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REGIME CHANGE, LANGUAGE CHANGE

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Regime change has been all the rage. In Bangladesh, we experienced regime ‎change in 1990. The evil dictator, Genral Ershad, was deposed by "people power" on ‎December 6th. But wait! Who propped him up for nine long years as evil dictator? Our ‎western donors. And who toppled him? The embarrassingly same answer. ‎

And weren't there only three democracies in sub-Saharan Africa in 1989, and 30 ‎in 1991? And haven't anthropologists like Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, as well ‎as newspapers like The Economist, linked the domino-like decline of dictators to the ‎western aid tied to multi-party elections coupled with the collapse of communism? ‎

And then came the Gulf War, and a dozen years later, the emancipation of Iraq, ‎the regime change of all regime changes. From now on, we were expected to be ‎democratic and egalitarian to kick our nasty hierarchic habits picked up over several ‎thousand years, to level man, woman and child (well, maybe not child) to the same ‎height, or raise them to it, depending on your perspective. ‎

There is no such thing as history; there is no such thing as culture; there is no such ‎thing as language. There is only democracy. ‎

This was the new, imperial message. ‎

Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, fifteen years of freedom have produced two ‎dictators where there used to be one two veritable royal families in a latter-day War of ‎the Roses. It seems that you can't kill language, culture and history no matter how ‎many people die (and around forty people have already died in political violence before ‎the next elections) or how much money donors pour into the country (of which, ‎according to studies by a noted economist, only 25% reach the poor; 30% go to foreign ‎consultants and suppliers, and the remainder purchase the loyalty of the elite). ‎

Let's confine ourselves to language that eternal Orphic song, flowing with ‎Daedal harmony, to quote Shelley. ‎

The most important thing to realize is that we cannot translate between ‎languages. Thus, words such as 'democracy', 'vote', 'accountability', 'representation', ‎and 'parliament' cannot be translated into other languages. ‎

Hence, we have been forced to adopt an ostensive definition of democracy. ‎Democracy means that: the ballot box. This ostensive definition has led to the winning of ‎the ballot box by fair means and foul (mostly foul). For the meaning of a word, as a wise ‎philosopher pointed out some time ago, cannot be given by ostension, but depends on the ‎‎ social rules guiding the use of that word. Meaning is a social entity, and since an ‎entire society - and its history and culture - can never be exported, no amount of regime ‎change can export the meaning of a word. Indeed, ccommentators such as Ayesha Jalal ‎and the Mahbubul Haq Centre have observed that democracy in South Asia is an empty ‎ritual. Just so. As Willard Van Orman Quine pointed out: "...people feel drawn to a ‎mentalistic account of language, despite the conspicuous fact that language is a social ‎enterprise....". ‎

Take the word 'you'. In Bengali, there are three of these pronouns; in Farsi ‎‎(Persian) there are two. My Iranian friend tells me that she could never even think of ‎sitting across from her grandmother at dinner and calling her "to" instead of "shoma"! ‎Yet in egalitarian English, "you" would be perfectly acceptable to grandma. The ‎implication for a Persian-speaker and Bengali-speaker is that there can be no dissent the ‎language precludes dissent, since one must not argue with elders, and elders should only ‎dictate to youngsters. The ideal is obedience. ‎

The Bengali translation of the verb 'sit' would be bosha. But translation would ‎not reveal how the word is used. The pronoun discriminates carefully between equals, ‎inferiors and superiors as 'apni', 'tumi' and 'tui' respectively; and so does the ‎verb! The language reflects and reinforces the social hierarchy.‎

"Apni boshun" would be used with a superior; "tumi bosho" with an equal; and "tui bosh" with an inferior or an intimate. Yet the English translation would, in each case, be "Sit"!




It may be of interest to note that a former president of Bangladesh launched a ‎‎"Say Apni" campaign, "a social motivation programme for polite and gentle behaviour". ‎Citizens were asked to greet strangers with "apni", whatever their status yet surely a ‎democracy should encourage everyone to greet each other with the egalitarian "tumi" ‎instead of any of the other forms!‎

Therefore, with regime change, donors must perform surgery on the language ‎remove every trace of any part of speech that connotes or denotes hierarchy. Every novel ‎and play must be thoroughly revised by a central institution financed by lots of donor ‎money to eradicate the offending words. And when Sheikh Sa'di and Rumi have been ‎purged of every occurrence of "shoma', and all of Bengali literature expurgated of the ‎odious "tui" and "apni", then and then only will we achieve a non-hierarchic, ‎democratic order, and not before that. ‎

An English friend of mine, who is a teacher at the London School of Economics, ‎comes over frequently to Bangladesh, and laments, almost as frequently, that the term ‎‎"civil society" is misused and abused here. Well, what does he expect? It's an expression ‎that's been exported with oodles of donor money, and foisted on an uncomprehending ‎people who still cannot call their grandmothers "you". Thus, we find such inanities in ‎newspaper reports as "civil society leaders"! Now, the essence of civil society is that it ‎should be non-hierarchic, but it transpires that there are leaders - securely established, for ‎their names come up again and again under the above rubric who always lead "civil ‎society" and to whom deference is due. There is even a think tank that absurdly describes ‎itself as "a civil society think tank". One wonders what a non-civil society think tank ‎would be like very uncivil, no doubt. ‎

Meanwhile, we are left with our mother tongue and its imperfections: and, since ‎this is an English essay, I must try and provide solid English examples of our hierarchic ‎society. No less a personage than the President of the Bangladesh Economic Association ‎betrayed the bent knee when he observed, "It would not be therefore beyond our means to ‎make Bangladesh poverty-free, if we could achieve high equitable economic growth in an ‎uninterrupted way for 10-15 years. While faced with such enormous problems and ‎possibilities, why then in our national politics, are we moving towards self-annihilation? ‎This is the question I would most humbly put before both of you (The Daily Star, ‎February 11, 2000)." In an international missive from 23 Bangladeshi professors teaching ‎abroad, we find a similar kowtow. "Please note that we do not have any stake in party ‎politics in Bangladesh. The only reason we make some humble suggestions in this letter ‎is that we want to see Bangladesh prosper. It hurts us to see Bangladesh's prospects being ‎harmed by unnecessary political strife" (reported in The Daily Star, March 23, 2000). But ‎the recherché specimen flowed from the anguished pen of an advocate of the Supreme ‎Court of Bangladesh, Ms.Rehana Begum, in the opinion section of that same mouthpiece ‎of the intelligentsia (September 20, 2000): "May I crave indulgence of the Prime Minister ‎to say that let her disabuse the mind of the people from thinking that she is smoke-‎screened or not being correctly guided. I would equally like to crave the indulgence of ‎the present Leader of the Opposition in Parliament that she would rather set an example ‎of a political party that does not believe in the politics of gun culture and vandalism". (It ‎would not be ludicrous supererogation to add that the italics are entirely mine.) This is ‎not the language of citizens this is the language of subjects. ‎

While such genuflection contradicts the very spirit of democratic equality, it consists ‎eminently with our culture of hierarchic submission. ‎

No language change, no regime change. ‎

 

http://iftekharsayeed.weebly.com

Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
 
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Dear Iftekhar Sayeed: I just made a post about ... by Linh Dinh on Sunday, Jan 28, 2007 at 2:20:42 PM