Language and colonialism

The history of Europe, together with historiographical documents produced here, has been shaped by colonial interests. These colonial interests are the result of the ideology of imperialism, which assumes the right to settle, exploit the resources and attempt to rule the native inhabitants, mostly to fit Europe’s interests -and then to try and brush the consequences under the carpet by shunning the immigrants-.

map_of_imperialism

It was after the World War II that Britain lost interest in settlement, although the indigenous populations kept on being ruled by a European minority of small colonial elites, once the natives were dispossessed. India and Pakistan gained their independence from western rule in 1947, while the African colonies did in the 1960s. The process of recovering sovereignty and freedom from foreign rule is known as decolonisation, and was prompted to a large extent -in the case of the former British colonies- by the loss of power suffered by Britain after the disastrous WWII. After that, they pursued control without settlement.

The loose cultural and political denomination Commonwealth, which supposedly grouped together a number of countries with a common history of colonialism, and shared -imposed- history and language, is very well described by Shirley Chew: “a paradox sits at the heart of the Commonwealth -described as a free association of equal and mutually cooperating nations, it is drawn together by a shared history of colonial exploitation and dependence.”

african-exploitation

Furthermore, colonisation is perpetuated in the mind of people and in the tissue of society by the idea of the “lower rank” of the colonised, systematically implanted by the coloniser. Once they persuade a generation to internalise their imposed values, these assumptions get easily passed on to the next generation. Thus, language proves to be the most effective of weapons for the never-ending process of colonisation, as “it carries culture, values by which we perceive our place in the world” (Ngugi Wa Thiong’o). It does not passively reflect reality, but it builds its own. We can better see it in Brian Friel’s play “Translations”; in an Irish village there is a school were all the characters in the play share a common space and exchange their views. However, they are not allowed to speak Irish in this school. Some are even convinced that the old language is a barrier to progress, while others just want to learn English in order to flee to the USA. Two English men arrive with a mission; one is an arrogant and distant cartographer, the other, a worker of the toponymic department and an ortographer who seems friendly and is interested in learning the native language. Their mission is to Anglicise the place-names -and also to cunningly “redistribute” the land. The topographical names hide traditional stories which would be utterly lost after the original names are replaced and standardised.

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