Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Lexical Domination

18 months ago the international media picked up on President Chirac’s outburst at an EU’s conference on business and subsequently ran biased, sycophantic, and expectedly liberalistic stories about the global spread of English. 

Needless to say, my own article falls into one of those three categories. I am, as a native speaker, subject to the grammatical law of my language as each person is to their own. I am also privileged because I can communicate almost anywhere in the world and be understood, but my language is at the forefront of ‘linguicide’, along with Chinese, Spanish, French and Arabic, destroying minority languages, along with culture and customs in many cases.

Chirac’s concern was not at someone speaking English but at one of his own countrymen doing so. The French government has laws in place, concerning the cultural value of French that protects that value from the influence of foreign languages, principally Anglo-Saxon, and rightly so.

Other countries such as Bhutan, Iran, or semi-autonomous regions like Basque [and Tibet] adopt similar methods, of varying degrees, of protecting their cultures from outside influences; or recently the newly elected President of Bolivia promised to decrease the predominance of Spanish in favour of local indigenous tongues. In Italy, I must watch a foreign TV programme in dubbed Italian, but in Portugal I can hear the original language, perhaps because the Portuguese government is less sensitive as there are a 150 million speakers of Portuguese in Brazil. 

In India, a sub-continent with hundreds of dialects, its parliament speaks in English, an alien language, otherwise each speech community would never be able to agree on whose dialect to use. This was the reason for the creation of Esperanto in the EU because it was not indigenous to any state; a wonderful idea in principle except that it failed, not for any innate error but for lack of native speakers and cooperation.

Yet, in the UN’s General Assembly every member country speaks in its own language, appropriately but not without problems. There are numerous positive arguments for global languages, we all know the benefits but English marginalises populations whose first language is not a global language, then it can and does lead to cultural and economic domination of the populations speaking English as a first language.

It would appear attempts like ‘Esperanto’ at this stage of our history are the roads forward. Is EngSpanAraFrenEse feasible (Spanglish exists)? If we all put our heads together to make such a language would it succeed, or be the exclusive language of those in power?

Saturday, 1 March 2008

The Enigma Game

Football and sociology go together like two peas in a pod.

Sociology gathers philosophical and cultural evidence and relies on themes and occurrences in a society to explain human behaviour.

How does one describe human behaviours when only a billion or two watch 22 people on a field of grass running round in various circles while trying to chase a globular object? Every four years the globe is caught by football fever and the young dream of playing on this international world stage to incredible receptions of passion, excitement, and unbelievable disbelief.
It's an enigma
Yet, why is it so endemic, what makes it so universal? Why do people become utterly absorbed by it to the extent where we see an out-pouring of national pride where in other circumstances we would not see? In South-Korea the scenes of millions on the streets of Seoul were unforgettable. Apart from the most obvious reasons like drama and excitement, it is a sociological enigma. One cannot deny the cross-cultural popularity of it, the healing power of it and the way in which it absorbs itself into the centre of any culture and produces talented players who go on to become superstars and ambassadors for their countries.

This sport can serve as a doorway of escape from poverty or crime for a talented youngster with a well developed left- or right foot.This social phenomenon is replicated in almost every other sport too. It might have been a comedy but 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham, the story of a young British Hindu who faces the anger of her Asian community for playing football had real positive messages and demonstrated several social comments about its place in the world and society‘s attitude to football. Panahi’s Offside presented us with questions about personal identity about a story of a woman who disguises herself as a man at a footy stadium in Tehran, which is now in fact, unnecessary.

To the 32 countries from every continent participating in this festival there is immense pride and prestige, and the impact of international recognition in what can be an advertising masterstroke.

This it seems could be the tonic, a tonic that allows many to forget the routine of daily life in a ritual of spectatorship that acts as a conduit or a spiritual magnet for communities to come together.

It doesn’t matter if you hate football, it’s the immense social phenomena of seeing disparate persons from Tobago, Slovenia and Korea sharing a point of communication that all understand, that is fascinating to see.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

What do we do about all these ‘Bleeps’?

