Mind Your Language:

Needed, A National Script!

India strictly speaking has no national language. For central official purpose the Constitution recognizes two official languages, Hindi and English. Hindi is the main official language, English is the associate official language. The Indian Constitution also approves India’s twenty-two recognized regional languages for official purposes. After six decades of independence should not India have evolved a national language? The absence of a national language can imperil the unity of multi-lingual India. This was brought home recently by a finding related to union cabinet meetings.

It transpires that Mr Alagiri heads the list of ministers who have played truant in cabinet meetings. Out of every ten cabinet meetings he has missed seven. His attendance in other ministerial meetings is equally poor. This is understandable. Alagiri speaks neither English nor Hindi. Business is conducted in these two languages in the cabinet. Recently in a ministerial meeting Alagiri took along his colleague A. Raja to interpret the discussion. Pranab Mukherjee who chaired the meeting ordered Raja to leave because he had not been invited.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi at the end of the recently concluded international Tamil conference held in Chennai demanded that Tamil be recognized as an official language at the centre. Tamil is a rich classical language. It has the oldest recorded literature of any language in the world. But it is spoken for the most part in Tamil Nadu and in parts of Sri Lanka. If it is accorded recognition as an official language at the central level inevitably there will be 21 other claimants making the same demand.
Matters discussed in cabinet meetings are privileged information. Officials concerned with the subjects on the agenda accompany their ministers and are privy to cabinet proceedings. But if 22 additional languages are to be used for cabinet meetings there would be required arrangements for interpreting all these languages by a permanent cadre of interpreters cleared to attend cabinet meetings. Is this practical? In parliament if a member desires to speak in any regional language he or she is required to obtain prior written permission from the Speaker so that adequate arrangements for interpreting are put in place.
Clearly a national language is desirable. But it must evolve voluntarily. Fissiparous tendencies are reaching a dangerous level in different parts of the country. Can one help a national language to evolve? One can. If proper steps are taken a national language spoken and understood all over the country could naturally evolve within the next few decades.
This is how it could be attempted. The HRD ministry should introduce the Roman script in the Devnagari alphabet as an alternate script for all 22 recognized Indian languages. While the script would be Roman, the alphabet would remain ka, kha, ga. The Devnagari alphabet has been successfully converted into the Roman script in the Heidelberg University in Germany which is the world’s premier university for studying Sanskrit. The base for the attempted national language should be Hindustani that is derived from Sanskrit. Words in common usage from all regional languages as well as from English should be incorporated as the language continues to spread.  Growth must be natural. The nationwide spread of Bollywood Hindi is a pointer.
Each year a committee of experts should expand the vocabulary of the proposed language by including new words from all languages that are in common use. For example, ask any illiterate labourer: “Time kya hai?” He would understand. If the English dictionary can incorporate thousands of Hindustani words to enrich English there is no reason why the proposed national language cannot replicate the formula. Along with samay and waqt, taim could be Hindustani.
The Roman script would facilitate the spread of the language worldwide. It would enable many more Indians to access English. English is not British or American, it is global.  And only the Roman script has a global keyboard. The proposed language would be understood in neighbouring countries. It could conceivably become a recognized language in the United Nations within some decades. And it would evolve without coercion by the state. Access to the alternate Roman script would be left to the choice of students. Which parent would not prefer opening the doors of English, Hindustani and the respective regional language for children at one go? If this plan does not work, nothing will be lost. If it succeeds a major step towards consolidating both India and South Asia would have been taken. Language is the people’s most powerful unifier. Already much time has been lost. If this idea is to be explored the time to act is now. Will Kapil Sibal pay heed?

Read Also:   Language Policy and Globalization 
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More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

Top | Analysis

Views: 3521      Comments: 16

Comment Kumud - why abridged? Put the whole thing. We would love to read all about it and in the process also understand Tagore more.

Roy D'Costa
31-Jul-2010 14:26 PM

Comment Dear Roy D'Costa, Many thanks for the compliments. As I have mentioned in my earlier comment it is taken from the introduction of my book of translation of Tagore poems and songs. The article is closely printed 25 pages long dealing with this problem of language. I shall try to post it in an abridged form in future, for the present I am busy with my exploration of Tagore. I invite you to read my blogs on the poet. Hope you will like them.

kumud biswas
30-Jul-2010 23:50 PM

Comment Kumud, your piece as a comment to Mr. Puri's article is precious and commendable. It is an essay by itself which perhaps you should also post it as a separate entry in your blogs. Lastly, hats off to Mr. Puri to have become the catalyst in bringing the genius out of Kumud. Excellent debate, excellent comments. I love it.

