Feature Img

slide12Nothing exists without a name. God taught Adam the names of things. Satan, made of fire and the best of the Angels, lost the name-game to a creature made of clay the tutored Adam. Adam was, however, banished to earth for taking the forbidden fruit. As soon as an idea gets full in one’s mind it finds an expression, may be in an onomatopoeic sound.

The Rig Veda says: “One should respect his motherland, his culture and his mother tongue because they are givers of happiness.”

In the Atharva-Veda it is said, “Let us not turn away from our mother tongue. May we always look upon our mother tongue with favor. Those who are desirous of pleasing the Gods “chant prayers” to them in the mother tongue. It is the mother tongue which performs the function of purification. Each word of the mother tongue is bound to us with ties of blood. Clarified butter flows through each word of the mother tongue. All the “sacred arts” find expression in our mother tongue. May we use our mother tongue to describe the glory of the Gods”.

In the Bible, the descendants of Noah for reaching heaven began to build the Babel of Tower in the plain of Shinar in Babylonia. Alarmed God prevented the venture by confusing the speech of the people and scattered them throughout the world.

In the Qu’ran it is said, “Each apostle we have sent has spoken only in the language of his own people, so that he might make plain to them his message.” (14 Abraham: 4)

It is further said, “Among His other signs are the creation of heaven and earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors. Surely there are signs in this for all mankind. ” (30 Greeks: 22)

A language is not merely for speaking and listening to, it must, if it is to fulfill functions fully, be written and read. The Chinese are very proud and fond of their logograph. Six months back when I visited China, I requested for a poem praising the Chinese language. At the time of the farewell, I was given three poems. My Chinese teacher in Dhaka gave me another poem. All were in praise of Chinese logograph. It is no wonder that many an elder and conservative Chinese still pine for pre-reform Chinese logograph.

A language is not only for three r’s –reading , writing and arithmetic — it is for may more things as the Chinese poet Lu Chi [261-303] said , “The pleasure a writer knows is the pleasure of all sages enjoy. Out of non-being; being is born; out of silence, the writer produces a song”.

Flora Aurima-Devatine urges her people to preserve their language and culture in written form on which their life depends.

Pandit Raghu Nath Murmu, the inventor of Santal Olchik script has said in his poem Mantra: “If you have script then your language will be alive. You will be alive as long your religion is in existence. You will be lost when you lose your script, language and religion. ”

I have included Antonio Jacinto’s poem Letter From a Contract Worker to give vent to the miseries of persons who cannot read or write.

Man ascribes miracle to language. Man discovered hieroglyphics, ideograph, logograph and alphabets. The indigenous peoples like our Garo community who have got no script, have legends of losing their written languages. The misery of losing one’s language lost has been well depicted by Micere Gitae Mugo in his poem Where Are Those Song.

Language is a great power. As Paul Valery called language in his Charms, as ‘‘the god gone ashtray in the flesh’’. Every ruler wants his people use his language and follow his religion. Authoritarian rulers allowed cutting of tongues for using forbidden languages. At the opposite direction, there are examples of punishing or listening to sacred languages. If the Sudras or the Untouchables were found to have heard the Vedas in Sanskrit then their ear-drams could be sealed with lead.

When speakers of a language are repeatedly told that their language is inadequate or vulgar, and if they are sensitive persons they are most likely to forget their mother tongue and acquire a new and more respectable language. There are, however, some exceptionally proud people As Franz Fanon says, ‘‘the Bretons do not consider themselves inferior to the French people. The Bretons have not been civilised by the white man.’’

