 'global village' we would end up having around 9000 small villages in a global Babelian tower.

True independence could be achieved only when we become language independent, like already we have language independent computer applications, and cross-platform and multi-platform software. Scientists are discovering that among humans, numerical reasoning and language are functionally and neuroanatomically independent, that grammatical and mathematical syntax are independent. This brings us closer to a language independent communication system.

Today we have word processors and printers which can handle many languages, and machine translation capability. If a machine designed and developed by man can handle many languages simultaneously, then man should be better able to do it, to become multilingual. Or we could develop a global Lingua Franca, till someday we could have our global language.

Looking forward to the day when our children would be able to live in a post-Babelian world, and be truly free and truly independent.

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