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Sunday, 16 February 2014





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The common heritage of language

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.
~ Rita Mae Brown, an American writer and feminist.

It has been supposed that the ancient Aramaic word abba was, a term of familiarity that a young child might have used to address his father, similar to papa in English or appa in Tamil. The Sinhala word appachchi is a derivative of the Tamil appa. Innumerable are the illustrations I can give to prove the common heritage of language, in spite of which, we Sri Lankans spend so much time on the subject, not studying it, but squabbling, squibbling, and quibbling. It is but a reflection of our insular mentality, and proof that petty things amuse small minds.

All language did spring from a common source. When Homo sapiens evolved and moved out of Africa, language had not developed. The origin of language in the human species has been the topic of scholarly discussions for several centuries. In spite of this, there is no consensus on its ultimate origin or age.

One problem that makes the topic difficult to study is the lack of direct evidence. However, by-and-large, it is a commonly accepted theory that the origins of language are closely tied to, the origins of human behaviour. Yet, there is little agreement about the implications and directionality of this connection.

Today, there are numerous hypotheses about how, why, when, and where language might have first emerged. It might seem that there is hardly more agreement today than there was a hundred years ago, when Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection provoked a rash of unwarranted armchair speculations on the topic.

Since the early 1990s, however, a growing number of academicians: professional linguists, archaeologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and others have attempted to address, with new methods, what they are beginning to consider "the hardest problem in science."

My view is simple: Because the emergence of language is located so far back in human prehistory, the relevant developments have left no direct historical traces; nor can comparable processes be, observed today. However, the one certainty is that if human beings are possessed of a common heritage, evolving out of a common source despite their physical differences such as colour of skin, hair, eyes, and so on; common sense dictates that language be considered no differently, howsoever varied they may have become due to the evolutionary process. Only fools who do not know, or are unable to comprehend the universality in all things, fight over a language.

It is true that people often are, identified by the language they speak; but that cannot denote or determine the superiority or the inferiority of the man who speaks a particular language. An entirely different set of principles are, applied in determining such issues; and that, assuredly, is not the issue here under consideration. Languages evolve and diversify over time, and the history of their evolution can be reconstructed by comparing modern languages to determine which traits their ancestral languages must have had in order for the later stages to have occurred. But the foremost fact remains that languages evolved at a point and place in time, firstly, as a means of communication of thoughts and feelings.

As such, language affords the human beings the ability to communicate anything they can imagine. It is a tool with a common heritage, the purpose of which is for man to be able to express, inform, enquire, communicate, and discuss; and to be cognitive, be poetic, and be creative.

Nevertheless, man in his vanity has turned it into a profane tool, to bicker, pollute, and exhibit his ignorance. There is never a limit to the folly of fools.

A special kind of beauty exists which is born in language, of language, and for language; and as such, those who brawl over the issue of language, not understanding its origin and purpose, are traitors to its common heritage.

In most mammals, under normal circumstances, both hemispheres of the brain look very much alike. Somewhere in humanity's early years, a few people possibly inherited a mutation that left one hemisphere with a limited capacity. The bane of Sri Lanka is that, though such births with muted brains are few in number, all such persons seem to have been, and are being, borne here - especially in recent times.

Unlike biological species, languages change at an astonishing rate. This can be, witnessed even in the modern context.

They borrow, grow, change in meaning; and this has happened from the time language originated.

When language first evolved, perhaps some ancestor had the idea of assigning arbitrary sounds to mean certain things; and clearly, once the idea took hold, one could see that it would catch on like wildfire! In the alternative, perhaps it was, invented by our earliest ancestors; the one who first had whatever genetic and physiological properties needed to make complex sounds and organize them into strings.

Whichever and whatever course it may have taken, our efforts to try to reconstruct earlier forms of language can only go so far before cycles of change obliterate any possibility of reconstruction. Many say we can only go back perhaps 10,000 years before the trail goes cold. So perhaps we will simply never know when, where, and how language evolved; except that we can be certain, all languages have a common heritage despite the evolutionary process it took.

The strength of a person is in his tongue, is an old Arabic saying; and we know of many individuals who advanced in life by the use of their tongue in innovative ways, even though lacking intelligence.

The tongue, of course, is the most remarkable. For men use it both, to taste out sweet wine and bitter poison; thus also do men utter words both sweet and sour with the same tongue.

This being so, in Sri Lanka, there live two people who speak different tongues: Sinhala and Tamil.

Both are ancient and classical languages. Sinhala belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages; whereas Tamil belongs to the South of the Dravidian languages.

It is now well established that the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian language families developed convergent structures in sound system (phonology) and grammar owing to contact going back to the 2nd millennium BCE.

This being so, and in spite of this long history of inter-connections, here is a story that illustrates the folly of fools: Once upon a time, there lived two peoples in one country, at war with each other. In order to make peace after many years of conflict, they decided to build a bridge across a stretch of sea that they called Elephant Pass.

I know not why they called it that. Perhaps the elephants were more intelligent than, the two peoples who inhabited the two areas; and so they passed between the areas fearless and lived as they chose; whereas the people could not do so for lack of trust in each other.

However, because they never learned each other's language properly, they could never agree on the details of the bridge of peace, and so the two halves of the bridge they started to build never met.

To this day, the bridge extends far into the ocean from both sides, and simply ends half way, miles in the wrong direction from the meeting point.

And the two peoples in that one country are still at loggerhead, hearts filled with hatred instead of love.

When minds do not meet due to the barrier of language, peoples draw different implications and engage in suspicion.

Men of present times from both ends have tried to change things around; but far better men than them had sworn to do better, and failed.

Hence I say to all concerned, recognize the common heritage of humanity and their languages. Do so without pretence: charade and deceit, deception and falsehood, sham and trickery; and see how the country blooms.

For views, reviews, encomiums, and brickbats: [email protected]

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