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Diaspora and the loss of language

(This was originally posted at Womanist Musings. Reprinting here for archival purposes.)

I feel like many of my posts at Womanist Musings have been about language. Particularly as it applies to trans issues... Although, I would like to spend a moment talking about language a little more generally since the limitations of english (and language in general) has been troubling me.

For those of us PoC born in an English speaking country, or in some other country where you end up speaking the colonizer’s language as your first (and, especially in NA, only) language. And the article (find link) noting that many trans* people dislike the terms or language available to those of us who speak english makes me think…

I do (poorly) speak a language that isn’t English, but I rarely get the chance to use it. Moreover, I only started learning (Mandarin) Chinese (in part) because Tagalog was unavailable to me (they don’t really teach it any where in NA other than the University of Hawaii). And I would still love the opportunity to learn it. Except, at this late juncture the thought of learning another language exhausts me and I’m not sure that I would have either the time or the energy to do so.

More importantly, while I’m not a believer in linguistic determinism (i.e., the notion that language determines thought/reality), language is an important repository of culture. Indeed, it is important enough that it was one of the (many) things stripped from slaves or the Indigenous people of NA. This wasn’t an arbitrary or meaningless thing. And I think about the continued increase of english, the already huge amount of people speaking spanish, and all the other languages lost to colonization.

I think about the all the PoC living in diasporas and those who have completely lost this very fundamental with their culture. I begin to wonder the impact it has on how we engage with the world when all we have is the language of our colonizers. I think about all the continued debates about language in social justice circles and think about the many, many ways the many important and multiple analyses by PoC on how white supremacy is encoded into English. And I think about how this is we gotta use this language to talk about ourselves and try to liberate our minds.

I also think of how liberating it was to find a non-English word, in Tagalog, that exactly represented and referred to my identity in ways that any English word never did. In part it was because it allowed me to discover stories that were similar to my own, that I could identify with. It was the first time I felt like I belonged in a community… But a community that thrives in diasporas and in the homeland. Moreover, communities where my participation would be limited because I don’t speak the language (in this case, Swardspeak or Tagalog).

Of course, I am not implying that we cannot use English to liberate and decolonize our minds. Or that the continued efforts to remove white supremacy and all the encoded oppression in English from the language are in vain. Especially since, for so many of us, it is the only language we have. In this sense, the battles we fight over language are so very, very important. Because our language codes oppression and has often been used as a means to oppress people, which is why it can become so liberating to use language to decolonize ourselves.

One of the key was we do this is by talking to each other. By sharing our experiences and articulating our worlds. Every time we are not silent and every time we communicate with each other we take this tool of oppression and make into an instrument of liberation.