Today is International Language Revolution Day, a United Nations-sanctioned holiday to commemorate the the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the world. The date chosen stems from the Bengali Language Movement, a political movement in Bangladesh in the 1950s advocating Bengali as the official language of the newly independent state of Pakistan. Pakistan had been culturally divided east and west at its formation in 1947. In 1948, the Pakistani government declared Urdu as the sole state language, despite the fact that Bengali-speaking people in East Pakistan (also known as East Bengal) made up 44 million of the newly formed Pakistan's 69 million people.
The ability of language to not only define a cultural group, but to radically change the socio-economic status of a people was a real fear as an outcome to this decision. "The writer Abul Mansur Ahmed said if Urdu became the state language, the educated society of East Pakistan would become 'illiterate' and 'ineligible' for government positions." On February 21, 1952, a student protest in opposition to the "Urdu-only" policy at the University of Dhaka ended in bloodshed and death. It was not until May 7, 1954, that the government recognized Bengali as an official language of Pakistan. The legacy of the movement has been a tumultuous one: this concession did not placate the tensions that led to the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.
I found myself reading Steven Roger Fischer's A History of Language on Google books this morning. He uses a beautiful metaphor for language as the structure for a culture:
“…language is both the foundation and building material of the social house. Society’s final architecture and subsequent remodeling are also measured from and through language. Language gives all human action voice, achieving this in complex and subtle ways. Multiple levels of social interaction, from international relationships to intimate relationships, are borne, enabled and empowered through language.”
Perhaps it is also fitting that today in 1958, Gerald Holtum designed the peace sign to promote nuclear disarmament. And he based it on a (somewhat) universal visual language that could communicate over large divides: semaphore.