February 21st marks International Mother Language Day. Luckily for us, this year the date just so happens to fall on a Sunday, making this a perfect topic for our Sunday Word Potion. As you may well know, language plays an extremely important role in our lives, and in our cultures. It is through language that we make our voices heard, describe our cultural practices, and communicate with others about our cultural practices. Therefore, on International Mother Language Day, we wanted to share the history behind this date, and talk about the importance of language preservation particularly within the book industry. We also share some of our favourite books where language is a prevalent feature for forging out diverse and complex cultures and cultural identities.
International Mother Language Day has been on the books since the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) singled out February 21st in November 1999 as its official date. In 2002, the United Nations (UN) officially resolved to adopt multilingualism. In this decree the UN officially swore to “recognizing that the United Nations pursues multilingualism as a means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of language and cultures globally,” with the idea that “genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding.” Although this motion was not a new theory, as it was preceded by a resolution created in December 1992, the UN sought to build upon and strengthen this human rights concern.
The Importance of International Mother Language Day and Language in the Publishing Industry
As we’ve already established, language is vital for representing and expressing cultural practices and identities, and the growing awareness is that acknowledgement of multiculturalism and multilingualism is important for also preserving heritage and indigenous societies. If we acknowledge multilingualism at a policy level, then intercultural dialogue will hopefully lead to increased tolerance and acceptance of different and diverse cultures.
The problem lies in the fact that the Anglo-American publishing industry under-represents other diverse languages, preferring the production of English-language books, or English-language books for translation. You might be surprised to hear that it is the UK that is the global leader in book exports with 2,621 titles released per one million inhabitant. To put this into perspective, the USA produces 935 titles, Brazil 435, China 335, the Philippines 93, and Kenya 11 per million people. Granted, other countries in Europe have relatively high figures such as Iceland, and Denmark, France and Spain, but it is hard to know how many of these figures represent books in translation. Mostly, we can see a trend where the English-language dominates the book market, and this is down to the fact that the big publishing corporations are Anglo-American and have international parent companies. Therefore, there appears a danger in the English-language dominated book markets squeezing out books from other languages and cultures, preventing the sharing and telling of stories of a more diverse human experience.
Books Where Language is Key
Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
You might have heard of the novel The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Well, Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a rebuttal to Conrad’s casual colonialist perspective of the African people. Things Fall Apart – titled after the W.B. Yeats poem ‘The Second Coming’ – tells the story of the complex and tragic demise of Okonkwo, who is a living wrestling legend from the Igbo peoples.
The fact that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was written in English by a Nigerian writer is interesting in itself. Writers from formerly colonialised countries often debate between writing in their indigenous languages, and writing in the language of the colonisers. Some feel it is a duty to their culture to write in their own language as the coloniser’s language couldn’t touch the complexities of their native identities. Achebe reasons that writing in English meant that “a new voice is coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a world-wide language.”
However, Achebe does not fully neglect the Igbo language, incorporating the language into the novel. The very narrative structure of the novel uses Igbo rhythms, words, and methods of story-telling, almost adapting the English language to fit the purpose – re-moulding the Igbo identity in a post-colonial world. Achebe uses Igbo words, contextualising them within the story telling to aid in the communication of their translation.
The Complete Stories – Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston’s The Complete Stories are a collection of short stories from her various longer works. These short stories tell the lives of African Americans in the American South, often presenting the characters in her stories in a factual and anthropological light.
Hurston often uses the Southern black vernacular as a method for the accurate narration, and striking characterisations. In the Introduction to The Completed Stories Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes Hurston’s characters as “people whose dream and desires, whose traumas and foibles she describes with such élan” because she “is concerned to register a distinct sense of space – an African American cultural space.”
Sunset Song – Lewis Grassic Gibson
Lewis Grassic Gibson’s Sunset Song is a novel about the devastation of a rural community in the north-east of Scotland, told through the life of the novel’s heroine Chris Guthrie. The novel is set in the years running up to and anticipating the First World War, and then in the years beyond, as the small community is impacted by these major event happening in the wider world.
The novel is written in English, though scholars highlight the discernible lyrical quality of the stories narration which is described as a “lyrical blend between English and Scots,” which “appears as basically English but incorporates vocabulary… taken from Scots." The blend of Scots and English result in a construction of Scots without actually representing a real-life dialect. This allows the language of the novel to be linguistically accessible to a non-Scots reader, whilst also persuading that the language is Scottish. Therefore, national representation and Scottish identity is still at the forefront, but enabling the novel to be accessed by larger international audiences.