Embedded Language


Embedded Language

daya dissanayake

Man likes to believe that he is the only intelligent animal on earth who has developed language as a means to communicate with each other. Monkey lip-smacking, which requires rapid, controlled movements of the tongue, lips and jaw, may be tied to the emergence of speech. W. Tecumseh Fitch, head of the department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, has determined, that lip-smacking occurs at a rate of 5 cycles per second, which happens to be the same rate as for average speed human speech. But monkeys did not develop speech.

Man with his capability of speech developed too many languages and now he is unable to communicate with his neighbour. He is the only animal on earth who has been using his hands at first, then later weapons, to fight with his own kind, instead of peaceful communication. Today we even fight and kill each other because we cannot understand our fellow humans, and because we believe our language is superior to that of another. Though we are proud to have highly developed languages, we behave worse than the lowest forms of animal life, because of our inability to communicate with, and understand our fellow human beings.

"All language, practices and religions are embedded in human cultures and societies", emphasize the importance of the Embedded Language, by the editors of 'Embedded Languages: Studies of Sri Lankan and Buddhist Cultures'. It has been published in honour of Prof. W. S. Karunatillake. The essays in this volume "all share the common understanding that seeing the words of Buddhism and of Sri Lanka requires that we understand how the language is constructed, played with, and displayed in specific and particular contexts."

John Ross Carter, in his essay, 'Linguist, Language Teacher, Translator: Cross-Cultural Thirthankara', had written about Prof. Karunatillaka, "A linguist who is also a language teacher and a translator is a ford-maker (thirthankara), leading others to cross-cultural understanding". Carter begins his essay "Often it has been said that language is our first bias, ....our native language establishes our conceptuality of the world as we perceive it to be, of ourselves in the world we perceived..."

Steven Pinker, who wrote the best-seller, 'The Language Instinct' (1994), had said that through language we are enabled to rise authentically to a level of becoming fully human, "because information is a particularly good commodity of exchange that makes it worth people's while to hang out together". But the problem is the exchange has to be with different currencies, of different values, making it more and more difficult to hang out together.

Anthropologist Leslie C. Aiello, had written that the evolution of increased social intelligence would be closely linked with the evolution of languages. It is Aiello who argued that as man became an erect biped the repositioning of the head had caused the back of the tongue to bend downwards. This enabled him to produce subtly different noises, giving him the ability to speak and sing. She also believes that the increased ability to communicate is tied with the increased ability to cheat. Higher level social intelligence gives the ability to read and manipulate others to protect one's self against manipulation.

Carter discusses about how language can be manipulated to coerce and repress others into a central ideology, and at the same time language has enabled us "to conceptualize and communicate a center of value inclusive of all persons: the dignity of the human personality discerned in the faithfulness of human relationships - in the face of deceit."

Wilfred Cantwell Smith had observed that through the use or words, "spiritual truth has been made, has made itself, audible, learnable, appropriatable". He goes on to say, "What a statement means is what it means to some person or persons, at some time or place. And this varies : if not from person to person, at least from group to group, and from era to era".

When human beings use over 6000 languages around the world, every word could have a different meaning to different people. Meanings could change in translation, from language to language, from era to era even within the same language. The interpretation of a word, or the translation has created so many rifts among cultures, and even among religions. Many religious sects which split away from the original organizations were due to the different interpretations given to a few words, which changed the original teaching and the message given by the founders.

One word or just a few words had sometimes changed world history, the fate of entire nations, and millions of people. The three words which summarize the mission of Jesus is considered to be "He humbled himself". Ajahn Buddahasa used four words to explain Buddha's teachings, "Be Peaceful and Useful". Gaafar Bin Abe taleb had said, "He ordered us to say the Truth, be honest, connect our relatives, be good to neighbours". It was said in the Mundak Upanishad, and adapted as the national motto of India, "Satyameva Jayate" (Truth alone Triumphs).

Martin Luther King on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial began his 17 minute speech, with the words "I have a dream..". Ronald Reagan, on June 12, 1987, said in Berlin, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall". It was not just the phrase, which brought down the Berlin Wall, but it has gone down in history as the words that changed the lives of the Berliners and entire Europe.

We do not need a thousand words to convey our thoughts. A few well chosen words could change the fate of mankind, could make this world a better place to live, not only for man, but for all life on earth. And we should be careful to avoid the use of a single word that could cause harm, cause pain and misery for any creature. Let us embed our language with the best human values in our culture.

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