How much is our language a shaper of our identity? Alternately, how much is our identity
dependent on the language we must speak to communicate in public life or to write for a
wide-spread audience? Within post-colonialism, one continuing source of debate is whether
native authors should use the language of their former colonizers--English, French,
Portuguese, Dutch, or Arabic. Those who reject the use of such languages point to how the
colonizer's tongue was used as a tool for colonial hegemony. Many recall the experience of
having their native language treated as inferior in school, even outlawed for public
discourse. Those who defend the use of non-native languages argue that such languages can
be made to bear the weight of native experience, that they can be adopted, altered and
reworked for local purposes, and that they will reach a larger, more global audience.
Alongside this debate is another debate concerning the validity--both pragmatically
and aesthetically--of native forms of colonial languages, sometimes called creoles,
pidgins, or dialects. Are these, for example, authentically native and, therefore, sources
These issues are somewhat involved with what have
been called "mold" and "cloak" theories of speech.
"Mold" theories propose that what we believe is shaped by the cognitive and
emotional resources of our languages, while "cloak" theories stress that our
thinking is semi-dependent of language, that it could be covered or expressed by any
number of tongues.The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a famous example of a mold theory.
The hypothesis in its weak form argues that language shapes the way we view reality by
giving us patterns that precondition our choices for describing what we experience (e.g.
color schemes, domestic structures, local tools, names for natural phenomena, senses of
direction, or seasons of the year). The hypothesis in its strong form would suggest
our worldviews are determined by our language, and that languages are, for all accounts
and purposes, incommensurable to one another. To be forced to or even to voluntarily adopt
a language other than one's native language is at some level to become a human being of a
different sort. Change the language, and you change your worldview and, thus, your
identity. Even the weak form of Sapir-Whorf would suggest that to use a different language
is to color your world with different shading, even if not to be entirely different or
incommensurable to another.
Interestingly enough, biblical translation organizations like
Wycliffe and Rhema hold a similar understanding; namely, that every person should have the
Christian scriptures in his or her "heart language," that is, their first
language, the one most formative of identity and understanding. Even if the Bible is
already translated into a nearby trade language that a people use for cultural and
economic exchange, biblical translators insist that this is not good enough because such a
secondary language doesn't speak to persons' most intimate concerns. The Bible would speak
as an outsider (perhaps, even as a colonizer). Thus, while a colonizer's language
ironically might be useful as the language of neutrality in trade situations, it finally
cannot express a culture's spiritual and aesthetic being.
Consider the Pinupti word "katarta." Goanna lizards,
native to Australia, upon awakening from hibernation, poke a hole from their plugged
burrows through to the surface. This hole is a katarta. An aboriginal speaker only
needs one word, while an English speaker needs a rather complex sentence. While both
speakers can discuss the concept, the Pinupti speaker can do so more quickly and easily.
Codability, according to Peter Herriot, is "the ease with which a language tag can be
used to distinguish one item from another." The experience is, thus, initially much
more codable for the native speaker. English speakers will either have to adopt the word
or create an English coin-phrase with a close proximity if they wish to discuss the
concept with any ease. Now, multiply this example over a whole language and one can begin
to sense the way language can massage perception.
Add to this the nature of translation itself. George Steiner notes
that every translation undergoes four stages:
- Initiative trust, a belief that there is content to be understood and
- Aggression, a move to comprehend the text in question
- Incorporation, the step by which the text in question is brought over
into the receptor language
- Compensation, the parity that must be obtained in the new language
because one recognizes that something is always lost from the original.
This is why translators debate what kind of translation will best
serve the original text. Should one translate as closely as possible word-for-word;
should one attempt a more dynamic equivalence, ala' thought-for-thought? And how can one
possibly account for anything like the rhythms, the speech patterns, the codability of the
The same kind of question could then be asked of using a secondary
language. What happens in a post-colonial setting where the language in question may not
be the first language of the author? Can a novel written in English, for example, ever do
justice to the Hindi or Yoruba experience? At least five overlapping approaches are taken:
- rejection: the dismissal of the colonizer language either as
too freighted with a non-native worldview and/or as the continued tool of a neo-colonial
ruling elite that is native only in racial background.
