The Importance of Language and Literature
By Sharan Pawa, Alumnus
Language can be seen as more than just a method of expression. It is a shared language that connects different individuals, while producing a large community with shared ideas. Literature can be viewed as an expression of perspective, and literary traditions develop over time. I believe that both language and literature are major components of cultural preservation.
Embedded in language is cultural perspective. Different languages encapsulate differing world views, and learning a new language means learning how a different way to organize ideas. Areas of linguistic emphasis for a group reflect cultural emphasis. For example, the Inuit people have many words that they can use to refer to snow. Now, if language affects thought process, the categories we build through language do not just reflect our geography, but they can also shape the way people view the world. For example, Hopi, a Uto-Aztecan language, encourages its people to perceive time in cycles use metaphors that suggest persistence and community. However, one cannot express the idea of “two days” using Hopi; speakers of that language must say “one day and another day”. In contrast, time is broken up in the English language, and it is therefore measurable and objectifiable. This kind of grammatical system encourages the use of metaphors with measurability and countability. In other words, differences in culture can cause differences in cultural behavioural patterns.
Marlene Nourbese Philip’s “Discourse on the Logic of Language” is a poem that clearly expresses the significance of language. In the poem, she talks about the cultural politics of language and concentrates on how language influences a community’s perception of itself. “In man the tongue is: the principle organ of oppression and exploitation” is another poem written by Philip that delves into the connection between language and culture. Embedded in language is cultural perspective. Homogenizing forces aim to abolish the native tongue, as it preserves a different set of ideas and perspectives. Our cultural frames are restrictive due to the fact that it is difficult to speak or think in a foreign tongue. When confronted with ideas that do not fit into our frames, we dismiss them or try to make them fit into our own frames. Ideas that contradict our frames don’t seem believable, or even unthinkable. In her poem, Philip expresses the frustration of having been forced into an “English” cultural frame of the world, and it is one that leaves no room for differing perspectives. “Foreign” is a recurring word in Philip’s poem. It represents how languages other than English are dismissed and disempowered. Slave owners are told not to let their slaves speak in their native tongue, because then they wouldn’t be able to foment rebellion. Finally, the end of the poem expresses the notion that the suppression of a foreign language only instigates anguish.
The idea of a “mother tongue” reappears throughout Philip’s poem, presenting the belief that language is accompanied by a sense of cultural belonging. At one point, the image of a mother blowing words of past generations into her baby’s mouth is presented. I believe this emphasizes the idea of cultural identity. Language enables the preservation of identity and community; it is a shared view that holds individuals together, allowing them to live their culture, traditions and history.
Discourse and literature help develop strong language and national identities. Vincent Massey, the lawyer and diplomat who became the Governor General of Canada in 1952, aimed to promote Canadian culture and believed that Canadians should know as much as possible about their own country—its history, its traditions, and its people. Massey believed that this could be done through heavy promotion of the arts. The goal was to achieve a prosperous, distinctly Canadian culture. The Massey Report spells out exactly how this goal can be achieved while also outlining how Canadian culture could protect itself from homogenizing American cultural forces. Although both countries have English as the primary language, the threat of cultural dominance (as expressed in Philip’s work) is echoed here and the need for a unique Canadian cultural perspective that will prosper and strengthen the community is emphasized. Like the preservation of language, the Massey Report presents the idea that the development of language through the arts, such as literature, maintains distinct cultures as well.
Massey saw the fight for Canadian identity as a fight to secure its culture. As a community and a unique nation, Canada could only survive through recognizing and supporting its intellectual, moral, spiritual, and aesthetic cultural life. Massey was concerned with the powerful influence of the American culture and wanted Canada to build its own identity. He believed that through the work in the field of the arts, Canada could develop its own identity and perspective, despite speaking the same language as the U.S.
In Massey’s eyes, education, especially in the liberal arts, became a synonym for culture, and he believed that the liberal arts turned general education into a cultural one. Cultural education determined individual “character”, and it was an attempt to avoid conformity. For Massey, a distinct culture could give Canadians the ability to withstand homogenization. Massey aimed to foster national character and citizenship, and he wanted to “convert individual to national character, to transform personal autonomy into collective sovereignty. The well-roundedness of a liberal arts education became for him the model of a nation.” Massey became convinced of the moral and cultural purpose of the arts in constructing a community. He even helped to imagine the nation and develop the nation’s unique identity. As written in the Massey Report, “Canadian literature has not yet achieved the status of a ‘national literature’. The inarticulate nature of the average Canadian’s patriotism results from the lack of a native literature.”
Interestingly, with regard to language and culture, a barrier to the establishment of unifying national literature was the francophone population, who (obviously) differed in language, culture and perspective from the Anglophone one. In the passage, “The Merits of Diversity,” from On Being Canadian, Massey said: “We have plenty of colour and lights and shades in our make-up. Canada is no monochrome of uniformity.” I believe Massey was talking about the uniqueness of Canada as a national community. What is special about the “Canadian culture” is that is encompasses many different backgrounds and languages. Thus, the expression of Canadian culture through the arts can take on many forms and include a wide range of perspectives, all the while relating everything back to the Canadian vantage point.
As previously mentioned, language is more than simply providing the means of expression; it also helps to form individual consciousness of the world. Likewise, Massey believed that culture has the same power and that it fosters the sacred sense of community. Massey was “concerned essentially with preserving enough freedom of action for Canadians not only to protect a certain corpus of values but to rearticulate them without undue pressure from outside.”
The “mother tongue” helps to form one’s perspective on the world. Because of this, an individual’s language is important in the search for a sense of belonging. Likewise, literature helps to preserve identity and community. The Massey Report, being hugely influential in Canadian history and helping Canada achieve a distinct culture, supports this belief. And it is only by developing a strong cultural identity through literature and the arts that forces of cultural homogenization can be repelled.
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Sherzer, J. “A Discourse-Centered Approach to Language and Culture.” American Anthropologist 89.2 (1987): 295-309.
Sugars, Cynthia, and Laura, F. E. M. Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts. Vol. 2. Toronto: Pearson Longman, 2009.