After concluding that there are no ‘mother’ tongues, only first tongues, Louis-Jean Calvet says: ‘‘Nevertheless, the great majority of European cultures use the same image to describe the first language: langue maternelle in French, lengua materna in Spanish, idioma materna in Italian, Muttersprache in German etc., a misuse of language in that it assumes the mother’s language is the one which the child will necessarily inherit. This idea of inheritance, of descent is even clearer in Russian: … ‘mother tongue’ refers simultaneously to the idea of ‘birth’ (….., to bring into the world), of ‘parents’(…) and of ‘source’ (…). And there are many metaphors in particular in African languages, which describe this first language in terms of milk, the breast, of suckling, etc. On the other hand, in some languages we find the idea that the first language is link to the earth. This is for example the case with Chinese where the expression pen guo yu yen…… ‘mother tongue’ means, taking it word by word,  ‘language of root nation.’’’

Life and language are coterminous. A traditional Hawai’ian proverb says: “With language rests life; with language rests death.”

There are popular proverbs in this respect in every language. A Guaraní [Paraguay] proverb says: “If the Guaraní come to an end, who will pray, so that the world won’t come to an end?”

The Navajo Amerindians thus speak about the origin and myth of thought and speech: ‘‘Of all these various kinds of holy ones that have been made, you the first one will be […] their thought, you will be called Long Life […]. And you who are the second one […] will be […] their speech, you will be called Happiness […]. You will be (found) among everything […] without exception, exactly all will be long life by means of you two, and exactly all will be happiness by means of you two’’.

The Kashaya Amerindians story of the origin of language is little different: ‘‘He gave them languages for different places and sent them off. That’s why we talk in different ways — he created things that way. Giving [one group a certain] language, he sent them off [to one place]. Those speaking another language he sent elsewhere […]. We too, having been given a language, stayed here at this place’’.

On the origin of language Billy Milangka Gibbs, of Manyjilyjarra tribe, Australia speaks: ‘‘Long ago, before white fellas were here, only Aborigines were here with their own talk. Those people from long ago were teaching those who came after them with their own talk. They were telling the boys and girls how to behave themselves. They were living well on their own land. They were the owners of the land. Long ago they were in agreement. And they were looking after each other. They lived in their own Aboriginal places. There was one Aboriginal language. There was one word in the past — the word of the grandfathers and grandmothers… […] Since long ago the old people’s stories are standing… They have songs relating to this place. And ceremonies … The old people have them from the past, so they can teach them to the younger generation, so they can recite themselves when the old ones die’’.

An aboriginal song of the Nunga people of Australia, ‘‘I’m Nunga and I’m proud of it’’, asserts that, “It’s ours [Nunga language] to keep and call our own; you can never take it away”.

Mutsumi Yokyoama, Ainu [Japan] writer and folklorist says: ‘‘I left Moshiri, the land of the Ainu. Life was hard. But then I started to think of the Ainu language. I am one of the Ainu people. I feel my ethnicity. I began to notice that the Ainu language reflects the Ainu ways and now know that it is my obligation to recall and regain this precious language. I am now fully conscious of the fact that the word Ainu means ‘a human being’’’.

The speakers of Kaqchikel (Guatemala) insist: ‘‘Our language is one of God’s blessings that our forefathers received thousands of years ago. Our parents have conserved Kaqchikel, and we cannot simply cast it off now as if it were worth nothing. God gave us talent through Kaqchikel; either we bury it or we make it multiply’’.

The speakers of Mixe (Mexico) emphasise: ‘‘It would not be a good thing for the Mixe language to disappear because it represents our culture. We have inherited it from our ancestors. If it were to be lost, nothing would be left from the past and our brothers would not know each other’’.

A Young Hualapai from USA says: ‘‘I was not taught my language. My mom says my dad didn’t want us to learn, because when he was going through school he saw what difficulty his peers were having because they had learned Hualapai first, and the schools were all taught in the English language. And so we were not taught, my brothers and I.

I don’t feel complete… Sometimes I feel apart from my peers, the ones that are my age and do speak, and they all know that I don’t speak… Coming to terms with my identity and seeing my deficiencies, I could tell the kids today that if you don’t know your language, you will feel [as I do]’’.