I awake to a bleep on the radio then switch on my mobile phone that bleeps with the day’s first sms. I’m compelled to check emails.

I can only enter my office, after being electronically identified by some disembodied voice behind the intercom.

A animal herder in the Gobi desert checks the weekend’s European football results on his satellite T.V. and radios friends to compare results. Apparently, in the Taklimaken plains, more people have DVD players than running water, and in the Atacama desert, where it rains every 300 years, electronic devices check the weather then precipitate water from Pacific fog banks. A dialysis machine saves the life of a child in Peshawar. International networks of terrorists, and governments, separated by thousands of miles, are able to remain in contact by cellular and fibre-optic waves. An angry teenager in Colorado creates a forum website to discuss problems about the world, then shoots a number of people with a rifle.

Do we fully understand the profound impact that technology has on societies? Technology can be a blessing in disguise for some people but it can be a disruptive social disease for others. It can create healthy and prosperous countries but bring down the most secure. 

The problems facing us today are how to measure the mixed results of this proliferation of modern forms of technology and communication, and how to understand them. This also includes the impact of modern engineering on the natural environment. And furthermore, who is in control, who is involved in the key decision-making process? UNESCO’s commitments are more crucial than ever, as are those of other NGO‘s. And governments.

The word ‘Technology’ is derived from the Greek word technologia (τεχνολογια), which literally means ‘Craft-saying’. The word classifies the knowledge of humanity’s tools and crafts. Technology is not a modern phenomenon. It is an ancient cultural activity predating science and engineering that arrived with some of man’s earliest thoughts, like the wearing of clothing, to contemporarily culminating in the carbon based micro-chip. Its ancient status means that we cannot stop it or contain it, it will always be here, it is our heritage to create it. 

However, what is important is how to live with it and most of all, how to learn to use it responsibly with morality, compassion, and consideration. Without those, we are truly lost.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Zadie Smith and Megaphones

Zadie Smith is one of the most original writers to emerge from Britain the last few years and has breathed life into the post-modernist genre which, during the 1990’s, was becoming predictable and somehow contradictory to its own self-imposed fragmentary nature.

Her novel On Beauty has already been praised for its vitality and won a number of literary awards.

It is a reworking of E.M. Forster’s Edwardian novel ‘Howard’s End‘, in which two sisters struggle against social stratification and its snobbery. But along came a classification termed ‘hysterical realism’, which was applied to Smith’s first novel White Teeth. This realism is characterised by fast paced action, chronic length,
Walter Mitty
and constant digressions on secondary subjects less important to the story; manic characters too, with completely undeniable character traits to the point of them being inauthentic and in White Teeth it is at one and the same possible and impossible to relate to the main characters, just as it is impossible to believe in Harry Potter.

Oddly, Smith’s contemporary JK Rowling is guilty of creating a world of semi-realism where characters inhabit the known world when not in the School of Magic, and her later books are of chronic length and full of digressions secondary to the plot. If Smith’s writings fall into ‘hysterical realism’ then Rowling’s are juxtaposed as ‘hysterical fantasism’, a writer attempting to recreate the barriers between reality and fantasy which were destroyed by the post-modernists and Beckett. Even though of course Zadie Smith and Rowling’s writings are incomparable in genre they are both women who have experienced high levels of literary success, and British literature has a long tradition of women writers that spans back to Elizabethan times. Zadie Smith is but the contemporary result of centuries of practice and experimentation, though not without influence; needless to say Greek, Roman, and Arab. But today many British women writers are feeling the influence of former parts of the British Empire from the Indian sub-continent to the Caribbean like Monica Ali who wrote of life in a London Bangladeshi community.

This is a phenomenon relatively new to British women, once the preserve of male British writers like Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul. Zadie Smith herself is descended from the Caribbean. Yet this custom of the ‘colonial literature’ unearthing expression through the language of the coloniser is as stark today as it was when the Nigerian Chinua Achebe was first writing his narratives nearly 40 years ago on the troubles and accomplishments of integration, but of course, not always acknowledged. There are still many different sets of teeth that have no voice and require a megaphone.