The Power of Language

I promised to write a blog post about the 21st of February a while ago and, with the 26th of March (Independence Day) fast approaching, it would be quite easy for me to write a post on patriotism and the Bangladeshi way without feeling too cynical. I am still keeping my promise, though not in the way people might think.

The 21st is an important part of my identity as a Bangladeshi (see the history in italics at the end of this post) because it is about recognising my right to speak. I know I come from a privileged background but I am still from a part of the world that wields little influence and is often of little consequence. Often, the only thing I can do is speak and hope against all hope that someone will listen. Language is a powerful thing and I have seen countless instances of what it can do.

Oration can inspire people to greatness. Try listening to Churchill’s speeches; the conflicts he refers to are long over but the words resonate to this day. Take a look at Nehru’s eulogy to Gandhi and I know you will be moved by its haunting beauty. And if you ever need to see proof of how words can lead to action, listen to the 270-odd words of the Gettysburg Address, Dr. King’s “I have a dream”, Sheikh Mujib’s speech on the struggle for freedom or Dennis Shepard’s heartbreaking testimony at the trial of his son’s murderers. Each and every one of these speeches – and even combined, they are but the tiniest drop in the proverbial ocean – is a testament to what humanity can achieve with just a few words.

This is what language can do and I am still in awe of the struggle that happened in my own country decades ago to protect it. But language can be damaging too. And it is often the daily use of language that causes the most harm. For every rousing speech delivered by a world leader or a revolutionary, there are hundreds of children silenced at school every day by the words of their peers. There have been recent social media campaigns to tackle bullying through speech, such as the campaign to change the connotation of the word “gay” and the appeal to stop calling independent girls “bossy”. These are just two cases of how bullying is not limited to physical confrontations and they deserve more attention.

It is language, again, that causes so much harm when you consider how women in many parts of the world are perceived as the initiators of sexual violence rather than as victims. While I am in no position to speak on their behalf in any way, I think I can say that comments about their clothing or their social position or even just the resigned sighs of “this is a common thing” are reprehensible and need to be tackled.

I grew up experiencing both sides of the power of language. I was bullied a lot at school and the worst thing for me was not any far-fetched threat of violence but the barbs and insults that were hurled at me on an almost daily basis for being different from most people. At home, though, it was a different story; my maternal grandfather, who lived in the same house as us when I was little, was a poet and lifelong advocate for social equality and justice. His words gave me strength and they continue to inspire me even though he is no longer here to speak them.

I know what language can do and, if at the end of this post you think so too, I ask you to use it. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Pay someone a compliment. Give them encouragement. If someone tries to shout you down, shout back. And maybe, just maybe, your words will be heralded as a call for change.

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Brief history of 21st of February: In 1952, Bangladesh (then part of Pakistan) was in the midst of the Language Movement, trying to protect the right to speak Bengali. Urdu had been chosen as the state language despite the fact 52% of the total Pakistani population spoke Bengali. On the 21st of February, a procession of students gathered in defiance of a ban on public meetings at the Dhaka University campus. As the protest began to grow larger, the police opened fire, killing multiple students, and arresting many of the injured.

The movement was galvanised by their sacrifice and picked up even greater momentum, the exact opposite effect intended by the authorities. (Among the many people who reacted to the killings was my grandfather, who wrote the first ever poem about the events and who, I am fortunate to say, is remembered as a key figure of the Language Movement to this day.) A few years later, Bengali was recognised as an official language of Pakistan.

The Language Movement also ultimately led to greater calls for autonomy and our independence in 1971. The national importance of the 21st of February cannot be stressed enough and we still commemorate it as Martyrs’ Day in Bangladesh, to pay tribute to the brave souls who gave their lives for our right to speak in our native language. Since 1999, UNESCO also commemorates it as International Mother Language Day.

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