Chapter XXVIII PART III
Diversity in Oneness
Language as an unique instrument of group-individuality
The case of the United States of America
It is imperative that in the grand orchestra of human collectivities, the universal harmony has to be constructed from the unique contributions of individual group-souls. A global human unity that surpasses all variations in humanity has to be construed in terms of a cultural commonality. A particular group can only enrich the whole if it has an unique culture. The commonest expression of any culture is through its language and an enriched language therefore counts to the lofty cause of human unity.
It therefore logically follows that a particular group that may be very powerful in military strength and financial reserves may be not have a cultural advantage if it does not have an unique language or thrives on a borrowed language for historical reasons. The classic example is the case of the United States of America. Writing at the fag end of 1917, Sri Aurobindo commented:
‘How much a distinct human group loses by not possessing a separate tongue of its own or by exchanging its natural self-expression for an alien form of speech, can be seen by the examples of…the United States of America and Ireland…
‘The life of the United States alone tends and strives to become a great and separate cultural existence, but its success is not commensurate with its power. Culturally, it is still to a great extent a province of England. Neither its literature, in spite of two or three great names, nor its art nor its thought, nor anything else on the higher levels of the mind, has been able to arrive at a vigorous maturity independent in its soul-type. And this because its instruments of self-expression,the language which the national mind ought to shape and be in turn shaped by it, was formed and must continue to be formed by another country with a different mentality and must there find its centre and its law of development’. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.517)
Today, in the 21st century, the United States of America does not yet have an official language though English is the defacto language for all practical purpose in the country. Perhaps the founding fathers of USA did not want to disturb the multi-lingual milieu of the country and did not want to upset the Native Americans. Of course, such concerns, if any, were not a deterrent at one time to forbid enslaved Africans to use their native languages or in punishing Native Americans in boarding schools for speaking their own language. As of today, ‘American English’ arises from a linguistic continuum of dialects and does not represent a mainstream accent.
Sri Aurobindo muses how medieval European nations derived their own linguistic identities from Latin in consonance with their own needs to evolve characteristic instruments of self-expression but under modern conditions, American culture could not obtain that advantage from English. (Ibid, pg.517) On the contrary, ‘the whole of America, in spite of its powerfully independent political and economic being, has tended to be culturally a province of Europe, the south and centre by their dependence on the Spanish, and the north by its dependence on the English language’. (Ibid, pg.516) Yet, instead of creating a modified provincialism, it would be more important to evolve a ‘central intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual life’ (Ibid) of each unique group formation.
The case of Ireland
Sri Aurobindo felt anguished that the orchestrated loss of the Irish language (Gaelic) has been not only a loss to Ireland but to the whole of humanity. Ostensibly, this loss was perpetrated by the Anglo-British administration, the Catholic Church (the Protestant Church later made minor efforts for revival of Irish) and other factors like immigration to USA and Canada. He wrote:
‘But the forcible imposition of a foreign tongue and the turning of a nation into a province left Ireland for so many centuries mute and culturally stagnant, a dead force in the life of Europe. Nor can we count as an adequate compensation for this loss the small indirect influence of the race upon English culture or the few direct contributions made by gifted Irishmen forced to pour their natural genius into a foreign mould of thought. Even when Ireland in her struggle for freedom was striving to recover her free soul and give it a voice, she has been hampered by having to use a tongue which does not naturally express her spirit and peculiar bent. In time she may conquer the obstacle, make this tongue her own, force it to express her, but it will be long, if ever, before she can do it with the same richness, force and unfettered individuality as she would have done in her Gaelic speech. That speech she had tied to recover but the natural obstacles have been and are likely always to be too heavy and too strongly established for any complete success in her endeavour’. (Ibid, pg.517)
How true! Though Irish has the constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland, the 2016 census data showed that only 1,761,420 subjects responded that they were able to speak Irish.
The case of India
During the time when European nations thrived on colonization, the colonies were sought to me made their cultural replicas despite the fact that the colonies were ‘really separate peoples in the psychological sense’. (Ibid, pg.516) India was no exception. Writing in 1917 when India was under British rule, Sri Aurobindo remarked : ‘Nothing has stood the way of the rapid progress in India, nothing has more successfully prevented her self-finding and development under modern conditions than the long overshadowing of the Indian tongues as cultural instruments by the English language’. However, he also noted that one sub-nation in India rebelled against this imposition to develop its own language, ‘made that for long its principal preoccupation, gave to it its most original minds and most living energies, getting through everything else perfunctorily, neglecting commerce, doing politics as an intellectual and oratorical pastime, -- that is Bengal which first recovered its soul, respiritualised itself, forced the whole world to hear of its great spiritual personalities, gave it the first modern Indian poet and Indian scientist of world-wide fame and achievement, restored the moribund art of India to life and power, first, as a reward in the outer life, arrived at a vital political consciousness and a living political movement not imitative and derivative in its spirit and in its central ideal’. (Ibid, pg.517-518)
In a footnote added in 1949-50, Sri Aurobindo quipped that the situation had changed and these remarks were ‘no longer applicable to the actual sate of things in India’. (Ibid, pg, 518) True, India had become independent and was no longer obliged to England. Yet, was the changed scenario also indicative of a stage of devaluation that follows every mighty creative upsurge!
Date of Update: 13-Aug-18
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu