In 1999, UNESCO designated 21 February as International Mother Language Day. It’s an opportunity for all of us to acknowledge and celebrate language diversity and to resist the suppression of minority languages.
The Ekushey Book Fair and the Language Martyrs
As emails arrive with invitations to reserve a stall at spring and summer book fairs, I look forward to meeting readers again. It’s always a pleasure to chat about books and an honour when people are willing to take a chance on an unfamiliar author. While I now try to pay it forward by supporting other authors, I’m conscious that at the first book fair I ever attended I didn’t buy a single book.
Almost forty years ago, I was staying with a family in Dhaka at the end of my travels through Nepal, India and Bangladesh. My hosts showed me around the city, finishing in the grounds of the university where we browsed some book stalls. I’m ashamed to admit that I was initially put out that all the books were in Bangla (Bengali), which I can’t read. That changed when I learnt the history of the Ekushey Book Fair and its roots in the struggle for language justice.
When Pakistan was created in 1947, it comprised two geographically, linguistically and culturally separate parts. But the government designated Urdu as the sole official language across both West and East. On 21 February 1952, university students and political activists staged a demonstration in Dhaka (then East Pakistan, now the capital of Bangladesh) in protest at the lack of recognition given to their mother tongue. When tempers flared, police opened fire, killing several students.
Held every February, the book fair – and this haunting melody – commemorates the language martyrs.
International Mother Language Day
Bangladesh is not the only country to have experienced language oppression. Throughout history, the imposition of the colonisers’ language has served as an instrument of social control. Languages can also become extinct through globalisation when the remaining native speakers die. It’s estimated that 30% of the world’s indigenous languages are currently under threat.
With the loss of language we also risk losing some of our collective cognitive flexibility. Basically, we reduce our capacity to adapt to threats to our species if we think and talk with one voice.
Mother Language Day Participation by Authors, Publishers and Readers
Mother Language Day is relevant to everyone, even if we’re limited to reading and writing in a single language. Curiosity about the approximately 6700 languages we don’t speak can inspire fresh ideas in the language we do. Similarly, we can pay attention to the validity of variations within our native tongue. Indian English is not identical to Canadian English, for example.
Even within the same country, dialects differ: I was confused, on moving from North East England to the Midlands, to find the meaning of the word tabs transformed from cigarettes to ears.
1. Don’t privilege the dominant version of a language
Psychological research points to the notion that reading diverse benefits our brains. So I’m always a little uneasy when a magazine accepts one of my short stories for publication but wants to edit it for consistency, because that often means replacing my British English with American. It’s especially odd to see American spellings in a story that’s clearly set in the UK. But I’m privileged relative to authors from BAME backgrounds whose versions of English have been repeatedly undermined.
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 have heralded an increase in commitment to diversity in publishing. Although change is slow, previously marginalised voices writing in non-standard English are becoming more visible, such as Lisa Allen-Agostini’s The Bread the Devil Knead written in Trinidadian Creole.
Inspired Quill, while based in England, publishes international authors in the style of English they write in. So far, that includes authors from Ireland, New Zealand, various states in the US, and mainland Europe (and, previously, Australia).
2. Learn to love dialect
Scribbling stories as a young child, I often wanted to use words I had no idea how to spell. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that these were dialect words that I’d never seen written down.
The judicious use of regional dialect can enrich a fictional setting and/or help bring a character to life. When drafting my latest novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, the story didn’t begin to breathe until I moved it to the area where I grew up. Asked in an interview on BBC Radio Cumbria how my publisher, based in another part of the country, had coped with the smattering of dialect, I was delighted to be able to say that diversity in all its forms is integral to IQ.
3. Relish unfamiliar words
While comprehensibility is the hallmark of good writing, readers don’t crumble if they don’t immediately understand every single word. Sometimes a word or phrase from another language communicates more than it would if translated into English, which is why I won’t apologise for a few snippets of French in my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, and Punjabi in my second novel, Underneath.
The Arabic word, galabeyah, crops up eleven times in Sugar and Snails, but we don’t discover until halfway through its crucial role in the story and why no other word would do.
Inspired Quill has also published books with Spanish dialogue, and smatterings of words from other languages where the authors have decided they’re necessary in the moment.
The Message of Mother Language Day
Included in IQ’s diversity pledge is a commitment to ‘playing a part in ensuring that all readers can find authentic representations of themselves in books, as well as seeing representations of individuals who are different from them’. Language is integral to that representation.
Writers need to be free to tell the stories that matter to us in the words that matter; publishers need to trust that readers will relish those stories if told in an authentic voice.