Although I mostly write about linguistics, I’ve recently wanted to and had the pleasure to write about my relationship with language and language’s relationship with the identity of its speakers. This has left me conscious of how such writings are received, particularly in the current climate; a hyper-sensitive world of wokeness in which identity politics is at the centre.
I did my PhD in my mother tongue; Pahari. Its understudied language status was discovered in my tutor’s office in the second year of my undergraduate degree in English language. The fact that I came to my former tutor’s office in 2007 with no ideas of working on a field linguistic essay in my home language in itself tells you how much I valued that part of me. The journey for me opened up more than the grammar of my language, it opened up the self and how I perceive myself.
According to Professor Anita Abbi, an expert in South Asian linguistics and endangered languages, the most important task a grammar and lexicon of any language accomplishes is establishing the identity of its speakers; each distinct grammar represents the cognitive abilities of a speaker and their distinct world view. Consequently, languages not only hold a set of grammar rules and vocabulary, they carry ideologies, culture, memory, traditions, and unique perceptions and understandings of life. Hence language is intimately related to one’s identity.
The reflections of Ayishat Akanbi resonate with me — she is well-known and well-received for her short film ‘The Problem with Wokeness’. Interestingly, somewhat paradoxical is the reception she has received on the discourse of being beyond one’s identity, wokeness, and identity politics, since it seems some people have flocked to and resonated with her truth speaking because of the very identity she represents.
‘Our fixation on our identities can limit our identity. I feel that my colour, gender, sexuality are part of me but they are the least interesting thing about me. If we are telling people that the most interesting things about them are their identity, they can never know what can be beyond that. That does not mean that we transcend and ignore those parts of us but that we not be bound by them whereby we are reactive and unable to see, appreciate and even challenge the other in an open and curious way’
Pahari is what I’ve come to call my language to non-Pahari speakers, since there are several different names of which some are deemed as inaccurate. Within the home I’ve always referred to it as apni zaban ‘my language/our language’ like many speakers of Pahari and other languages within Pakistan and India. Pahari (also referred to as Pothwari and/or Mirpuri) is a minority language not only in Pakistan but in the UK too, with over half a million speakers in the UK alone. Hence it is the “second-largest mother tongue in the UK, ahead of even Welsh”, as highlighted by the sociologist and human geographer Dr Serena Hussain. However, the latter does come as a surprise to some, as does the fact that Pahari-Pothwari speakers make up two-third of the British Pakistani diaspora community. That is, the more well-known and recognised languages Urdu and Punjabi don’t form the language majority of the British Pakistani diaspora.
Together with language ideologies and misinformed linguistic classifications, there are socio-political and geo-historical factors that contribute to the confusion and lack of awareness of Pahari. The ambiguity of Pahari-Pothwari can be said to be related to the ambiguity of its name which is rooted in the aforementioned factors. Is it Mirpuri? A dialect of Punjabi? Pahari? Pothwari? Apni Zaban?
Pahari-Pothwari inaccurately labelled as dialects of Punjabi emerges from external classifications too. For instance, George Abraham Grierson (a linguist) conducted a detailed linguistic study of languages in British India over a hundred years ago in which Pahari-Pothwari was categorised as a dialect of “Northern Lahanda”. It is understood amongst academics and linguists that Grierson’s classifications are misinformed due to the fluidity of language borders in and around the language areas. However, such knowledge has not entirely reached the public sphere, and it hadn’t reached me till I began my PhD research.
Inferiority Language Complex
The inaccurate linguistic classification has given rise to negative connotations towards the British Pahari speaking community and language; unknown, inferior, non-standard, dialect or even slang form compromised of no or little grammatical rules. These sentiments are to some extent internalised consciously or unconsciously by native speakers themselves.
Typically, Pahari-Pothwari speakers can understand and perhaps even speak Punjabi, while Punjabi speakers typically cannot understand Pahari-Pothwari speakers. That’s why in almost all mixed gatherings, Pahari-Pothwari speakers will switch to Punjabi or Urdu, regardless of their literacy and competency levels in Punjabi/Urdu.
Such fluidity can reinforce backward, uneducated, and illiterate perceptions, while also implying that Mirpuri-speakers are imposters of another language. Hussain argues this contributes to the “identity crisis and inferiority complex experienced amongst second-generation Kashmiris in the UK”.
