The Phenomenology of Trilingualism in Punjab

by Mirza Athar Baig

The meeting starts with all too familiar notes of welcome in English by the chair, the agenda is presented, discussion begins, grave matters are analyzed and considered opinions are put forward only to be countered by different opinions. Workable solutions are sought, proposals are given, suggestions are submitted, either to be partially accepted or totally rejected, but all in English and above all in English.
A series of incomprehensible administrative and inter-subjective rigidity starts prevailing in the meeting and then as if involuntarily a stray remark in Urdu slips through the mouth of the chair. Picking up the lingual clue instantaneously, one of the worthy members, hitherto rather incommunicative, hurls his barrage of opinions, analyses and arguments. Another member follows suit, and very soon it is an all out Urdu in the meeting. Strangely enough, the body language of the worthy members is changed too, and even more strangely, hitherto unknown, almost hidden aspects of the agenda items start dawning upon the participants.
They are on the threshold of making important decisions, but lunch time arrives, and they rise for some suitable food for body, now that they have enough food for thought, but thought processes inevitably continue, but now in Punjabi. There are vehemently conspiratorial conversations going on among the groups of twos and threes, with derisive remarks about fellow members being shared and avidly relished. The wisdom of the agenda items is being questioned in highly impertinent Punjabi idiom. Opinions are again being consolidated, arguments chiseled, analyses wrought, only to be presented once again in Urdu, in the post lunch session, for the express purpose of being finalized, documented and drafted, and of course in English.

A professor of Punjabi language and literature counsels his son, a tenth grade student, in carefully worded Urdu, about the absolute importance of English as an international language of higher learning, and indispensable for any academic progress in the fields of science and engineering. He further advises his son in Urdu, never to use Urdu in his new English medium school, where use of any other language except English is banned as a matter of policy. After this paternal, worldly wise exercise in pedagogy, the professor gives a call to a colleague and discusses the prospects of the forthcoming conference on lamentable state of Punjabi language in Punjab, in the perspective of Punjab and the Raj. They share heart rending episodes reflecting upon the criminal neglect of the state education and cultural policy makers which are systematically pushing Punjabi and the concomitant Punjabi culture to extinction. ‘Just imagine’, he says in a hoarse voice, ‘the crying shame of it. It is not permissible to talk in Punjabi in Punjab Assembly’.

A maid servant belonging to a Punjabi village insists on talking to her upper class urban mistress in Urdu, not because of any service requirement, but for the thrill of it. Trying her tongue at Urdu, vaguely transforms her sense of being, a fleeting kick may be, but elevating still. The matron too, encourages the lingual perversity of her maid. The utterly Punjabi words of the village girl, solemnly interspersed in otherwise identifiable Urdu, create an effect so droll, that the Bibi sahib laughs and laughs. What a piece of good luck indeed, having a servant hard working and so terribly funny too.

These are just a few glimpses from the socio-lingual cultural scenario of the present day Punjabi existence. Phenomenologically speaking, the tri-lingualism, or multilingualism if you like, inherent here in the typical life world of a Punjabi, is a far cry from  other varieties  of multilingualism identifiable at the global level, for instance the bilingualism of the Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean speaking immigrants to English speaking America, not only because the Punjabis are no immigrants in Punjab, but because the inter-lingual and intra- lingual modes of their cultural existence are far more complex, than for instance, those of a Spanish speaking Mexican in California, because whereas the lingual predicaments of the latter may be understandable through the application of the ‘culture affiliation hypothesis’, or the minority group-affiliation hypothesis, proposed by the cross cultural psychologist, the tri-lingual mess of the Punjabis requires for more varied conceptual tools for its proper comprehension.
One such tool, or tool kit rather is of course that of post-colonial theory, where it is almost a matter of universal agreement that languages of the colonizer and that of the colonized come to be diversely influenced by a traumatized and ambivalent process of reciprocal dissemination through colonial encounter. That something in the same category can be identified as one of the major factors of historical causality underlying the present day Punjabi tri-lingualism, is perhaps a fairly well established fact. Post colonial literary writers, from their own perspective of literary creativity, have adopted different working policies while dealing with the question of employing native and colonial languages as a medium of literary expression. Ngugi Wa Thiongo, the Kenyan writer for example, adopting a policy of total abrogation, stopped writing in English the language of the colonial heritage, and started writing in his native Gikuyu language, as he writes in his book “Decolonising the mind” (1956).
Salman Rushdie, another postcolonial writer in the essay “Imaginary Homeland”, however, assumes a posture more of appropriation using another piece of postcolonial jargon, and is in favor of working in new Englishes so that they could become therapeutic acts of resistance, and could lead to a remaking of a colonial language capable of reflecting the complexity of our postcolonial experience.
These postcolonial insights regarding the role of English in postcolonial literary situations, and others to, as the issue has been so extensively explored in post colonial writings, do explicate to some extent the contemporary trilingual scenario of Punjab, but they fall short of explaining a far more fundamental question at least from the vantage point of philosophy and cross cultural cognitive psychology. And this is a question which is related to the impact of a trilingual confusion as it can be gleaned from the phenomenological anecdotal accounts given at the beginning of this account, on the cognitive profile of the Punjabi mind. Simply speaking, one would like to ask, does this sociolinguistic cultural condition affect in any way the cognitive faculties of the Punjabi subjects.
At this stage it would be perhaps more interesting to place the issue in the wider perspective of cross-cultural psychology of language. David Matsumoto, a well known scholar in this field after critically analyzing a lot of research conducted on the relation between lexicon, syntax and grammar, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics, of different languages and the cognitive peculiarities of their native speakers, remarks:
“These observations make it clear, that the people of different cultures, structure the world around them differently, at least in the language they use to describe the world”.
Matsumoto’s remarks are in line with the famous and rather controversial hypothesis, the so called Sapir Whorf hypothesis, named after the pioneering teacher and student pair of American anthropologists. Their position on the issue is not only based on extensive empirical evidence but is philosophically profound too. As Edward Sapir puts:
“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activities as ordinarily understood, but very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society”. Edward Sapir (The status of linguistics as a science).

