The Power and Importance of Language Essay Example

In postcolonial studies, this sentence presents one of the most outstanding themes among debates about the politics of language in relation to the identity of the pre-colonized society. Yet, the above quotation is not taken from any postcolonial books; it is translated from the first page of a Chinese Study book in the chapter about Hanzi or Chinese Characters. Coincidentally, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o also writes a similar statement in his book Decolonising the Mind that “[L]anguage carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature; the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world (16).” The similarity between the uncolonized Chinese’s idea and the colonized societies’ idea suggests that the concept of languages carrying cultures is universally accepted. In addition, language is usually claimed as a form of culture; and, paradoxically, culture could never exist and inherit without language because everything exists within the system of language. Culture may occur before or at the same point language appears but its presence eventually becomes crucial to the existence of culture. To elaborate on this particular quality of language, it would be better to concretize the above statement. As mentioned, language is a tool to create culture and at the same time culture is contained in and transmitted through language. Specifically, literature which usually functions as a cultural inheritance is written in a number of language scripts; and in each word readers can sense more than one meaning it carries. For example, the word orange can signify whether a kind of fruit or a shade of colours. While the word 橘子 (Juzi) in Chinese can only signify an edible orange, plus the image of a particular breed and its qualities. Hence, English orange is inadequate to describe Chinese橘子. Although many people think that the translation mode makes it capable to replace one word with another language, this is an example of how a particular subject (signified) is contained within a (cultural) word whereas other languages cannot function in a similar way. Not to mention the difference of the syllabics of each language which differentiates experiences of the users in each society, a replacement of language only creates the unmatched area that looks like creases on glued papers. Furthermore, if words are arranged together into a larger unit such as a sentence, a literature or a speech, the cultural subjects they carry become more various and more complex that can never be identically replaced by other languages. Therefore, the status of language as a carrier of culture is proved to be true and irreplaceable.

In the colonial era, many languages of the colonized countries are smothered or mastered by the colonizer’s language especially English. The cultures of the colonized communities have been suppressed through this process. Therefore, when it comes to the business of postcolonial studies, many people attempt to revive their own indigenous languages with the belief that it is one major factor to reclaim their pre-colonized identities. In order to reclaim their identity, the pre-colonized culture which is contained within the pre-colonized language is absolutely important. Certainly, the postcolonial literature plays a very important role in this process. There are various groups of writers with different presentations devoting to the reclamation of their indigenous languages.

However, we have to be acknowledged that language is not fixed, according to Ferdinand De Saussure. It can be transformed by place and time and the experience of the speaker and the receiver. Even if people are rooted in the same culture, each word does not always convey the same meaning for each person. The inconsistency of language suggests that an attempt to go back to the complete form of pre-colonized identities is likely impossible. Yet, there are still some certain aspects maintained to be preserved. In other words, these remained identities are the ultimate goals for the postcolonial literature and studies. Consequently, by attempting to use their own language as a transmitter of the pre-colonized culture, many writers are able to depict the world in different perspectives. The specific language carries its own cultural elements are believed to be less polluted by colonial mindsets. In particular, when someone says the word black in English, it does not only signify a colour; there are other concepts which emphasise black in contrast to white, or black which signifies darkness, evil, dirtiness, or even ethnic identity which is tied to this blackness. These cultural concepts exist within language; even though it is not palpable, our minds are familiar with them. For this reason, when the writers avoid using the colonizer’s language, which is usually composed by toxic colonial discourses and mindsets, it allows readers to be able to access one’s cultural identity in a more genuine way.