- abrogation: the rejection of "standard" forms of
the colonizer's speech for the dialect, creole, or pidgin forms used by native peoples.
Kamau Brathwaite calls this "nation language" and stresses that such forms have
a native, oral rhythm that is distinctively non-colonial.
- mimicry: the resulting appropriation, distortion, even
mockery of the colonizer language by native speakers.
- relexification: the process whereby a colonizer's language
is made to simulate the rhythms or speech patterns of the native language and/or the
post-colonial use of the colonizer language.
- liminality: the process whereby liminal spaces are opened up
between two cultures where exchange may take place. To use a colonial language liminally
is to transform it into a place where hyrbridity of culture and discourse occurs.
Of course, other possibilities include the old colonial one--a full
acceptance of the colonizing language as the bearer of progress and civilization, though
this is understandably not a particularly popular one in post-colonial studies--and a
bilingual or multilingual text that assumes audiences that may only speak one language but
also privileges those that speak both.
In almost all the methods mentioned, there is an assumption that the
use of the colonizer's former language is a socio-political and cultural move that has an
impact on many areas of life. Two biblical passages are of particular interest when
considering the relationship of language, identity, and colonialism. Genesis 11 describes
the judgment upon the imperial project of Babel. As Miroslav Volf notes, "Imperial
architects seek to unify by suppressing differences that do not fit into a single grand
scheme; they strive to make their own name great by erasing the names of simple people and
small nations" (226). The resulting judgement is one of scattering what should not be
forcefully unified. Babel reminds us that God is not a God who obscures diversity.
Acts 2, on the other hand, describes God's blessing on the early church at Pentecost.
Rather than God channeling the gospel through one voice only, the anointing of the Spirit
comes so that each may be understood in his or her own language. Again, Volf:
Whereas the tower seeks to make people "not see" and
"not speak" and sucks the energies out of the margins in order to stabilize and
aggrandize the center, the Spirit pours energies into the margins, opens the eyes of small
people to see what no one has seen before, puts the creative words of prophecy into their
mouths, and empowers them to be creative agents of God's reign. (228).
One principle we can then apply is that of biblical justice: does
the use of a colonizer language lead to Babel or to Pentecost? In this sense, Pentecost
and Babel are two sides of the same notion. God refuses the human attempt to bottle up the
weak and oppressed's voices; instead, he pours out his good news through an array of
tongues. Pentecost also reminds us that God will not let us remain incommensurable in our
native tongues, for we are opened up to each other in the inclusiveness of the gospel.
We should expect creoles, liminality, and relexification. These are all
expressions of the changing nature of things. The separation and binding of creation is
carried out in language. There may be instances when the rejection of the colonizer
language best serves the immediate deconstructing of a political and cultural hegemony,
yet we should beware of situations where separation continues to refuse to bind back
again, becoming a new Babel on a minor scale.
The experience of biblical translators is again instructive at this
point. Biblical translation in practice is a mixture of mold and cloak. Mold, because as
we discussed above, it assumes the importance of the heart language of a people, but also
cloak, because it assumes Steiner's model is not insurmountable. The Bible's essential
power to speak to every people is mediated through even imperfect translations. Moreover,
as the multicultural nature of church and scripture remind us, the gospel is commensurable
with the linguistic identity of every people. No tongue is closed off to the vocabulary of
the gospel, yet each tongue also has resources to further unpack the Bible as well. We are
all working towards a condition of the codability of the kingdom of God in our midst. In a
sense, all biblical translation is a further expression of Pentecost.
Herriot, Peter. Introduction to the
Psychology of Language. London: Routledge, 1976.
Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and
Translation. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.
Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity,
Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.