Myra Laramie, a Cree of Canada, says, ‘‘Our ancestors are talking to us now in our dreams, feasts and sweat lodges. The old people are coming through, and they are saying that we are doing things right, they are showing us how to go forward without making too many mistakes…My first language is Cree, but I was robbed of that. I think in Ojibway, even though I cannot speak it. It’s here in my head and my heart. The more the spirit of that language fills me, the harder it is for me to say what I want to say in English. The English language is the most inappropriate tool on God’s earth to speak from the heart…

It’s critical that we have a language to maintain the teachings. Even though I do not understand it, when I hear somebody speaking old Cree my heart gets really full. Something happens to me. I do not understand what it is’’.

Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, Tlingit of Alaska, oral historians, say: “Books and recordings can preserve languages, but only people and communities can keep them alive”. In the same vein Terry Supahan, a Karuk of USA, says: ‘‘I am interested in communication, not preservation!’’

L. Frank Manriquez, a Tongva/Ajachmem of USA, says: ‘‘If I know one word in my language my creator will let me go to where I have to go when I pass away. I don’t have a whole language. It is silly to think I will bring an extinct language back to fluency with only 300 people in an extinct tribe. I talk to my computer. I feed the language in, and when I make mistakes the computer talks back.

“But if I have one word, it is the power of one word, and whoever is at the garden gate — the pearly gates, the happy hunting grounds, will recognise me and it will be enough for me to go in. There is so much power in just one word. Somebody asked: ‘Why save the language or save your dance, why bother? Why don’t you just give it up, become one of us?’ Well, you can’t give up the colour of your eyes. You can’t give up what has been running through your blood for ages’’.

In his poem ‘Russian Language’ Mikhail Dudin speaks of it as the breath of dreams and meditation, Moushegh Ishkhan says: ‘‘The Armenian language is the home and haven where the wanderer can own roof and wall and nourishment.’’

Fernado Pessoa, the Portuguese poet, say, ‘My homeland is the Portuguese language.’

Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, describes his native land as being made of words, “lana baled min kalam”–– we have a native land of words (from “Fewer Roses”)

Shameem, the Urdu poet says, in his poem Language that his language is the deposit of culture, the inheritances of his ancestor and the identity of his community.

Klell Esmerk, the Swedish poet, says that when a language dies the dead die a second time.

Jacques Peletier du Mans, the sixteenth century French poet, says in to a poet, who wouldn’t write except in Latin,

“I write in my mother tongue

And try to enhance its beauty

With a view to make it last long

Do you believe your poetic work near what Virgil wrote?”

A near- contemporary Bengali poet Abdul Hakim says:

“If the discipline of the mother language

Does not satisfy one’s mind

Why does not he go to a foreign land

His country leaving behind?”

Ramnidhi  Gupta, the Bengali poet, says:

“Various countries have various languages

Can one’s desires be fulfilled without the native language.

Rivers and lakes, what is that to the swallow,

Will its thirst be ever quenched without the rain water?”

The Hungarian poet Geörge Gömori says:

“Only in my own language can I find salvation.

For I can describe in English the mysteries

Of life, the universe in all its glory,

But only in my mother tongue can I compose

The words that make a sunset glowing.”

During the Second World War when the Soviet Union was invaded by the Nazis, Anna Akhmatova in her poem Courage vowed to preserve their dear Russian speech and its majestical word unfettered and pure, carried over the grave, so that for all time their grandsons shall save the language from bondage.

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet, vows:

“Faithful mother tongue,

perhaps after all it’s I who must try to save you.

So I will continue to set before you little bowls of colours

bright and pure if possible,

for what is needed in misfortune is a little order and beauty.’

Our tongue will treasure it!

A heritage our mothers gave us

Of all the best our heart doth need!’

Muhammad Yamin, the Indonesian poet says:

“Until we die and are wrapped in earth

We will never forget our language,

Remember young men,

Sumatra would be most wretched,

Without their language,

A people will vanish.”

