Paradoxically, Culture Is Preserved By Impurity

I seldom speak Bangla around other Bangla speakers.

The reason for this is quite simple. I've been exposed to the Bengali language for more than a decade now. I know far more Bangla than people realize, and more importantly, when I choose to use a word, I know I'm using the right word and pronouncing it accurately enough that a reasonable person should be able to understand despite my accent. Despite this, however, every time I use a Bangla word with a Bengali speaker, they make a big production of saying, "Whaaaaat???"

At first, I thought it was my problem. Perhaps I used the wrong word, or pronounced the correct word very badly. As time went on, though, I realized that I was doing just fine. So, I tried a new approach: when people ask me, "Whaaaaat???" I now say nothing and simply wait. Invariably, without my even so much as hinting at what I had just said, my interlocutors suddenly, magically decide they know what I said.

How can I interpret this? One interpretation is that they're just being hard on me in an effort to get me to improve my Bangla. If so, their approach isn't working; rather than improving my Bangla, I'm simply discouraged from speaking. This brings me to a second interpretation: they don't really want me to speak Bangla.

Whatever the true interpretation might be, the fact of the matter is that Bangladesh is a small country, the greater Bengal region is not all that much bigger, and no one outside of Bengalis themselves speak Bangla. As the world's languages consolidate to only a handful, Bangla is becoming an increasingly irrelevant language on the international stage. When the language goes, so too will important Bengali cultural artifacts like poetry, music, and art; to say nothing of Bengali history and philosophy. Language is the doorway to culture. If that doorway remains tightly shut, outsiders will never be able to experience Bengali culture.

This closed-door approach to language might seem protective from an insider's perspective. Bangladeshis did, after all, fight a literal war to protect their language. I can understand how important the language is from a cultural perspective. Thus, I see why Bangla is a language worth saving from extinction.

The only question is: Is this the right way to save a language?

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English is, for all intents and purposes, the language of the world. Everyone knows English. Where business is to be conducted, it is conducted in English. Where politics is to be done, it is done in English. Peppering one's speech with English words and phrases is very much a status symbol or a power play in many cultures today. All the best music and movies are English-language music and films. How did English, of all languages, become the de facto language of the world?

While I'm sure the British Empire and the 20th Century rise of the United States as an economic power had a hand in this, it's not sufficient to explain the whole story. There must be a better explanation. Well, here's a theory...

Although English does have rules, everyone breaks those rules and nobody cares. For many, breaking the rules of the English language is expressive of their individual cultures. Every part of the English-speaking world has some unintelligible version of English, and for the most part, English speakers don't care. Nobody gets upset at a Southerner speaking like a Southerner. Nobody cares when a Newfie says Newfie things. Nobody bursts a vein upon hearing Caribbeans speak like Caribbeans. For the most part, we English speakers find such regionalisms charming or quaint.

Likewise, when immigrants speak English poorly, nobody really cares. It's true that some people get mad about the fact that some immigrants don't bother to learn English, but nobody gets mad when an immigrant makes a good, solid effort at speaking the language, no matter how poorly they speak it. I just saw an old European lady make conversation with the cashier in the grocery store yesterday. Was she Russian? Hungarian? I don't know. I couldn't hardly make out what she was saying. But, between the two of them, the cashier and the old lady made themselves understood and had a pleasant exchange. This is emblematic of all such exchanges I've ever encountered.

In short, English-speakers cut each other serious slack when it comes to speaking English. Only a real jerk corrects someone else's speech in the middle of talking to them. The rest of us just let things slide.

The impact of this is that it enables new English-speakers to learn the language in the context of safety. They can screw up, because no one bites their head off for screwing up. It's not like France, where people will stop talking to you if you botch your French. In the English-speaking world, people are allowed to make mistakes with the language. It's fine.

This encourages people to learn and practice English.

Does it come at a cost? Yes. The cost is that English isn't a very pure language. We get our vocabulary from virtually every other language on Earth, we add new slang terms to the dictionary every year, most of us have really noticeably bad grammar, and our best cultural output tends to be pop music and pop film, rather than, you know, LITERATURE.

In short, we give up the purity of our language, but what we get is pervasiveness. English is everywhere precisely because we don't invest a lot of energy gatekeeping people about what's allowed in the language. We overlook people's mistakes and we readily allow outside influence into our mother tongue.

Not so with Bangla.

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Interestingly enough, there are aspects of English-speaking culture that are incredibly closed. The two that come most readily to mind are: (1) British aristocracy and (2) American conservative, white, male-centric culture. Is it any surprise that these are the two cultural artifacts of the English-speaking world that are dying off the quickest and most completely in today's world?

Both of these micro-cultures are closed to outsiders. Both fiercely protect their special in-group language. Both have steep barriers to entry. And both are quickly becoming culturally irrelevant.

Now, whether you think this irrelevance is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion, and quite beside the point. The real point is simply that it is no surprise that the most closed aspects of any culture are the ones that eventually disappear from the face of the Earth. If you want to preserve your culture, you have to open it up to outside influence. This definitely means that your culture will change noticeably; and maybe you don't want that. But what's worse -- a culture that changes over time, but lasts forever; or a culture that remains perfectly pristine, but disappears?

Those who wish for their culture to be preserved should take notice of the fact that only by accepting outside influence can a culture persist. Otherwise, it simply disappears. This is natural, isn't it? Those who want to shut outsiders out of the culture must accept that the culture will only appeal to an increasingly small number of people, all the way to oblivion. You may have wanted the outsiders to stay out, but if you don't let them in, there will be nothing left to  preserve.

Funnily enough, the Hutterites learned this lesson very well. Their numbers and gene pools shrunk so drastically that they were forced to recruit outsiders, famously offering them lucrative land deals in order to join the colonies. As far as I know, that practice is still going on. It has to, otherwise Hutterites, too, will disappear.

Cultures only survive if they indiscriminately accept outsiders.

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