Sunday, June 12, 2011

urdu for "smoosh"

"concessions by the government of prime minister recep tayyip erdogan in 2009 made way for the first kurdish national television station, and the government also permitted the teaching of kurdish language classes in private universities (but not public ones). token gestures, they made front-page headlines: first because they were signals to the outside world that a democratic state run by an islamic leader will not automatically become xenophobic or tribalist, and second because even small steps toward acknowledging kurdish culture can provoke political firestorms inside the country. turkish nationalists...regard even the most basic kurdish demand00that their language also be allowed in grade schools and at official settings where kurds are involved--as treason...'if you asked turks today whether, in the abstract, people should be able to speak their mother tongue, most of them would say, of course, no problem,' [filmaker sedat yilmaz] said. 'but with kurdish, fear clouds the picture. language is the biggest kurdish demand because language equals identity. it's the root of any culture, and many kurds, having had their language repressed, no longer even know the basics of kurdish grammar. so the debate has inevitably turned to language...'

"at the diyarbakir institute for political and social research, nurcan baysal and dilan bozgan, researchers in their 30s, said that like many kurds of their generation they never learned their own mother tongue because it was stigmatized in schools. but they grew up hearing it in kurdish music. ms bozgan said her own young children don't want to learn kurdish because their turkish classmates and teachers tell them turkish is the only language that really matters, and after that, english. 'if you don't give prestige to a culture,' she lamented, 'people won't value it, and it will die.' but conversely, when a culture does gain prestige, it can incite a revolution. turkey's kurds look to revivals or corsican, catalan and other formerly oppressed european languages as examples of cultural change leading to political upheavals."

--from "for kurds in turkey, autonomy in music" by michael kimmelman in the june 5, 2011, issue of the new york times (my emphasis)

I am without qualification opposed to the dying off of languages. that said, it is also a natural part of linguistic evolution. think of how many millions of tribal and local dialects and languages died out before our species even became aware there were more than the handful we recognized as our neighbors' tongues? david crystal estimates that a language currently dies about every 2 weeks.

while there's no danger of language extinction--most languages get subsumed by their neighbors and this is what happened with english and its french influence in the recent past and what's happening with it and its contemporary latin american spanish influence--there are plenty of languages dying, which for the speakers of those languages amounts to the same thing.

but what I want to point to here is something commentators on language seem to take for granted: the convergence of mother tongues with mother cultures. the above comments in kimmelman's article aren't the only comments I've come across this week. just a few nights ago I watched a fascinating pbs documentary about the decline of ojibwe as a communicative tool for modern american indians and a native speaker made exactly the same claims as the ones above: that language and culture are so intertwined that losing one results in the loss of the other.

I'm not convinced. that they're related is undeniable--culture is a means of keeping language alive and vital, while without a common language culture is almost impossible to spread. almost, but not impossible. because while it's hard to bridge between cultures that have no common language, it's nonetheless done daily. think of the number of nonspeakers of english who enjoy and appreciate untranslated fast and furious movies or untranslatable episodes of jersey shore (what's urdu for "smoosh"?). these may not be the best ambassadors of american culture or what we want to think of as the best we have to offer but they're culture all the same. they are culture whose enjoyment is completely outside language.

it's not only the latest michael bay explosion-porn that is enjoyable without knowing what the people standing around are saying between pyrotechnics. how many of us who enjoy opera speak italian? or who enjoy noh drama speak japanese? when I had cable tv I sometimes enjoyed telenovas on univision despite my inability to process anything beyond "si" or "cervesa." my students in the past have put up with my showing them 15 minute clips from bollywood musicals that are filmed using several languages, often 2 or 3 mixed into the same sentence. while it's impossible in each of these examples to follow every nuance, and it's certain that viewers would get greater enjoyment if they were able to, doing so is not required for some measure of appreciation.

that language is important is unassailable. that the dying off of languages from a human perspective is a tragedy is also unassailable. that there is a 1-to-1 relationship between a people's language and their culture, and that to lose 1 is to risk losing the other, of this I'm not convinced.

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