Clariza Lucas has said that it is well known that there are three ways to destroy a people’s identity: by fighting against them with weapons, substituting their language, and by changing radically their nutritional habits.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o,the Kenyan novelist, says: ‘‘Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle […] The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation’’.

Ngugi warns: “We must avoid the destruction that English has wrought on other languages and cultures in its march to the position it now occupies in the world. The death of main languages should never be the condition for the life of a few…a language for the world? A world of languages!  The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, provided there is independence, equality, democracy, and peace among nations.”

The Ma’ohi poet Chantal Spitz says:

‘‘They taught you their language, their way to think

They gave you their values, their tastes

They won without deserving

You really helped them

You have become a well-trained monkey

…                          ..

Ma’ohi, what have you done to you?’’

Nlicholas Rothwell ,the author of Wings of the Kitehawk, asked June Oscar, the head of the Kimberley Language Resource Centre:

‘‘What does it feel like to speak our own, your traditional language?’’

Oscar said in reply: ‘‘You communicate your feelings in a way you can’t in English. You can really hit things on the head, you can feel and understand what’s being said to you. When we are using language in our country we feel that country has listened to this language from the beginning of time, and we try to think of us being back at the beginning of time, and that’s the only language this country knows.’’

She further said: ‘‘When we go out to the country and people talk to the country, we’re not only talking to the country but to the spirits, the people who have left us in this world; we know they’ve gone back to the country, we communicate to then.’’

Abdul Akbar Khan, the Pashto poet says:

‘‘I am not such a fool

As to want to rule over other people in Pakistan,

All that I want is the reflection

Of the Pashtun entity in the constitution of the country,

The region where I live

To be named after my people, the Pashtuns who live there and,

Good education for my children in their own language Pashto.

As long as these aspirations are fulfilled

I do not mind even if I remain poor, hungry and naked.’’

Jalaluddin Rumi in a Mathnavi says: ‘‘Say all in Persian, even if Arabic is better’’, but in his characteristic way he hurriedly adds, ‘‘Love will find its way through all languages on its own.’’

Every language may not have a poem on mother tongue. Many aboriginal tribes have great sense of belonging to their languages, but because of lack script or developed literature do not have any poem on mother tongue. In response to a query whether there is a Japanese poem in praise of mother tongue Professor Kyoko Niwa wrote, ‘‘Japanese has been the only language we use for both in private and in public more than at least one thousand years. So there has been no need to support the language consciously, there might be some to mention the special attachment to our own language though.’’

The Japanese poet Kouichi Iijima discovered that attachment during his half a year in a foreign country when he never thought to write a poem. Just after he came back to Japan within a few days he could not stay without writing a poem and thus he came back to his mother tongue.

Sasan Seifkar,an Iranian poet, says in Life in Diaspora that those who are away from home yearn to return but cannot. They have lost their homes, their first language, are always homesick.

Many a writer has chosen to write in a language, which is not his mother tongue. The Liberal Tamil poet Gnanakoothan says that for him Tamil is the very life-breath; but he won’t let it down another’s neck. Salman Masalaha, an Arab from Jerusalem writes in Hebrew to lose himself in the world to find the whole.

In her An introduction Kamala Das says,

‘‘I am Indian, brown, born in Malabar. I speak three languages, write

in two, dream in one. Don’t write in English, they cried,

English is not your mother tongue. Why not leave me alone,

critics, friends, visiting cousins, everyone of you ? Let me

speak in any language I like. The language I speak becomes

mine, its distortions,  its queer nesses al mine, mine alone.’’

Joseph Conrad, the Polish-born novelist says: ‘‘It was I who was adopted by the genius of the language, which directly I came out of the stammering stage made me its own so completely that its very idioms I truly believe had a direct action on my temperament and fashioned my still plastic character…All I can claim after all those years of devoted practice, with the accumulated anguish of its doubts, imperfection and faltering in my heart, is the right to be believed when I say that if I had not written in English I would not have written at all.”