The same position is further fortified with far more deeper implications by Benjamin Lee Whorf:
“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significance as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.’ (Language, Thoughts and Reality pp. 212-214)
Controversy revolving around the empirical validity of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been fairly wide ranging, due to its far-reaching implications. Since the initiation of the hypothesis in 1930’s, many a piece of research work has been published, for and against it. It would be obviously beyond the scope of this piece of writing to attempt even at a summary of the intellectual legacy, but it would be relevant to refer to Matsumoto’s assessment of present bottom line position of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In his opinion the support for Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is weaker in the area of lexical difference between languages, but in his words
‘A less studied area that of syntactic and grammatical differences between languages provides strong evidence for the claim that languages influence cognition. Perhaps even stronger evidence will be found in future studies of how the pragmatic systems of different languages influence speakers’ thought processes’.
It is this feature of language called pragmatics, referring ‘to the system of rules governing how language is used and understood in given social contexts’, which is most relevant for understanding the conceptual exigencies of the issue at hand, the trilingual ambience of the present day Punjab. When applied, it generates a question about a historic-cultural specificity. What is the system of rules which governs the use of Punjabi, Urdu and English and how it is to be understood in the social context of Punjab. In other words can Sapir-Whorf hypothesis shed some light on this issue? The answer, obviously could hardly be settled through mere speculation, but would involve a lot of rigorous research with well defined methodology, something which perhaps has never been attempted. A battery of tests will have to be devised to evaluate the performance of the members of different subclasses of Punjabis, and to determine how far their faculties of thinking, conceptualization, problem solving, inductive reasoning, creativity, innovative thinking, and may be philosophizing come to be affected by the hidden and sometime not all too hidden determinants of their trilingual cultural hybrid. Till that wishfully anticipated occasion it would be advantageous for our present concerns to try to benefit a bit more from some research, conducted on similar lines that is on the bilingualism of the immigrants especially in the US.
Testing of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on the bilingual communities of immigrants has resulted in findings, startling enough, but in line with the findings of the research focusing on comparison of monolingual communities. The situations though are different, compassion of the cognitive performance of two persons belonging to two different monolingual cultures on the one hand, and comparison of the cognitive performance of the same person, once while attempting the test in his native language, and then at an other time in English. The results however indicated, that bilinguals, behaved as if as different persons, with different systems of evaluation of the self and the other, different aesthetic and cultural values, when speaking in their native, Chinese, Korean, or Spanish, and differently when speaking in English. So, can we hazard a generalization and that we Punjabis too, assume three different personalities, when switching, from Punjabi, to Urdu to English.  Perhaps such a conclusion would be too outrageous to be accepted with impunity, after all there is a thing called the unity of the self. Moreover immigrant bilingualism and Punjabi tri-lingualism  have a marked difference, whereas the former is intercultural, the latter is intra-cultural and by dint of being that it is not narrowly goal oriented  but is a pervasive hybrid condition of existence, dictated by the complex forces of domination, with their concomitant strategies of exclusion and inclusion.
The oscillating lingual selves of Punjabis, originating through the three languages, traumatized as they are by the forces of domination with their foundation in the colonial processes and their perpetuation through their latter comprador forms, very often fail to integrate with the epistemic and ontological potentials of any of the three languages. The result is a sterile culture self closed to the unique creative possibilities imminent in each of the multiple lingual life worlds. Languages as Heidegger would say is relegated to mere idle talk and hypocrisy, or is narrowed down to mere computational assertion and predicating. What remains ultimately, is a tri-partite intra-cultural but inter-lingual nexus of forces engaged in converting the cognitive processes of a society and their heuristic, educational and pedagogic ramifications into vicious games of transmuting persons into lingual ‘marginalizers’ and marginalized. Ironically, multilingualism very often deemed to be intellectually stimulating, when comes to be blighted by the forces of domination and cultural conclusion as is the case in present day Punjab, becomes intellectually and creatively vitiating, because it severs the organic relation between the word and the world, and degrades cultural differences into cultural deficits.

3 replies to “The Phenomenology of Trilingualism in Punjab

  1. gentlemen,i just read one of your topics “sufiism” Ahmed Rafique Akhtar is a very nice guy.I really got very much impressed by his arguments,plz send his whereabouts at my email address,It is a great pleasure for me to visit you.Thanks

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