You are what you SPEAK

Mar 1st, 2012 | By | Category: Latest, Pakistan

“I sent my brother a text message asking if he has a particular novel I was after and he replied in affirmation. I texted back with a wink and the words ‘I’ll be highly obliged if you could bring it”. He later smiled meaningfully and commented that my “highly obliged” reflected the mentality of a slave. I shrugged my shoulders and remarked, “As if taking a degree in English literature was  not a reflection enough !”

A few weeks ago, a cousin of mine was asking about some symbol on orkut and her brother pretended as if he doesn’t know. And as I was standing nearby I shouted out ‘that word’ loud and clear. And her brother looked at me, shocked. The word is commonly used amongst youth these days without shame and has vulgar connotations. And with this, the realisation dawned upon me that I’m getting accustomed to all those words which are not a part of my culture, slowly and unknowingly.

In the book ‘Doing English’, the author has clearly stated that with every word of a foreign language comes the whole cultural package. And this the fear took over me. Am I falling through the bottomless pit of a foreign culture?! From then onwards I became conscious of every word that I use and am trying still to shun every word that does not reflect decency.

But how many of us actually realise that?  Last year while attending one of the presentations of the research group in our department, the professor said that not every word can be translated. In Arabic we use words which have no direct one word in English or any other language. It’s true for Urdu, English and other languages as well. The words become terminologies! Once attending the lecture of philosophy, a professor said that we should avoid using words like “enlightenment” and “modern” because these are not words with simple meanings, for Occidentals these are terminologies that have derived from their history and culture. These words date back from the 16th and 17th Centuries, the age that Europe called The Age of Enlightenment; the shift from homo-centric to the ego-centric culture, when man became more important. And these all are not part of our culture.

In ‘Notes Towards the definition of Culture’, T.S. Eliot says that Europe’s culture is deeply seated in the religious history of Europe. Muhammad Asad in his book The Road to Makkah says that he has come to the theory that the European prejudice and hatred towards Islam and Muslims is dated as back as the first Crusades. It has become part of the culture. And it was T.S.Eliot who said that culture is derived from religion and faith (with it or the lack of it). And as writers cannot write in a vacuum, and they incorporate their mind-set into the whole experience of writing, we see the reflection of their beliefs, culture and thoughts. So, when I am reading Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Dickens, Bronte or James, I am actually exposing myself to their culture and beliefs. I remember a fellow student saying that it seems as if we know more than the average European about their sects and religion and history. It’s incorporated in their literature.

The first ever department of English was established in the colony of Subcontinent. The English believed that literature would incorporate certain values in the Indians without them realising it. And this would help them make better slaves. And they would not realise the religious moulding through literature. So, literature became a tool of making us more “civilized” in the eyes of West to serve their own purposes. Literature, if read passively, works subtly yet moves your insides violently. Your mind would accept things subconsciously or unconsciously and may affect your whole way of thinking. And I realised that you need to be active when reading literature, alert all the time, in order to keep different beliefs and metaphysics at bay.

The recent writers of Pakistan, who chose English to be their medium of communicating their ideas, do not reflect the embedded culture of the East. And when I’m talking about Muslim writers, I’m talking about the culture of Islam. The writers have not only chosen English but they have incorporated the ideas of Europe, their culture in those writings reflecting their own “slave-ish mentality”. The embedded idea in our minds that ‘doing English’, eating with forks and spoons and sitting on a dining table reflects the marks of civilization, without realising that in our culture, eating with your hands and sitting on the floor are the marks of being “civilized”.

It’s high time for us to realise that our culture, literature and everything else have a centre, and that centre is Islam. And the unification in things comes from that one centre. We may be able to institutionalise every “branch” of knowledge, but the centre would allow a Muslim to see things in totality and not in fractions. And we see all that in the works of Muslim poets from Rumi to Iqbal. So, even if we are to read the Western authors, we need to counter the effect by reading our own literature in the languages of the East, mainly Urdu, Arabic or Persian. It’s high time to stand facing the current and yet not lose our grounds. And we can only do that by standing in our own cultural grounds and not borrowed ones. We have far more better examples than those of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates.”

Asma Muhammad Khalil

About the author

Asma is a linguist and a thinker. She has a Masters degree in English Literature & Linguistics and she frequently writes on social, cultural and other issues.

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  1. A very thought provoking and positively stimulating article. Keep up the good work!

    *But I think you should have named it “You are what you Read”, instead. 🙂

  2. Its one of the best articles that I have read in recent times. And I read it actively. Infact thats what I use to feel. Reading the novels ‘do have everlasting effect on us’ and that too subconsciously. Its really nice to know that it was not a ‘mere’ thought of mine, its actually truth.

  3. I agree with you, our expression in English is restricted by various factors which do not merely include vocabulary. Look at any nation around you, each one has retained its own language for the purpose of instruction, expression and development etc. This “slave mentality” you mentioned has been etched inside us and will take a deliberate effort to get rid of. Return to our rich expressive roots in the shape of a jewel of a language, Urdu, is one step in the direction…

  4. Yes, of course, you are what you speak (and read). That is why it’s important to read and speak as many languages as you can! And when you’re not able to understand a certain language you should not be afraid of “translation”.

    Of course, learning about other cultures can be subversive in it’s own way, especially if you’re not too sure of your own identity, but it can also be “enlightening” (!). After all, we do live in a society which is comprised of many cultures and religions. An obscure but enlightened (there I go again!) gentleman once wrote: “No man is an island”. I’m almost certain that idea, that concept, exists in Urdu, Arabic or Persian!

    I’m grateful you wrote your article in English because I’m quite ignorant of the Urdu language! I haven’t given up yet on learning it one day…but at my age it seems hopeless. Keep up your good work! You are a brilliant writer.

  5. an excellent piece of writing! language is first tool of a culture! We must be proud on our rich linguistic heritage!

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