Monday, December 8, 2014

Speak to Me

The many communities of Sikkim are not alone in the worry that their way of life is at risk of becoming extinct. This is a worry that grips communities across the world. Fact also remains that for many, their way of life is already in the past, its people having adjusted into accepting something else as their cultural heritage. But we leave that discussion for some other day, for now, let us proceed by first accepting that before one even begins trying to salvage what remains of a culture, one should first agree that no culture can survive once its language is lost. There is nothing new in this acceptance. The value of language to identities is what Sikkim celebrates when it observes a holiday on 06 December, Saturday, for Teyongsi Sirijunga Sawan Tongnam. Sirijunga was a Limboo priest in 17th Century Sikkim who was put to death for his efforts to revive the Limboo language and script. He is believed to have been a reincarnation of the Sirijunga who gave the community their script in prehistory. This day then becomes apt to discuss languages.
While earlier, indigenous communities could rely on traditional education systems to ensure their linguistic and cultural survival, this support system does not exist anymore. In the past, the language would get passed down around kitchen fires and along with it would slip through the essence of ethnic cultures and traditions, nuances which made the people unique and belong to each other. As Sikkim grows more cosmopolitan, outside influences have edged out this form of learning. The formal education system, which, although it includes many indigenous languages in the curriculum, cannot include the subtlety with which cultures were earlier fostered by the continuance of languages; that is something which only a lived experience can ensure and cannot be mimicked by dictated syllabus. What learning a mother tongue in school can achieve though is set up the young for a better introduction to themselves. For that, unlike the present trend, where the learning curve ends with the schooling years, the learning will have to begin once the language has been mastered. The continued engagement will also keep the language relevant because its users will then keep their language “up to date”. Don’t do that, and one runs the risk of the language become archaic or getting reduced to an incomplete dialect. Not all archaic languages have the literary or philosophical wealth to become classical like Latin of Sanskrit, which leaves on with the situation where the language will first degenerate into a dialect and then become incapable of even keeping conversations alive anymore and fade away. It then falls on the existing language users to use their language more often in more expressive ways because indigenous languages are already finding fewer and fewer people using them and the few who have mastered the tongue need to record whatever it is they can cull from the older generation so that some element of their identity survives the march of time. In fact, this is one aspect of the attempts at cultural revivalism afoot all over the Hills that needs to be paid special attention to. While it is all too easy to play the role of the victimised and collect sympathy, it is in substantiating these voices of concern with real action that the Hill communities are failing. This applies not just to the minority Lepchas and Bhutias but also to the Nepalis, who, in the national context, are speakers of a minority language even if they enjoy recognition under the VIIIth Schedule of the Constitution of India. All three are equally at risk of being swamped out of their individuality. This, not because the majority is Evil, but because the minority is not honing its survival skills well enough.
It needs no reiteration that language is the link to identity. It is the language that keeps cultures alive. For example, the differences in the way Nepali is spoken in the Hills here and in Nepal where it was born, nuance the differences in the identity of Indian Nepalis and the Nepalese from Nepal. The inflections of each language highlight the influence of the past which shapes the present of individual communities. Languages are more than just tools for communication and it is not enough to just be able to speak and understand them. To sustain cultures, they need to be written and read. Do we have enough of that happening around us, or is everyone fine with only rhetoric?

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