After getting glowing American reviews of his book entitled Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov says: “None of my American friends have read my Russian books and thus every appraisal on the strength of my English ones is bound to be out of focus. My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions — which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

The Polish writer Louis Begley says: ‘‘Therefore, I follow Nabokov’s advice, and take the tragedy seriously only because Nabokov’s intimate wound was surely very real, as is the wound inflicted by every exile, whatever its circumstances and aftermath. The wound is one that never heals, even if one can say with Nabokov, as I do, quite heartlessly: ‘‘The break in my own destiny affords me in retrospect a syncopal kick that I would not have missed for worlds.’’’

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist who got the Nobel Prize for literature in 1989, made clear his own opposition to the use of African languages for African literature: “It is not that I underrate their importance, But since I am considering the role of the writer in building a new nation I wish to concentrate on those who write for the whole nation whose audience cuts across tribe or clan, And these, for good or ill, are writers in English.”

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, got the Nobel Prize for his rendering in English of Gitanjali (Song Offerings). He said, ‘In education mother language is like mother’s milk.’ He was not opposed to any foreign language. He wanted that English should have of a place honour in the university education. Tagore, however, insisted that while a lamp’s light could be got from the language of a distant country, for self-expression morning light radiates in one’s own language.

In his poem Three Languages the Kurdi poet Bedri Rahmi Eyuboglu said, ‘‘Those who could not catch the bus of development they should at least learn three languages.’’

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the Pakistani poet, urges:

“Speak, this brief hour is long enough

Before the death of body and tongue:

Speak, ‘cause the truth is not dead yet,

Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.”

Further Faiz vows,

“If they snatch my ink and pen,

I should not complain,

For I have dipped my fingers

In the blood of my heart.

I should not complain

Even if they seal my tongue,

For every ring of my chain

Is a tongue ready to speak.”

On 21 March 1948 when Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, declared that Urdu would be the only state language of the country the Bengali-speaking people of the province of East Bengal remonstrated. Soon a language movement demanding Bengali as one of the state languages engulfed the country. On 21 February 1952 on a student’s demonstration, the police opened fire and Barkat, Salam, Rafique and Jabbar were martyred. The people of East Bengal, subsequently named as East Pakistan, resented the neo-colonial regime of Pakistan. After a bloody liberation movement on 16 December 1971 Bangladesh emerged as and independent republic. UNESCO by a unanimous resolution declared 21st February as the International Mother Language Day. Subsequently, on 23 October 2010 the fourth committee of 65th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations Organisation resolved unanimously that each year 21st February will be observed as the International Mother Language Day.

Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 provides, ‘‘In those states in which ethnic, religious or linguistics minorities exist, personal belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with other  members of their group to enjoy their culture, to profess and practice their won religion, or to use their own language’’.

Inspired by the provision of that article the Declaration of the Rights of Persons Belonging to the national or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistics Minorities proclaims that State should take appropriate measures so that wherever possible, person belonging to minorities may have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue.

In the Atlas of the World’s Language In Danger of Disappearing (2001), edited by Stephen A. Wurm, published by UNESCO, it has been pointed out that for various reasons the fate of languages took a turn for the worse in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The geographical explorations and the expansionist tendencies of some European powers like Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, Spaniards and Russians, and introduction of new disease like small pox in North America, Siberia and later Australia were responsible for the death and disappearance of hundreds of languages over the past three hundreds years. According to one estimate about half of the approximately 6,000 languages in the world are now endangered to some degree. According to another estimate every two weeks a language is getting extinct.

In Language, Vitality and Endangerment, published by UNESCO in 2003 the case for protection of endangered languages has been well focused:

‘‘The extinction of each language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural, historical and ecological knowledge. Each language is a unique expression of the human experience of the world…

‘‘Every time a language dies, we have less evidence for understanding patterns in the structure and functions of human language, human prehistory, and the maintenance of the world’s diverse ecosystems. Above all, speakers of these languages may experience the loss of their language as a loss of their ethnic and cultural identity’.

