Language in Exile

As long as we are speaking of cultures that have simmered in exile, let's turn to Tibetans, whose leaders have consulted with Jewish and Israeli leaders about what it takes to keep a diaspora culture alive. One of the answers: keep alive the language. Hebrew was essentially a language on ice, used primarily in religious services but not to communicate, rich with symbolism but lacking words for anything related to post-exile life—until early Zionists performed CPR and turned it into a living vehicle, actually spoken daily (usually very, very quickly and disputatiously) (#joking).

Whatever you think about Israel, reviving Hebrew was a remarkable and nation-making feat. It bound a shattered and dispersed set of people back together in linguistic rhythms that were simultaneously foreign and familiar, in distinctive alef-bet characters that were indisputably their own.

The political Tibetan community in exile has taken this lesson deeply to heart. Do read this report on a recent conference on the Tibetan language. The piece was written by an impressive young man named Tendor, a leader in the new generation of Tibetan diaspora activists, who was born in exile and educated in India and the U.S. (You can follow him at @tendor). Some excerpts below:

It is said that language is a cornerstone of nationhood. The Tibetan people's collective ability to communicate ideas, share stories, conduct business, and express opinions in a unique language all our own is one of the strongest arguments for Tibetan sovereignty ...

The linguistic bond that connects all Tibetans has never been stronger. In spite of the Chinese government's efforts to cut Tibet off from the rest of the world, it has failed to stop a tidal wave of communication emerging from Tibet and breaking through China's not-so-great firewall. Almost daily I am reading news and updates from inside Tibet. Just five years ago, this was unthinkable....

At the grassroots level, Tibetans are embracing new social practices such as texting and tweeting in Tibetan, printing Tibetan menus and road signs wherever possible, and refusing to use Chinese words while speaking among Tibetans.

 In spite of Beijing's systematic attempt to undermine the Tibetan language for the last half century, it is being revived and advanced thanks to the diversity and creativity of the literary, academic, technological, and most importantly, grassroots efforts being made by ordinary Tibetans both in and outside our homeland.

To a multitasking activist like myself, the built-in Tibetan keyboard on the iPhone is perhaps the greatest evidence that Tibetan has become a contemporary language with social and secular usage.


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