Similarly, the indigenous people in New Zealand realise that their identity is contained within their language. In order not to be dominated by the culture of the later arrivals, they need to preserve Māori language. In Patricia Grace’s Potiki, she mixes Māori language with English as if it does not need to add an English explanation. She makes it plain to blend the indigenous language with English like New Zealanders really speak in this manner. Grace may intend to preserve the language, or she just simply writes for a specific target who shares the same communal experience. Interestingly, such mixing languages give an extra reading experience to some foreign readers. When most cultural keywords are written in Māori, it reverses the role between English and the local language. English is made periphery and inefficient to describe the specific term such as poupou, wharenui, and so on. This emphasizes what already mentioned that language carries culture, and these cultural keywords could not be easily defined by other language choices. Readers would not be able to understand the story without a glossary and further discoveries. For example, a poupou cannot be replaced by a house panel carving an ancient ancestor. A new definition is not only long, but it also does not signify the customary significance of the poupou to the household and their community in relation to the myth and belief about their ancestors. In a similar manner, the word wharenui is unable to be replaced with the communal house. The replacement again does not suggest the activity and bonds between people in the commune and this public place. Undoubtedly, by saying that people come to gather at the wharenui communicate a profound cultural perspective towards the indigenous way of life rather than saying that they come to assemble at the communal house. The communal house does not offer the image of the architecture with poupou, roro, apa, and other traditional architectural decorations. It does not imply if people are going to perform a ritual and other tribal activity in there like the use of wharenui does. Different languages offer different sets of truth existing within each culture. It makes the unknown perspectives which are subdued under the colonial condition resurface and represent itself as it is, not as an incomplete jigsaw as described by English. The use of indigenous language brings out another aspect of the pre-colonial way of life to the light and makes it more comprehensible of how their identity is acculturated through the replacement of language.

By diffusing two languages, Patricia Grace seems to propose the idea of cultural diffusion rather than cultural acculturation (elimination). Her manifestation of languages does not try to push back another culture in a radical way. Assumedly, because the identity of postcolonial people is very complex that we cannot just simply indicate the pattern of life that it belongs to whom – the colonized or the colonizer, this is the space of negotiation in which the characters choose to deal with their culture in the present world. Comparing to the story, the situation is similar to the poupou which cannot be repaired like a brand new one, but it is still kept to decorate in a new place and continue its value to the remained community. It does not matter to be wholly authentic as in the past if it is impossible.

The desire to return to the pre-colonized state is presented more vividly in The Marrow Thieves, the futuristic dystopian novel by Cherie Dimaline. Unfortunately, although there are several indigenous communities in Canada, the language focus of Dimaline and the characters in the story is limited to only Cree language which is the most popular indigenous language used in Canada. Probably because in the futuristic world of The Marrow Thieves many sub-communities are lost, so Cree happens to be the most plausible remained language among indigenous people in Canada. In this book, Dimaline obviously proposes the significance of language as a carrier of culture through the characters. They adore their language and crave to know about it. To illustrate, Minerva, the eldest character in this story, kindles the hope of their community by resisting to speak and to dream in English so that the recruiters cannot retrieve any memory from her (173). Her “blood memory,” “her teachings,” and “her ancestors” all come in form of her own language. The colonial machine becomes malfunctioned to these weird codes as if they could not interpret them. This exception is similar to what already stated above about a particular quality of language. Although the machine would be able to translate Cree into English, the lists of words they get are not necessary to be identical to Minerva’s memory anyway since English is inefficient to describe another cultural memory. In order to remind readers of its significance, Dimaline predicts the possibility of the extinction of their language and marks it as a rare and sacred element that could likely help the whole community. The end of the story seems to be hopeful that one day the cultural memories of which language carries will eventually resume their pre-colonized way of life or at least compose and/or revive their pre-devastated identity.

