Language Is a Virus from Outer Space
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday November 6 2011
What did William S Burroughs mean when he wrote that language is a virus from outer space? He argued that language is infectious and exerts limitations and controls over people’s minds and that the ability to think and create is limited by the conventions of grammar and usage. Language is public behaviour which can be criticised. It can label and identify and categorise an individual. Linguistic factors influence our judgement of a person with serious consequences for identity and social survival.
Language can be divisive. India has (according to the 1961 Census) 1,652 languages, so it is not surprising that there have been language riots. Belgium with only two languages has also had language riots.
Language can be used to unite. Language is often an important part of nationalist struggle. In Ireland, the founding fathers of the Republic believed that language was intrinsic to the identity of the nation. Padraic Pearse believed the Irish school system raised Ireland’s youth to be good Englishmen or obedient Irishmen. Incidentally, Pearse’s father was a Brit from Birmingham. The English put him before a firing squad for his part in the Easter Rising. Sean Mac Stíofáin, leader of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s, spoke fluent Irish with a cockney accent – his real name was John Stephenson and he was born in Leytonstone.
Brian Friel’s brilliant play Translations deals with a wide range of issues, stretching from language and communication, to Irish history and cultural imperialism. A party from the Royal Engineers is working on new ordinance survey maps which involves turning Irish place names into English. The play focuses mainly on (mis)communication and language to tell of the desperate situation between these two countries with an unsure and questionable outcome.
There is no doubt that English as spoken in Ireland has a distinctive character. As Robert McCrum wrote in The Story of English, “In England , the Anglo Saxons and the Celts hardly mixed. In Ireland the strange, and sometimes tragic, fusion of their two languages has made a culture, spoken and written, that is one of the glories of the English language. Irish English is the language of Edmund Spenser, Jonathan Swift, RB Sheridan, William Congreve, Oscar Wilde, JM Synge, WB Yeats, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett (I know he wrote in French but he still sounds Irish when translated into English!).
My impression is that, in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims do mix. I was surprised that someone sent to do some work for us could not speak Sinhala, only Tamil. This was surprising because he had always lived in a Sinhala-speaking area and relied for his livelihood on working for Sinhala or English speakers. I was even more surprised and mightily impressed that others of a similar background were fluently tri-lingual, even though their formal education was limited. My optimism about his usefulness was soon deflated when he spent most afternoons reading my English papers and throwing bidis all over the garden. I also found that his polyglotism allowed him to lie to me in three languages and the English dried up when he was posed with a direct verbal challenge.
It is a truism that language has been a divisive issue in Sri Lanka. Perceived discrimination against the Tamil tongue was a contributory factor to 30 years of war. In 1956, the Sinhala-Only Act enshrined Sinhala as the language of administration and placed the majority Sinhalese speakers in a dominant position. This was not merely a cultural matter but had a serious economic impact because, in a polity where government jobs were highly prized, it reduced the opportunities for Tamils to succeed in the administrative services or academia.
Sinhala linguistic nationalism was directed as much against English as Tamil, but the Brits were not going to fight back. In the 1950s, the marginalised underprivileged classes saw the primacy of Sinhala as a blow against the privileges of the elite urban English-educated classes.
During the colonial period, Tamil as well as Sinhala politicians espoused the idea of swabasha (or ‘native languages’). The pressure for swabasha was not about inter-ethnic conflict but to a certain extent reflected class connotations and was a protest against the privileges enjoyed by the English educated elite, but denied to the masses educated in the local languages. According to Prof Sasanka Perera, politicians and senior civil servants in the 1940s discussed the establishment of local languages as Official Languages replacing English
Language had not become a divisive ethnic issue even at this stage. Even SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP stated in its manifesto: “it is most essential that Sinhalese and Tamil be adopted as Official Languages immediately so that the people of this country may cease to be aliens in their own land….”.
The divisive nature of language has been countered by the invention of artificial (or auxiliary, as many enthusiasts prefer) languages (ALs as they are known in the linguistic trade). Several hundred ALs have been recorded (including Klingon). Esperanto is the best known and has been used by people as different as Pope John Paul and Michael Jackson. Although proponents of invented languages see them as a key to a brave new world of mutual understanding, clear thinking and peaceful-co-existence, their fervent advocacy in iteslef can cause antagonism. Esperanto has been frequently persecuted. In the 1930s the organisation was suppressed and many members arrstrd and shot.
Why invent a new language when there are existing languages used globally? In David Crystals magisterial Encyclopaedia of Language (1987, revised 1997), in the top 40 languages, English came in at number two, behind Mandarin Chinese. Since then English has been overtaken by Hindi and Spanish. Tamil was at number 20 and has gone up to number 17, with 77 million speakers worldwide. Sinhala and Irish do not make it to the charts.
Back in the mists of history, Latin was the global language, first because it was the language of the Roman Empire, then because it was the language of the universal church. Today the English language dominates (whatever the numbers of speakers recorded in the charts). First because it was the language of the British Empire, then because it was the language of the American (and Hollywood Empire) and now because it is the language of the internet. Irish is moribund in the sense that, although it is kept alive by governments and cultural enthusiasts, the Gaeltacht areas are shrinking museums or holiday destinations. Irish, like Sinhalese, is not an international language. Unlike Sinhalese, Irish is not used as part of daily commerce or social intercourse.
Chelva Kanaganayakam writes in the Nethra Review, that in Sri Lanka: “The idea that the adoption of English would eventually erase ‘ethnic thinking’ is clearly simplistic”. One practical problem would be finding enough competent English teachers. Reggie Siriwardene wrote back in 1992: “Catholics and Protestants have been fighting each other in Ulster for a long time although they have no linguistic difficulty talking to each other”. Up to a point, Reggie. That very use of the word “Ulster” is a good example of linguistic problems in Ireland. Irish nationalists would froth at the mouth at the use of “Ulster” to designate the six counties that from the statelet of Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. Ulster is an ancient province of the island of Ireland and includes counties that are today part of the Republic. Even the use of the term “Northern Ireland” is avoided by some because it implies recognition of British rule. Also the northernmost county in the island is Donegal which is in the Republic. A government official I did business with in Dublin studiously used the term “the north eastern counties”. I once had dinner in Belfast with Chris Patten when he was minister for Northern Ireland. Patten (a Catholic) told how he had irked the Reverend Ian Paisley by using the term “Derry” instead of “Londonderry”.
Can we dream? In SRWD Bandaranaike’s time, English seemed to be the problem – part of the oppressive British imperial machinery. These days could English be the solution? Could English contribute to unifying Sri Lanka and helping it to better establish itsef in the global marketplace?