Poetry in a Thousand Tongues! International Mother Language Day

It is International Mother Tongue Day, today, the 21st of February. It’s an important day to celebrate because imperial monopolies of language (English, Spanish, Portuguese, French) have erased so many forms of communication and Indigenous and languages. Only this month, the Mexican government recognized 68 Indigenous languages as national languages alongside Spanish. This took over 500 years, to return official status to languages that existed at the time of Spanish Conquest. In East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, language was one of the key issues in the bloody war between Pakistan (then West Pakistan) and the territory now known as Bangladesh in 1971, fifty years ago. In Canada, French and English have battled for official language status with franco-separatists resorting to desperate measures in Quebec, to protect their French language from what they see as English encroachment. Canada’s invocation of martial law, the War Measures Act, was applied against French language separatists, the FLQ, also in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the country committed torture against children through the Residential Schools designed to eradicate the speaking of native langugaes among Indigenous peoples and churn out domestic labour for settler colonialists. Sri Lanka saw a brutal conflict dispossessing thousands and terrorizing the island for many years, over Sinhala and Tamil identities and languages, among other issues.

It’s also important to celebrate that language is a living thing, one we all construct and participate in daily. So I think it’s essential to also celebrate languages that have been assigned inferior status or “Dialect” status because of colonial and politico-economic imperatives. So I include here a tribute to Jamaican patois, though I prefer the term “nation language” coined by Barbadian academic and writer, Edward Kamau Braithwaite. And finally, while New Zealand is far from being a land of full equality for the Maori people, the adoption of Maori language classes and the popularity of the Haka, demonstrate that mother tongue and artistic creation are important components in struggles for language, which often also imply struggles for equality and social and economic justice. There are thousands of language I’ve left out here, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. According to the UN, of the 7000 languages spoken today in the world, at least half will be lost by the end of this century. But I hope this post will help us all reflect on the importance of mother tongue in an increasingly globalized world.

Dutty Tough, Louise Bennet Coverly, Jamaica, aka Miss Lou

Sun a shine but tings no bright; 
Doah pot a bwile, bickle no nuff; 
River flood but water scarce, yawl 
Rain a fall but dutty tough.
Tings so bad dat nowadays when 
Yuh ask smaddy how dem do 
Dem fraid yuh tek tell dem back, 
So dem no answer yuh. 

No care omuch we da work fa 
Hard-time still een wi shut; 
We dah fight, Hard-time a beat we, 
Dem might raise wi wages, but 

One poun gawn awn pon we pay, an 
We no feel no merriment 
For ten poun gawn pon wi food 
An ten pound pon we rent! 

Saltfish gawn up, mackerel gawn up. 
Pork en beef gawn up, 
An when rice and butter ready 
Dem jus go pon holiday! 

Claht, boot, pin an needle gawn up 
Ice, bread, taxes, water-rate 
Kersine ile, gasolene, gawn up; 
An de poun devaluate 

De price of bread gone up so high 
Dat we haffi agree 
Fi cut we yeye pon bred an all 
Turn dumplin refugee 

An all dem marga smaddy weh 
Dah gwan like fat is sin 
All dem-deh weh dah fas wid me 
Ah lef dem to dumpling! 

Sun a shine an pot a bwile, but 
Things no bright, bickle no nuff 
Rain a fall, river dah flood, but, 
Water scarce an dutty tough. Louise Simone Bennett Coverly


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