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In praise of mother tongues


© Olivier & Pascale Noaillon Jaquet Suivre

A people's immortality lies in its language.The language of every people is a general human value. Every language is a creation of human genius. We should not hold any language in disdain, no matter to what people it belongs, no matter what development it has attained. The mother tongue is like a mother to whom one owes a debt of gratitude, just as one owes such a debt to one's people, by whom one has been given life and the greatest gift of all ‒ language. At the same time it is impossible to develop a national culture without drawing actively on the achievements of other cultures. This is what Chinghis Aitmatov wrote in his article "Kyrgyzstan, the land behind the clouds", published in the October 1972 issue of the UNESCO Courier. Ten years later, in this issue devoted to the peoples and cultures of the world, he develops in greater depth the dangers facing minority languages, but also the threats posed by withdrawal and cultural isolation. 

Chinghis Aitmatov

A striking feature of Daghestan is the great number of languages to be found there. With typical humour, the Soviet poet Rasul Gamzatov, himself a native of this mountainous country in the north-east Caucasus, explains why. When the Creator was distributing languages, a snowstorm was blowing in Daghestan; in a hurry to be on his way, he emptied a whole sackful over its people!

It is certainly true that until comparatively recently, the inhabitants of Daghestan, who all shared much the same way of life in neighbouring valleys, were separated by linguistic differences so great that they might have been living on different continents. Every aul, or village, had its own local tongue; none in any way resembled the others.

But no alphabet in the world offered characters that could be used to transcribe all the languages of Daghestan. And when, at the beginning of the Soviet period, attempts were made to adapt the Russian alphabet for this purpose, ¡t proved necessary to add new characters and combinations of characters to transform speech into writing.

Today, the people of Daghestan, numbering some two million, speak altogether more than thirty different languages; newspapers and literary periodicals appear in five of them; seven may be heard on the stage of the national theatres; and books are published in nine. The country's poets write not only in the Avar language which, although the Avarians themselves number no more than 400,000, is the most widespread tongue, but also in the language of the Tats, of whom there are only 15,000, and even in a language spoken by only 2,000 people.

Unless one is directly involved, the problems of the so-called "minority peoples", who may be found in many different corners of the world, may well appear to be of little consequence. But the preoccupations of the tiniest community can in fact be as serious, as important and even as alarming to its members as the collective concerns of multi-million populations.

This is especially true when it comes to cultural survival, and more particularly the survival of language, since a people without a tongue of its own is a people whose selfesteem is undermined. Language is not only the keystone of a nation's culture; it is also the means by which that culture can develop.

The language of any people is a unique phenomenon, a product of its own brand of creativity; the loss of a people's language is the loss of its life-blood. To preserve those which have survived is a duty, for they form part of the heritage of all mankind.

The world lives in an environment of language, and the linguistic ecosphere is as complex and fragile as the natural one. Pragmatism may be a useful attitude to adopt when dealing with machines, but this is not the case where nature and culture are concerned.

It is true, nonetheless, that "major" languages tend to displace or absorb those which are only spoken by a few. However ardently it may be expressed, any argument in favour of integration which implies a loss of national values or of cultural identity must be received with caution, because it distorts the issue. To unite profitably, peoples and cultures must be in some way different from each other, in some way dissimilar. The absence of originality makes mutual enrichment impossible; indeed it removes the need to unite.

I am deeply convinced that there exists a real possibility of conserving existing minority languages and creating the conditions for their active participation in new patterns of spiritual and material existence, as well as an atmosphere in which they themselves can develop either through their own inner evolution or through the direct and indirect influence and example of cultures conveyed by other languages. The experience of my own country, Kirghizia, confirms this conviction, as does that of the hundred and more nations, peoples and ethnic groups which exactly sixty years ago freely decided to join in a single State, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

At that already distant time, the countries which lay on the fringe of the former Russian Empire were faced with a choice. Were they to opt for a single, highly-developed language, i.e. Russian, or to decide on coexistence, i.e. the use of Russian as a major language, but with the parallel development of their own national tongues?

The easiest and most obvious solution would have been for them to adopt Russian and, setting concern with their national cultures aside, to begin building the future on the solid literary and scientific foundations which that language offered.

Such a simple choice must have been tempting. But did it not imply the atrophy of their own cultures? Would it not inhibit the development of those cultures in accordance with the spirit of the times? And last but not least, would not such a choice run counter to the process of creating infinite complexity and variety which is a welcome characteristic of human history? In mankind's storehouse of culture, who would be bold enough to say, "this must be kept at all costs, but this can be cast aside"?

