Minorities and their languages

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - October 14, 2019 - 12:00am

“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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