The Philippine Star

Mi­nori­ties and their lan­guages

- F. SIONIL JOSE Linguistic Discrimination · Translation · Literature · Linguistics · Discrimination · Human Rights · Society · Social Sciences · Arts · Manila · Bertolt Brecht · Papua New Guinea · Guinea · China · Rizal · Tarlac · Visayas · Philippines · Facebook · Brecht · Zambales

Speak­ing in Tongues: Lit­er­ary Free­dom and In­dige­nous Lan­guages” was the theme of the 85th In­ter­na­tional Congress held in Manila the other week. I share here my wel­come ad­dress on the re­spon­si­bil­ity of writ­ers and also my own thoughts on the theme of the con­fer­ence. Wel­come ad­dress We are now gath­ered here to cel­e­brate the word and of course our­selves. We, as writ­ers and po­ets, are af­ter all the keep­ers of mem­ory, with­out which there can be no na­tion.

It has been said that lit­er­a­ture is the no­blest of the arts. It must there­fore be cor­rect to pre­sume that writ­ers are noble crea­tures and, in­deed, so many of them have coura­geously sac­ri­ficed not only to record mem­ory but to pre­serve the truth.

How­ever, we also know that many writ­ers are ig­no­ble, that they cheat and of­ten op­press other hu­man be­ings among them writ­ers.

It’s a sad world in­deed, to para­phrase Ber­tolt Brecht: We who want the world to be hon­est can­not our­selves be hon­est.

Per­haps it is time that, as writ­ers, we con­tem­plate our own values, rec­og­nize that of­ten virtue is its own pun­ish­ment.

In spite of all these, we will con­tinue to lift high the torch of free­dom, to brighten the dark­est cor­ners of our house and to see to it that with this torch we don’t burn our house.

Wel­come to Manila then and to this house which all of us share.

* * * Our own mi­nori­ties and their lan­guages

It is per­haps nec­es­sary that we must now pay at­ten­tion to our own mi­nor­ity lan­guages, some of which will die within this cen­tury or the next. And we must record their lit­er­a­ture as well as their cul­tural at­tributes for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to ap­pre­ci­ate and to re­al­ize their ori­gins and their roots.

The ba­sic func­tion of lan­guage is com­mu­ni­ca­tion. There are many forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the fore­most of which is the spo­ken and writ­ten word. There is com­mu­ni­ca­tion and lan­guage emoted by the body, by the eyes, by ges­tures, by sounds and also by the deeper lan­guage of si­lence.

There is the ethe­real beauty of po­etry, the twit­ter of birds. Lan­guage also comes to us as sym­bols, and the cross is per­haps the pro­found­est of them all. The earth speaks to us, too, as does the wind, the sea, the sky.

Lan­guages die and his­tory is strewn with their pas­sions. In the re­cent his­tor­i­cal past, Latin, and its equiv­a­lent in the East, San­skrit, died. These lan­guages did not van­ish com­pletely for Latin is still stud­ied in col­leges and sem­i­nar­ies although it is hardly used for ac­tual com­mu­ni­ca­tion. To the best of my knowl­edge, the only lan­guage that died and was re­vived is He­brew, in the in­ter­est of the new Jewish State.

In Pa­pua New Guinea, where some 500 lan­guages ex­ist, a lan­guage dies ev­ery year. I won­der if Pid­gin English, which is widely used to­day in that coun­try, will be re­tained as such or if it will be re­fined to to­day’s uni­ver­sal English. What­ever other na­tion­al­i­ties may say – the Chi­nese for in­stance, claim there are bil­lions of Man­darin speak­ers but they are largely con­fined in China – English has be­come the global lan­guage. And it will per­haps live much longer than Greek or Latin, once the dom­i­nant lan­guages in the Western world.

Lan­guage is power, and the per­son who speaks sev­eral lan­guages has that ad­van­tage over mono­lin­gual in­di­vid­u­als. It is also the han­ker­ing for power and its priv­i­leges that has com­pelled non-English speak­ers to mas­ter the lan­guage at the risk of aban­don­ing their own. Thus lan­guage ho­mog­e­nizes cul­tures be­cause lan­guage em­bod­ies in it­self hu­man na­ture.

We have very good ex­am­ples of Filipinos who, in mas­ter­ing other lan­guages, have as­sumed the habits and cul­tures of the orig­i­nal speak­ers. Thus, one can say that Rizal be­came a Spaniard when he mas­tered the lan­guage and wrote his two nov­els in Span­ish.

Shall we say the same thing of Nick Joaquin, who mas­tered English so well that he wrote al­most en­tirely in the lan­guage? In a sense, peo­ple who speak or write in a bor­rowed lan­guage are mi­nori­ties in their own coun­try. It will take them so much ef­fort in­tel­lec­tu­ally to re­gain their orig­i­nal iden­tity and, in the process, although they write in a lan­guage that is not theirs, they be­come na­tives who have re­turned to their home­land.

Many of our eth­nics are de­nied the ad­van­tages of pub­lic ser­vices, ed­u­ca­tion, health care, although they live in the pe­riph­ery of our cities, for in­stance, the Du­ma­gats in the Sierra Madre, the Ae­tas in Tar­lac and Zam­bales, and other im­pov­er­ished mi­nori­ties in the Visayas and Min­danao whose lands have been grabbed by greedy de­vel­op­ers.

Maranaw, Maguin­danao, and Tausug are mi­nor­ity lan­guages but their speak­ers cer­tainly are not weak or poor mi­nori­ties. For that mat­ter, Span­ish is now a mi­nor­ity lan­guage in the Philip­pines, but its speak­ers cer­tainly can not be con­sid­ered a mi­nor­ity no mat­ter how minis­cule their group be­comes.

So much of the an­guish of our eco­nomic and lin­guis­tic mi­nori­ties are ex­pressed in their ver­nac­u­lar writ­ing. In this man­ner, these writ­ers il­lus­trate their bond­ing with their less for­tu­nate coun­try­men, a bond­ing that is made not by lan­guage but by so­cial sta­tus and by liv­ing in this un­happy coun­try it­self.

In­deed, the real mi­nori­ties in any so­ci­ety are not de­fined by their lan­guage. They are de­fined by their phys­i­cal ex­is­tence, their place in the so­cial or­der. When we un­der­stand this def­i­ni­tion of mi­nor­ity we will then re­al­ize that our mi­nori­ties are the land­less, the very poor, who eat only once a day.

And, fi­nally, the devel­op­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems from the an­cient stone tablets and pa­pyrus scrolls, to Face­book and light­ning com­put­ers – how have they shaped the na­ture of man and so­ci­ety?

This dis­tinc­tion is ex­plicit and clear; the lan­guage of mi­nori­ties is bound to die, but mi­nori­ties them­selves may en­dure or may last for­ever. They of­ten ex­press them­selves in a lan­guage force­ful and fierce. But most of the time, we are deaf to them, for which rea­son, the wretched and the op­pressed will al­ways be with us.

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