The matter was one which required thought, and the careful weighing of pros and cons. And if the choice of a language obviously depends on there being alternatives to choose from, a question of civic duty is also involved: the duty of the individual towards his people the source not only of his existence but also of his most precious possession, his language.

A mother tongue is, in its turn, a source of ceaseless wonder. The language which we hear and learn in childhood is the only one which is capable of carrying into our hearts and minds the poetry of our people's existence and experience, of igniting in us the first flame of national pride and of conveying to us the sheer, aesthetic pleasure of words honed and polished by our ancestors.

At the same time, it should be pointed out and my own experience confirms this that a child is capable of acquiring equal mastery of two languages, and possibly even more, provided that they are presented in an identical manner from the very beginning. In my own case Russian is no less a mother tongue than Kirghiz; I grew up with both, and both will remain with me for the rest of my days.

In the early days of the USSR, it became clear that the cultural development of the family of nations which comprised the Soviet Union could not take place without reference to cultures which were already more advanced. After all, more than a third of those nations had no printed literature of their own. And this is why the second of the options mentioned above was preferred. The challenge was greater, but so was the prize.

One of the results is that when we speak today of "Soviet literature", we are in reality speaking of more than eighty different national literatures. The adoption of the principle that wherever more than one language is used for ethnic reasons or for administrative purposes, those languages shall be accorded equal treatment, has fully justified itself.

Let me say a word here about the role of the Russian language which has made it possible, for the first time in history, to establish creative links between peoples who, not so long ago, were unaware of each other's existence; between peoples who were on significantly different rungs on the ladder of civilization; whose cultural and social histories, like their customs and traditions, had little in common; whose languages were mutually incomprehensible.

If Russian has become the language of communication between the many peoples of the USSR, the language of the new civilization and of cultural co-operation, this is firstly because it is the language of the most numerous nation in the Union, and secondly, because it has adapted and enriched itself through contact with all the other languages. Thus, it has become the second language of non-Russian peoples in all the national republics and administrative regions of the USSR; eighty-two per cent of the entire population speak it fluently.

It is now possible to say that for the first time in the history of mankind, a single State has created a multilingual culture, drawing on all that is best in the cultures of its majority and minority nations alike and at the same time conserving their specific national characteristics, manner of thinking and ways of life.

It is a culture which is simultaneously universal, internationalist and kaleidoscopically national. Its internationalism does not imply, as has been mistakenly claimed, the replacement of national cultures by a uniform stereotype, but rather the comprehensive development of all the different national cultures and languages within the context of a single social ideal.

We may contrast this process with the levelling and the erosion of national values which are still to be found, alas, in other parts of the world and which give rise to natural concern for the future of world culture. There is, I believe, an important humanist and moral lesson to be drawn from the fact that the integration of the cultures of the socialist peoples leads neither to a loss of identity nor to the disappearance of differences, but rather to their mutual enrichment and further growth. Indeed, it permits the disclosure of the potential of the peoples concerned, of the untapped resources which each nation possesses as a result of the spiritual and historical experience acquired throughout its long existence.

Needless to say, the process has not been a simple one. Our experience has been acquired at the price of enormous and sometimes agonizing efforts; the quest for new patterns of creative thought, and for a dialectical theory of existence, has involved a tireless journey along hitherto unmapped paths; we have had to overcome many obstacles remaining from the past, and to endure considerable growing pains.

The development of a huge multinational State like the USSR has inevitably been accompanied by the successive emergence of new processes and problems where the relations between nations are concerned. Suffice it to say in this connexion that recent years have seen a significant increase, in many of the Soviet Republics, in the number of non-indigenous citizens, who have specific claims to make where questions of language, culture and life-style are concerned.

At the same time, the frontiers of national life-styles are . constantly expanding. Moreover, the conditions of everyday life are changing so rapidly that it sometimes

happens that what were long considered to be specifically national concerns disappear from their original, limited context only to re-emerge as cultural obstructions to general progress.

When we speak of the national particularities which distinguish us from each other, we do not always take account of the many features which draw us together: our common destiny, our common background and our common age. The world we live in, the way we live now and, above all, the way we think: surely this is what should be set against our differences?

Where the Soviet peoples are concerned, the greatest changes have occurred in their attitudes, psychology and behaviour. To whatever national entity we belong, there are now many circumstances in our lives in which our attitudes, assessments, judgements and standards are the same; and this can only be beneficial to our national cultures. Provided, of course, that this new raison d'être can find expression in our own languages, it is to be welcomed as a means of extending and enriching our own cultures and of broadening their horizons.

