In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela makes the following observation:

“Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs. I again realized that we not different people with separate languages; we were one people with different tongues.” (page 84)

Mandela’s statement is a linguistic fact that is politically charged.

Language is, and always has been, a decisive factor in communication and relationships.

The movement that Mandela successfully led in South Africa precluded uniting a people divided by different languages and customs. Mandela was a uniting force in that he sought to “share,” “grasp,” “appreciate,” and “savor” the conditions and art of all of his countrymen.

He understood that language made the South African people differ from one another but simultaneously recognized that it not need be a decisive force.

Note the juxtaposition of the words “separate languages” and “one people with different tongues” in the closing line of the quote. “Languages” and “tongues” are synonymous, but the operative words are “separate” and “different.” The South African people differed from one another but Mandela did not see why they should be separate as a result.

The political implications of observing the divisions naturally created by language inspired Mandela to go beyond those divisions in seeking to understand what a language communicates about its people.

As we all should, not just for political motivations, but for the human rights that can be won with those motivations.

 

 

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