Franz Fanon writes in his Black Skin White Mask:” In school the children of Martinique are taught to scorn the dialect. One avoids Creolisms. Some families completely forbid the use of Creole, and mothers ridicule their children for speaking it.

“My mother wanting a son to keep in mind

if you do not know your history lesson

you will not get to mass on Sunday in

your Sunday clothes

that child will be a disgrace to the family

that child will be our curse

shut up I told you you must speaking French

the French of France

The Frenchman’s French

French French.”

(Leon-G. Gamus, “Hoquet”, Pigments,in Leopold Senghor, ed. Anthologie de nouvetie poésie nègre en malagache)

Few years back, the Hong Kong Department of Education defended its education policy that student learn better through their mother tongue. Before the researcher one English-medium student said, “I am very unhappy. For the past half year, I did not understand what was taught in class. I only sat there and felt very pitiful. I wanted to listen but I did not understand what the teacher said.”

My grandson Abrar (2006, Austin, Texas) has an excellent command on Bangla. He keeps quiet when he attends his playgroup school. I told her parents please do not demolish his mother tongue and better build whatever terraces you like to erect on that foundation. I found a young boy saying to his English mother ‘hot’ and simultaneously translating it as garom for his Bangladeshi aunt. The old immersion method of teaching foreign language has presently yielded the place to teaching foreign language in the accompaniment of mother tongue.

If one wants to know or understand a people the best way is to know them through their mother language. If one wants to serve or rule a people the best way to do that is to know their language. Emperors and kings could do without knowing the language(s) of their subjects. The republicans, however, cannot do that without knowing the language of the citizens.

In conclusion, I must express my gratitude to the authors, their translators, and their publishers whose works I have incorporated in this anthology. In my passion for collecting poems on mother languages I have received poems, assistance and encouragement from a number of dear and near friends. I must mention some names: Anizsuzzaman, Professor Emeritus of Dhaka University, France Bhattacharya, Professeur Emeritus, University of Paris, Professor Henry Aveling of Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, Professor Bilayet Hossain of Oklahoma University, Professor Maniruzzaman Mia, former Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University, Proffesor Jose Paz(Shanti), Professor Nie Chilong, Associate Professor Rafique-um-Manir Chowdhury architect Mahbub-ul Haque, film-directors Tarek Masud and Catherine Masud, dramatist Golam Shafique, economist Mahfuzur Rahman, diplomat Mohammed Mijarul Quayes, Col.Anwarul Alam, Dr. Hameeda Hossain, Dr. Badiuzzaman Mazumder, Natasha Niyiogi of Dhaka Russian Cultural Centre, poet and translator Qu Zhi Wei, journalists Swadsh Roy, Probir Bikash Sarker, Ahsan Habib, Taimur Reza and Razu Alauddin,  Fahmida and Russel, Tonima, mountaineer  Musa Ibrahim, lawyer Tawfique Nawaz and painter Santu Saha.

I have got institutional and logistic support from the Bangla Academy, the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs, the Daily Prothom Alo, and University Press Limited. I am grateful to all of them. I am more than grateful to my wife, Islama, daughters Rubaba, Nusrat and her husband Ahsan, and my youngest daughter Rownak for lovingly encouraging me in my present concern.

I could only touch about seventy languages. Any further information from the readers will be most gratefully welcome.


Muhammad Habibur Rahman is a former chief justice and the chief adviser of caretaker government 1996.

2 Responses to “Introduction to mother tongue”

  1. M.O.Gani, London

    International Mother Language day, a gift of Bangladesh to the world community is felt more graceously in the third Bengali, Bangla Town of Britain. Thanks to courageous efforts of Hon’ble PM that research facilities were established in Bangladesh and we hope Bangladesh will encourage many world class personalities like Justice Rahman to continue writing on human rights issues like nurturing of world heritage.

  2. Golam Arshad

    Justice Habibur Rahman: Wonderful manifestation of Language and heritage in the canvas of potentate knowledge.

Comments are closed.