And this is indeed what is happening. As we explore more and more thoroughly the features of what we call "national character", as we learn to look at modern life through modern eyes, the notion of nationality itself takes on a contemporary colouring.

But what would happen if we did the opposite, if we withdrew like hermits into our own shells? The effect would surely be to reduce our culture to a mere shadow of itself, to a pseudo-culture which, at best, would give only a one-sided picture of our national character.

To shut oneself off from intercourse with other cultures, especially if the latter are at a more advanced stage of development, is to deprive oneself of the means of one's own development. Reduced to an end in itself, "originality" can only lead to isolation, to national narrow-mindedness; it can only obstruct the passage of national values beyond national boundaries.

It goes without saying that cultural exchange leads to cultural change. Interaction between national cultures involves mutual enrichment and emancipation from influences which have outlived their time. For some strange reason, the term "national culture" is almost always pronounced with, so to speak, a backward glance over our shoulder in the direction of the past, whereas creative thought has at all times been a reflection of the current spiritual state of the society in question. The originality of a nation is not merely to be found in the sum total of the characteristics inherited during its history, in what has survived and withstood the passage of time; it is also to be found here and now, in the product of its contemporary activities and concerns.

If I have dwelt at such length on this matter, it is because the question of national cultures has become in recent years the subject of worldwide controversy. The individual characteristics of a nation are what makes its culture a unique phenomenon. Close contact with one's native land, with one's people and with the most vital problems of their daily life constitutes the very life-blood of a nation's culture; at the same time, it helps to extend the horizons of that culture beyond national boundaries, because, in so many ways, all peoples' perceptions of the world are the same. This is why, where culture is concerned, "national" and "international" should never be set in opposition to one another.

Of course, it is not surprising that in certain intellectual circles, in Asia or in Africa, for example, there exists a sentiment of prejudice against Eurocentrism, against the European way of thought and the European civilization which they associate with colonial domination and the belittlement of their own national values. Nevertheless, progressive African and Asian intellectuals have long been engaged in the effort to use the European experience for the enrichment of their own national cultures, seeing that experience as part of the universal heritage of mankind.

I agree with the observation by the Bengali critic Sarvar Murshid that every culture must now decide whether to see itself as an integral part of world culture as a whole, or as a "great" culture, if only within its own four walls. As I have already remarked, excessive self-importance leads to isolation and, eventually, to dogmatism. It is quite understandable, however, why this question is a particularly painful one for Asia and Africa to resolve: the real threat of ethnocide has only recently begun to diminish.

Today, the many people of those two enormous continents have to decide on the means to be employed in resolving the issue of not only their political and social, but also their cultural development. The attainment of political independence poses with considerable urgency the question of creating appropriate new forms of economic and cultural existence, without which independence itself will prove to have been a sterile gain.

"East is East, and West is West..." said Kipling. But this was poetic licence; history and culture alike disprove his claim that "never the twain shall meet". Recent decades have seen social upheavals on a scale matched only in biology and geology, and within an incredibly shorter time span. The developing countries are still at a stage when cultural progress will depend above all on success in their efforts to achieve social development and to resolve their social problems.

Thoughts, things and images, as well as individual destinies and collective histories, already formed a motley crowd on the highways of existence when the peoples of the world lived hidden away in isolation from each other. Today, whether the struggle to preserve it intact is conducted in political or cultural terms, the world is indivisible. International cultural and scientific collaboration may be seen as part of the effort to remove tensions between peoples an effort in which our own share is second to none.

A new historical period has dawned, and the first step along the new road has been accomplished. The peoples of the world have shown that they are capable of setting aside the differences between States, societies and nations in the attempt to find a common approach to the problems of all mankind, and, most important of all, the issue of peace and war.

We are united in our awareness of collective responsibility for the fate of human culture and of civilization in its entirety, and for the moral climate of our planet. Does this not entitle us to proclaim boldly that now is the moment to choose the directions in which mankind is to develop? Our responsibility in this matter is all the more enormous, in that we cannot leave the decisions for tomorrow. For tomorrow itself to arrive will depend in no small measure on what we can achieve today.


Chingiz Aïtmatov

One of the best known figures in Kyrgyzstan's literature, Chingiz Aïtmatov enjoys great popularity in the USSR and in his native Kyrgyzstan. He was awarded the Lenin Prize (1963) and the State Prize (1968). His work has been translated into nearly sixty languages.