Language Politics and the Men專題社會文化置頂

Language, Politics, and the Men.Preface

2018 年 01 月 02 日

Language, written and spoken, is the primary medium for humans to communicate. It enables expression of abstract cognition that could transcend everyday experience. It produces symbols, identities, and meanings according to the context of its unique historical and cultural origins. Most importantly, it dictates our thought and shapes our experience of the outside world. As Wittgenstein argues, all philosophy is the study of language itself. The fundamental precondition of humanity lies precisely in the creation and use of language.

However, probably because of its banality and pervasiveness in everyday life, people are often unable to notice the countless questions language provides us. How do we translate our thoughts into language? How far can language reflect our thoughts? Could the syntax, semantics, and structure of a particular language impose conditions on our ability to express meanings? Does differing experiences shape languages of different culture to such an extent that make direct translation impossible? Mohith M Varma, a student from India studying psychology, attempts to answer this question in a short piece. In his free-flowing narrative, he sketches the metaphysical thought process of a person meditating in the deep mountains of Himalayas. His stream of consciousness is reflected by picturized symbols: barren land, farmer, the womb and the umbilicus, the flowing stream and the mountains. Attentive reading and imagination is required to understand the symbolic meanings of myths and thought processes unique to cultures alien to the English-speaking world, presented in English.

Apart from its involvement in philosophy and psychology, language also plays a significant part in the field of politics. As Yiddish socio-linguist Max Weinreich curtly observed, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” The history of the origins of modern nation-states could be seen as a struggle between different linguistic or dialect groups to dictate the official language, and with it social customs, religion and way of life, of an imaginary united “nation” or community. Colonialism added further complexities to the issue. Apart from the more obvious question of the interacting dynamics between the languages of the colonizer and the colonized, the legacy of colonialism to the relationship and status between languages in post-colonial states also attracts scholarly and political interest. Post-colonial peoples, finding themselves adapting to the conditions of western conceptions of “sovereign nation-states”, were forced to define the language and devise cultural myths of their often arbitrarily created “nations”. How do they mediate or suppress competing interests of different linguist groups, and maintain or create the apparent unity of their national identity?

Modern day sovereign states are often romanticised by governments or nationalistic political groups as being comprised of a single “nation” adhering to a particular language or dialect. However, the dynamics of language politics often expose the underlying realities of the presence of multi-ethnic or linguistic groups and classes to challenge the existing definitions of the language and the “nation.” The recent controversies over the implementation of compulsory Mandarin and simplified Chinese education in Hong Kong could be seen as another example of language politics in the unique post-colonial conditions of Hong Kong.

Three more articles by fellow HKU international students discuss the relevance of the language to contemporary politics. Zun Nwe Tun Oo, a Burmese student who had lived in minority Karen refugee camps on the Burmese-Thai border, reported on the difficulties of minority schoolchildren to integrate under the education system dominated by the majority ethnic group. Ada Lin, an Indonesian, discussed how Indonesia’s founding fathers resolved the imminent dilemma of finding an “official language” for the Indonesian nation, which comprised of a multitude of varied ethnic and linguistic entities. Pan Pwint, another Burmese student, offers a brief account of the development of Burmese, the language spoken by the majority group of Myammar, and its relationship with the languages and dialects of other ethnicities.

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學苑編輯委員會