Politics of language

In all countries, language is an important political and cultural issue. Sociolinguists, sociologists, anthropologists, educationists and many others in the hyphenated language disciplines, as well as politicians, know this well. The insightful left-wing American linguist, Noam Chomsky is one of the best. Besides, he is eminent in writing in simple language about complicated themes and topics, so we can all understand what he says. He has visited Pakistan several times and his books are available in local bookshops.

And then we have Donald Trump and his spokespersons. They also use simple language, but often, I don’t think they know quite what they are talking about or bother to build arguments based on facts. They sometimes say that they present ‘alternative facts’, when caught in ‘misrepresenting’ truth. Different political parties can emphasise different aspects of reality, of course, but the description of the world cannot be totally different. A government in power must be more accurate and careful than opposition politicians, but they wouldn’t be as neutral as scientists and experts who even have to present opposite views and facts that contradict with their main arguments.

Unintentionally, Trump’s administration has made us think about the importance of the way we use language; the power of language in its various forms and situations, be it propagandistic, folksy, specialised, casual, and so on. Trump himself has a TV background – and has been a property dealer, read: A second-hand car salesman and he is said to be good in communication. There may be something to that, but he doesn’t seem to value his own words; he says something without weighing and considering the nuances and impact of his words. He talks more like we all may do in informal situations, when nobody records what we say or analyse it with a magnifying glass. Trump, is a linguistic amateur, yet, he has made us think about the importance of language and culture – which Chomsky has done as a specialist for decades.

Let me then change gears and move to another aspect of the vast field of the politics of language, notably related to higher education in my home country Norway and in Pakistan.

I was saddened when a few days ago, I read in a Norwegian newspaper that the vice-chancellor of a university college in Oslo (HiOA) had said that there must be very good reasons for a Norwegian doctoral candidate to write his or her dissertation in Norwegian rather than English. It should be added that the VC is of a foreign background, with American-English as his mother-tongue, yet, with fluency in Norwegian, having been a professor in linguistics at the world’s northernmost university in Tromsø before trekking south to the capital. An indigenous Norwegian might well agree with the VC, but would probably not have said it so bluntly. Besides, there are also other international and regional languages in Scandinavia, which Norwegian universities accept and use for dissertations, notably Danish and Swedish, plus the larger languages of German and French, and obviously Norwegian, which has two distinct official versions – all in a country with five million people.

A generation ago, we would tease students who wanted to write their dissertations in a ‘world language’, asking if they thought their findings would be so important that foreigners would be interested in reading more than just a short English abstract. We would also suggest that the accuracy, hence the scientific precision, would be higher if one used one’s mother tongue. But we would all have to have references in foreign languages to ascertain that we were part of the international world of our discipline and specific fields.

Again, we were proud of writing our dissertations in Norwegian in most subjects, unless the subject itself was very international (such as, international politics or development studies), but even then, there was nothing wrong with using one’s mother tongue. A journal article could, and maybe should, be made on the basis of the longer dissertation and other written works.

In Pakistan, I know that university dissertations are written in English, not in Urdu. In a little land like Norway, one can understand that dissertations are more often written in English than in Norwegian, but in a large country like Pakistan, with over two hundred million inhabitants, I have always thought it is wrong not to use Urdu more. I have lectured at Pakistani universities, and supervised students here, and I must say that students are often poor in English, yes, so poor that I have sometimes suggested that they write their works in Urdu and then translate it afterwards, and they should also use a language consultant to do a language wash before a major dissertation is submitted. I believe the quality of the work would be higher this way, and students could focus on content and not struggle with form.

Alas, we live in an international world, in a time when English becomes more and more important, at the expense, too, of French, German, Spanish, and certainly Urdu and Scandinavian languages. Maybe it is a foregone case to argue for more use of mother tongue. Yet, I still do it, depending to some extent on subject area and dissertation topic. In addition, the simple compromise would be to demand a proper summary and a journal article in English to pass the exam.

One or two generations ago, if everything had to be in English, we would say that people suffered from a ‘colonised mind’, which had to do with language as well as thinking. If we used the ruler’s language, we would think we were at par, but the opposite might often be the case. Today, we have forgotten that debate, and we have also forgotten other class, cultural, political and economic aspects related to using a foreign, international language in our dissertations and other works. Language is not only a medium of communication; it is much more than that. In gender studies they have realised that in recent decades.

Let me end my article here today, after only having been able to touch upon two or three aspects of the politics of language. I hope we can discuss the topic and its many sub-topics more intensely in the future. It is important for Pakistan to do that, and for others. I have only drawn attention to higher education in my article; others would say that it is primary education that is most important, were Urdu and also smaller vernacular should be used.

Next weekend, the Oxford University Press will organise its 5th Islamabad Literature Festival. I am sure there will be sessions discussing what languages Pakistani writers should use, as has been the case at earlier festivals. As a foreigner, with little knowledge of Urdu and other Pakistani languages, I would like as many sessions as possible to be in English, but then I am just a small minority. To talk about issues in English is one thing, to write and read literature and scientific work in English is another thing.

And then, can we ever really imagine poetry to be written in any other language than our mother-tongue? Can poetry ever really be translated into another language, without losing some of its intimate meaning? True, if we get eighty or ninety percent of a translation right, that is probably good enough, and we get to know about what others think, feel, struggle with and enjoy. If Norwegian and Urdu literature isn’t translated, the rest of the world would know less about us – and be poorer for it. That would be unfortunate for all of us.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid