What Words are Worth

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” – Nelson Mandela

“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth” – George Carlin

Far from banging our heads together and sharing views through sporadic ‘ugh’s and ‘ooo’s we explain and analyse with tense, imperatives, emotions and reason. Words and language have allowed us to create, develop and implement ideas leaving an historical legacy of pitfalls and accomplishments. Our brain’s capability to break down information and dissect meanings- hidden and obvious- can not be matched on any technological or biological comparisons. Our language, then, allows us to be defined but, also, defines us.

Definitions of ourselves, others around us and what surrounds us is the key to life, without which we would not only be incapable of evolution but also imagination and inspiration. We would be unable to filter the good ideas from the bad creating- in a dystopian world- a mish-mash of probably brilliant innovations marred with illogical and counter-productive blunders.

In general, language is a good and useful thing. Particularly now where constant and easy interaction mixed with an unheard of exposure to information has encouraged opinion and rhetoric to be heard on an international scale. The incessant wail of news streams are immediately regurgitated in blogs replete with opinion and theory- conspiracy and predictive- and still our great minds are able to sift through the gibberish and accept the logical. We continue to evolve and have reached a mental stage- some argue- far superior to our ancient forefathers.

In Penang, Malaysia, I sit in a taxi with a driver- of Indian ethnicity- and ask how many languages he speaks. As if on queue, his brick shaped radio sitting in the pocket of his side-door bleeps with an incoming message. After the static is cleared a voice screams repetitive directions and timings trying to reserve the nearest taxi for pick-up. It’s in Tamil. A reply comes through; this time in what I recognise as Hokkien mixed with punctuated English. My man replies in Tamil. He starts to slow down ‘Sorry, sir, I need to fill petrol.’ We pull into a Shell pump-station and he asks the attendant to fill up in Malay; a sing-song slang version, ululating uncontrollably.

It did not take long for the question to be answered; I would say, all-in-all, only five minutes of frantic gabbling. ‘Sorry, sir, I speak Tamil, English, Malay and Hokkien. But my Hokkien is not so good.’ And understandably so, I think- any language remotely Chinese must be stereotypically difficult. But, even this rationalism does not quell my embarrassment. Four languages as effortlessly as my pathetic one. Does everybody speak four languages here, I ask. With a slightly patronising smile he replies ‘We are all Malaysian.’

Yes, well, we are all British where I come from but hardly versed in Urdu, Bangladeshi, Hindi, Mandarin, Turkish, Jewish, Arabic not to mention the dialectical sublimations. Despite this, I have many different racial friends from all walks of life. But, considering Mandela’s rather poignant point, I wonder whether my question was answered from the heart.

Does Malaysia benefit or suffer from such diverse linguistic communication? Considering other cultural complications compromising Malaysian life, the diversity is endemic- and sits well with the general drive towards work and play composing an orchestra of hustle and bustle swept along in the tide of desperate business.

However, can it be said that it is being used to ‘conceal the truth’? As I learn, large portions of the population actually do not speak four languages. Some, especially Western educated, young upwardly mobile persons in Malaysia prefer to adopt a more limited view to match my, rather ignorant, own- English is all you need to know in this day and age. Realistically, on average the numbers crunch modestly to two languages spoken by one person.

But there are some aspects of communication in Malaysia which hold a specialist- verging on institutionalised- knowledge. Being an Islamic country, Malaysia’s religious connectedness rides on a language not even taught in most schools from an early age. Arabic verse heard from speakers atop mosques dotted on the island of Penang during the azan (call to prayer) can be translated by those regular worshippers from religious families; to others it takes the form of a musical monologue and no more. The Qu’ran, even, is mastered only by the few dedicated to studying its intricate orthoepy. It, then, becomes somewhat questionable how an interpretative piece of text, such as the Qu’ran, is taught to the mass of followers who are largely unable to read it for themselves and draw their own opinions. Should its personal interpretation by one be extolled as the ‘true’ meaning for others?

Even the national language of Malay holds a side not understood by a large demographic of the population. During a course teaching Malay to Westerners, friends of mine found their progress stunted by their inability to translate local newspapers and T.V. news broadcasts. When questioned in the penultimate class of the course, their teacher persuaded them that they were learning the exact Malay taught in schools… but the news is written and spoken in classic Malay and what is taught is a more informal- dare say it ‘slang’- version. This is not unheard of- Saudis are said to speak the classic, formal version of Arabic in the Middle East and the Egyptians profess they write Arabic in its purest form- but the inability of the population to understand news, in real-time, is relevant in a democratic society trying to extol the virtues of free press and political transparency. If you asked them, my friends would not pretend to have a perfect grasp of the language but the direct implications for the local population is significant.

So even in this high-tech world of fibre optics, constant wireless connection and limitless potential for debate- the most basic of communicative values is lacking in Malaysia by the closed nature of some levels in its society. Despite the obvious natural talent Malaysians seem to grasp over languages words, then, seem to hold a worth that could be seen as being foolishly ignored.

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