The fact that Pahari is a minority spoken language, links with the perception of the status it holds amongst Pahari speakers, and non-Pahari speakers. This might explain why British Pahari speakers frequently report themselves as Urdu and/or Punjabi speakers despite their literacy and competency levels, because Urdu is the official language of Pakistan and is a written language, and therefore perceived more prestigious than Pahari. While Punjabi is also perceived more prestigious than Pahari because of its large population of speakers, written script, and its status within popular culture in the UK and Pakistan. The reporting of Urdu as one’s main language is said to have been reinforced by English speakers who are only aware of Urdu and therefore assume it is the only language of the British Pakistani diaspora.
An unintentional consequence of the different names is the exclusion of the Pahari-Pothwari language from consideration as a minority language in the UK — and therefore inevitably impacting service provisions and education faculties at a community level, as well as the individual’s psyche, particularly of the second generation.
Speaking from my personal experiences as a member of the second generation, I have been through a sort of grieving process with regards to these ideologies and perceptions I inherited and internalised. That is, there is a grieving process involved in the letting go or minimisation of such ideologies and perceptions of the self; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. But of course the nature of grief means that the grievance is inflated and deflated in certain situations. I think and this is a maybe; the inferior language complex may always be part of me and the collective unconscious of the British Pahari speaking community, perhaps minimised considerably as our understandings deepen of each other and ourselves. As our self-esteem grows into who we are rather than what we are, one’s perception of self changes.
As I got to know my language linguistically, the more I respected it, the more I become one with it, and consequently felt a confidence in my language. The oneness I felt was beyond the language names and identities; it was related to a spiritual realm. I felt a connection with God; the vast world of grammar, its intricate patterns and rules relating to each other; the meanings are not random but governed by rules. In learning the science behind the words, the words became sacred in their form and meaning.
Experiencing the spiritual nature of my language, let loose some of the language ideologies I had/have. My high esteem of my language projected into different forms and meanings. Eventually, the oneness I felt with my language was something I felt with other languages, the grammar of Punjabi and Urdu – sister languages to Pahari. The thread connecting the languages rolling all the way back to Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic helped me see not only I am connected to the words of my language, I am connected to many ancestral languages, and thus their cultures, histories, and memories. This transmitted to my home language of English too, which connects me to the ancestral languages Latin and Greek (and a few others), and at times I am connected to a number of ancestral languages in just one given sentence.
For many, the sentiment of being beyond identity politics comes intuitively, common sense even, while for others it is refreshing and/or controversial to hear. However in Akanbi’s interview with Rebel Wisdom on ‘Empathy and Identity’, she does make it clear that it does not mean we deny where we are from, deny that we have different cultures, but instead ‘we learn and borrow’. This reminded me of how languages so easily permit borrowing and learning; they are living organisms that move and change to the needs of its speakers.
Languages blend unaware of boundaries, which is particularly evident in language contact situations* that give rise to code-switching†. Code-switching exemplifies language’s capacity to carry and accept one’s blended world. The contact between two languages promotes the creation of new linguistic forms and ideologies. When we code-switch, we are tapping into a limitless resource of language creativity to cope with the different homes, labels, and identities.
‘Human thought is unthinkable without the faculty of language, but language pure and undifferentiated is a fantasy of philosophers. Real language is always found in some local variant: English, Navajo, Chinese, Swahili, Burushaski or one of the several thousand others. And every one of these links its speakers into a tradition that has survived for thousands of years. Once learnt in a human community, it will provide access to a vast array of knowledge and believe: assets that empower us, when we thing, when we listen, when we speak, read or write, to stand on the shoulders of so much ancestral thought and feeling. Our language places us in a cultural continuum, linking us to the past, and showing our meanings also to future fellow-speakers.’
Empires of the Word, Nicholas Ostler
With respect to the linguistic investigations, I found that commonalities are greater than I thought, and although the differences are significant, the basic workings of the languages are shown to have the same source(s). The differences showed up in the form; the way they look; the way the grammar permits this and not that. But the basic features found across languages in the same geographical region share similar grammatical features, which in linguistics is referred to as ‘areal features’. I came to see this as an analogy of how one connects with the speakers of the languages; the communities themselves. We too have a thread connecting us; our humanness. As I continue to work on my language in the woke world we live in, I want my work in linguistics to continue to give me understanding of myself and others. I want the understanding to be a portal of connection with the truth and the communities themselves; a connection that is empathetic and transformative.
*Professor Yaron Matras defines a language contact situation as a linguistic and social phenomenon in which speakers of two or more languages or varieties interact and influence each other. This can manifest as a transference of linguistic features and/or ideologies. Language contact typically arises at language borders and/or as a result of migration.
†Code-switching is the practice of moving back and forth between two or more languages or between two or more dialects or registers of the same language.