However, unlike some other postcolonial novels in this course, Cree is different from other languages in postcolonial novels because Cree has its own syllabic system while others such as Xhosa and Maori employ Latin scripts. Nonetheless, even if Cree has its own syllabics, in The Marrow Thieves, Dimaline never gives the description in Cree characters. She does not write the {> ^ < v} or other signs in this book but rather describe them as “a series of deliberate cuts (155).” Her decision reinforces the distance and the alienated feeling between the teenage characters in the future towards their own language, story, and culture. At the same time, if she inserts Cree syllabics into the book, we foreign readers can imagine our own reaction that, like the protagonist of this book, we can only describe the Cree fonts as arrow-like signs. We readers cannot even try to pronounce these signs if our experience towards it sets at zero. This is the particular quality of language which is both beneficial and challenging at the same time. Language is only the list of arbitrary signs supporting themselves line by line, word by word. Humankind starts learning these worm-like, arrow-like, brick-like characters, then moving to the larger units without questioning its reliability. They are writings that human put meaning into them. People from different roots could definitely set completely different forms of their language. Characters can come from the shape of objects or even from the imagination of the creator. That is to say, language is not natural; it is constructed based on a particular person or a group who is shaped by the nature of a specific way of life. Also, it announces the sense of belonging to a specific group living in the same condition. Therefore, the characters in The Marrow Thieves have such an intimacy towards the signs they believe to imply common experiences they share within the indigenous community. Unfortunately, the language signs are used to trick the group of the protagonists and cause them the loss of a member. Readers can think of the situation as it reflecting the carelessness of the group, the exploitation of language, or the variety of people even within the same community. Anyway, the most dominant point is that individuals cannot always rely on language. It is another layer from avoiding the English language which comes from the different culture, the indigenous language itself is not innocent as we think it will always benefit the specific community. Language can be used as a tool to specify the group of users but cannot tell if it is used for a malice intention. The rows of characters do not indicate the purpose of its user. In other words, our own language is able to betray us.

As a result, in The Marrow Thieves, language does not only function as a carrier of culture but also declares its status as a double-edged sword. That is, it has both advantage and disadvantage. Language cannot act themselves but it is made to act. It depends on the purpose of people who use it. No matter how it contains whose cultural elements, but if it is arranged for an evil purpose, it is not going to benefit the owner of the language anyway. It is unknown if Dimaline intends to send readers this message, but to me, this is the warning of using language. Although the colonized people can manage themselves to be freed from the colonizer’s language, as long as people do not change their attitudes, the language would never be useful to help reclaim their pre-colonized identity.

After all these attempts, we may not understand the yearning of pre-colonized identities among the colonized people. Does it really matter to call back the old identity while we are living in the present world? What do they really aim for after they gain their identity back? A part of the reasons is that, by reclaiming their own identity, we can come to the process of decolonising and subverting the colonizer’s identity. The colonial mindset such as racism, xenocentrism, ethnocentrism and others which are carried within the colonizer’s language would be deconstructed. For example, nature is not intrinsically inferior to civilization, but it is made to look inferior and brutal as a result of binary opposition that tries to exalt the western technological advancement. In a similar manner, blackness is made to be inferior to whiteness on many occasions. The stereotypical myths about blackness are dirtiness, poverty, and evil things. In English, there are always toxic discourses ready to dominate your identity. Our goal is to deconstruct these toxic suppressions disguising within the colonial discourses. And we can do this when the quality of ourselves is thoroughly examined. Then, we can prove that such discourses are myths. In other words, as long as people are clinging to the colonizer’s language and the cultural ideas within it, we would not be able to perceive our own culture in a genuine way. The indigenous language preserves another perspective of our own culture which English could never offer.

All in all, Patricia Grace’s Potiki and Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves are distinct owing to the manifestation of language. While Grace blends Māori language with English to make it normal, Dimaline does not even insert Cree characters into the book perhaps in order to warn or foretell readers the rarity of the use of indigenous language. However, both of them affirm the importance of language as a carrier of culture throughout the novels. Dimaline imagines the futuristic community yearning for a gate accessing to their pre-colonized identity through language, whereas Grace shows the irreplaceable function of the uncolonized language that helps readers understand the cultural elements which are previously suppressed by the arrival of English. Although it can be seen that the complete return of their culture through the appropriation of language is impossible, their attempt to retain and revive the remainder allows them to gradually regain their pre-colonized identities, at the same time subvert the colonial mindsets which cause conflicts and flaws within the self of colonized individuals and societies. Furthermore, Grace’s portrayal of cultural diffusion through the mix of languages offers the realistic possibility to deal with the identity of postcolonial communities. Also, Dimaline gives another realistic caution of using language as a tool to recall the pre-colonized identity that the effect of using one’s own language is not always positive; yet it depends on the intention and the attitude of the user. In the world which the colonizers always offer their one-sided truth, the postcolonial writers employ the power of language to widen readers’ perspectives to other various aspects existing in several neglected areas under the colonial era.


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