Promoting the Local — [Republica Repost]

Published in the Republica on Nov 20, 2014

Around fifteen years ago, “pharsi” started becoming “farsi” in the mouths of many Nepalis, particularly in the cities. Replacing the Nepali “ph” with the English “f” may sound more “modern,” but it is not only linguistically absurd, it can also be a symptom of an insidious social problem that I want to discuss in this article.

The process of borrowing, mixing, and developing new sounds, words, meanings, and perspectives are natural to any language (though it is sped up by globalization more than ever before). However, the attempts to “leave behind” what is natural and integral to a local language—and by implication, to thought processes, art forms, and knowledge-making—can also be counterproductive. Such attempts can signal a lack of confidence in the foundations of local languages, cultures, and epistemologies—and thereby a failure to productively exploit the resources provided by these systems. Languages and communication can be gradually impoverished, art forms stymied, and knowledge-making stuck between disappeared richness of the local and half-explored potentials of the non-local.

Read full article on Republica (Nov 20, 2014)

Let us delve deeper into the case of language. While calling a “pharsi” a “farsi” may seem completely innocuous, losing sounds, phonemic patterns, and the ability to distinguish meaning by distinct sounds means diminished multilingual ability. If we observe more closely, we can see that speakers also discard native words, phrases/idioms, syntactic structures, discourse patterns, rhetorical strategies, and genres/conventions in favor of their foreign counterparts. Here’s an example, just at the level of words and phrases. As a multilingual child growing up in India, I remember being attracted to use the word “chawal” or “khana” in Hindi (using the Nepali “bhat” for rice sounded too “Pahadiya”, meaning “from the mountains” and therefore tacky). That dislike for “bhat” was even more pronounced when it came to using its even more folksy derivations like “bhat khwai,” “bhatuwa” or “bhate,” “bhater,” “bhat lagyo” and so on. The desire to distance myself from a rich set of colloquial Nepali expressions didn’t make me a better speaker of Hindi: it only impoverished my Nepali and affected my social relation with its other speakers. As I realize now, the adverse effect grew as I moved higher up the order of discourse.

Let us consider music. The rhythms inherent (and possible) in Nepali language(s) are rich and unique, which is why, as we’ve seen in recent years, it is possible to create extremely rich and diverse forms of music (folk, modern, pop, etc.) out of those rhythms. We’ve been lucky that musical forms that draw on the unique rhythmic potentials of local languages have found economic viability and have therefore been increasingly professionalized and popularized. A good example of this success is Pashupati Sharma’s extremely popular song “Malai Amerika Yei.” Because local music didn’t go down in the face of foreign rhythms, we can today distinguish between extremely rich and effective local forms and other attempts that start elsewhere and sound more funny than appealing.

Here is what I mean by natural and unnatural rhythm: try to enunciate the word “Pokhara” by reversing the first hraswa/short vowel “a” and the second dirgha/long vowel “aa” and you will ruin the rhythmic potential of the word (in contrast, you can elongate the “aa” as much as you want without sounding odd). All good music—in any language—is built on that feeling of naturalness when you enunciate the words. Now, if you’ve wondered why Bhim Niroula’s “Sunday morning love you” sounds so awful, it’s not because its lyric is meaningless but because it is an English (?) song sung in a typical Nepali rhythm! Music can tolerate meaningless sound far more than unnatural, foreign rhythms—unless it is done deliberately and effectively in other ways.

The same is true of fine arts: painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, etc. And a one-time teacher of literature and writer of poetry, I cannot emphasize enough how important naturalness, originality, and the word-to-world connection is in verbal arts. Let us take poetry. We’ve already addressed the issue of rhythm in the case of music (and it’s the same in the musical aspect of poetry). Naturalness of expression—including word choice at the lower level and “mode” of expression at a higher level—is extremely important in poetry (and in literature in general).

While one could say that urbanization and Anglicization of Nepali language continues to make traditional idioms and other expressions less appealing, this is not just the cause but also the consequence of younger generations’ distancing from expressions that describe local reality. So, for example, if you use the phrase “unko aankhako nanima” using the pupil as a metaphorical space, it will add a different set of connotations than if, say, Nepali language adopted the English word “pupil” and we all started using it instead. Doing so would simply give our poets less semantic (and cultural and epistemological) resources to work with. A Nepali poet would write in a less Nepali way, becoming less of a multilingual writer.

The broadest and most significant implication of mimicry of foreign languages, rhythms, and art forms while discarding resources available in the local counterparts is this: it impoverishes the production, consumption, and transmission of knowledge. Instead of engaging in richer, more varied, more multi-dimensional meaning-making, those who resort to mimicry and displacement/replacement of the local impoverish the local for no good reason. Instead of promoting multilingualism and multiple discourses and arts, mimickers of foreign systems are often deluded about being more advanced and talented—when, in reality, they are poor users of sounds and meanings in both/all systems. To go back to my own example, I wasn’t helping either my Nepali or my Hindi by refusing to use the whole set of Nepali expressions based on “bhat.”

Discarding the local has the same deleterious effect in other areas. In education, we can’t prepare successful future professionals for the local society (or for the world for that matter) without having a curriculum based on local reality. Reading and writing and thinking and problem-solving that are based on real issues of the local society and nation are fundamental to making education useful to society and hence the world. They are essential to helping students create new knowledge that is valuable to society and the world. In fact, grounding teaching and learning in local reality is the most effective way to motivate students to learn in the first place. Around the world, the decoupling of education and social reality is the number one reason students are dropping out of school, why parents lack the inspiration to help their children pursue higher education, and communities don’t invest in education. So, building educational systems upon the foundation of local reality can make education an effective means for creating new knowledge and solving social problems.

The same is true in politics and social policy, in science and technology, and in business and trade. When leaders and the public recognize local challenges in local terms they can implement better solutions. Scientists can produce better results. Businesses can be socially productive.

The irony of arguing in favor of promoting the local in language, arts, and the professions while using a foreign language is not lost on me. But I hope that you will understand that I am not saying that we should stop speaking or writing in English! I am arguing that we need to use and promote as many languages, cultures, and art forms as we can—without letting our appeal of one diminish our intellectual, professional, and social productivity when using another.

Just call a “pharsi” a “pharsi.”

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