Roy D'Costa
29-Jul-2010 20:21 PM

Comment The issue raised by the present blog of Mr. Puri is in fact only a part of a larger issue. I am afraid no cosmetic change introduced in a cavalier manner can solve it. Instead of offering any comment I would like to quote from the introduction of my book Rabindranath Tagore:Some Poems and Songs where I had an occasion to touch upon this problem –

Today the Bengali language itself is facing a new challenge. The literate section of the Bengali society is cultivating their mother tongue less and less. In my youth education through the vernacular medium afforded slim chances of employment. Once I got a job my relations with Bengali books virtually came to an end, I am reading Tagore because now I have nothing else to do. The study of humanities was already on the decline from the time when I was a college student 50 years ago. Meritorious students rarely opted for humanities in their academic career, now this position has become worse taking a heavy toll on the standard of their studies. Even the study of basic sciences is used now-a-days merely as a springboard for the acquisition of a technical degree which ensures one employment with fat salaries. It may therefore very reasonably be asked, how many of the present generation of Bengalis read Tagore? When I expressed doubts about the likely demand for the present publication – Bengali poems translated into English - one reputed bookseller assured me that it would be quite considerable among the young generation of literate Bengalis. They would read Tagore in English rather than in Bengali because most of them do not know their mother tongue well.

During my student days English medium schools and colleges were very few, the students going to them were not many and belonged to a particular class popularly called ‘tash’ – a word coined from the word ‘trash’ with the intention of giving it a bitingly derogatory meaning. Among other things they were snobs and preferred English to Bengali as their medium of expression, both written and spoken. Instead of classics they mostly studied soft cover ‘best sellers’ and very rarely Bengali literature and were proud of this ignorance. Today such schools are mushrooming like wild plants and they are choked with students who come from all classes of people. Earlier as a medium of instruction English was more or less a matter of choice, but today it has become a driving force. And there is no scope or time to learn the native tongue, however one may love it. The world has become a ‘big bazaar’ where people from all parts of the globe have assembled for vending their various wares. If that bazaar is a tower of Babel no business can take place. To do some business you have to learn the language in which you can communicate with the global customer.

The picture is more or less similar throughout the world. Economic globalization has claimed many victims which include national and regional languages and cultures as well. About a century ago Edmond Larforest, a writer of Haiti, tied a French Larousse dictionary around his neck and jumped off the pier to a watery death dramatizing the drowning of Haitian language and literature. According to a recent study made by the Living Tongues Institute based in Salem, Oregon, of an estimated 7000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies about every two weeks! Funded by the Australian government, U.S. National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society and grants from some other foundations, the study has identified endangered languages as follows – Northern Australia – (153), Central South America including Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia – (113), Northwest Pacific Plateau, including British Columbia in Canada and Washington and Oregon in the USA – (54), Eastern Siberian Russia, China and Japan – (23) and Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico – (40) languages respectively. In India the census of 1961 recognized 1652 languages, in 1991 census this figure came down to 1576. What happened to the 76 languages? Some, like Sanskrit, have long been dead. But the others were very much alive in 1961.

A language may die with the extinction of its speakers, or like Sanskrit it may evolve into a new language or languages or again the speakers may abandon their native tongue and start using another language because in the prevailing circumstances the native tongue cannot meet their modern day requirements. And worst of all, it may die through neglect because of deliberate policy. Of the one and a half thousand languages only 22 have found a place in the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution. In a vast country as multi-lingual as India – and of the 7000 living languages of the world India accounts for as many as 415 – it is arguable if one language should be imposed on other linguistic groups on the specious argument that it will help unify the nation. The self-immolation by the young Tamilian Chinnaswami in protest against the imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu could not prevent this. In all examinations for selection to All-India services question papers are set in Hindi and English only and only these and the other scheduled languages can be offered as subjects for these examinations. People who speak none of these languages are therefore clearly at a disadvantageous position. Most ominous is the fatal effect of this policy on the languages which are discriminated against. If Darwin is to be believed in prehistoric times many tribes became extinct, many were enslaved and absorbed by numerically stronger tribes and the languages of those hapless people also died as a result. This also meant the loss of their identity, their tradition and the wisdom and knowledge they had acquired and preserved in their mother tongue. This loss was not to a particular tribe alone but also to the human race as a whole.
* * *
Tagore was born four years after the British had completed one hundred years as rulers of this country. His forefathers hailed from the district of Khulna where during the Muslim rule they were local court officials and must have been proficient in the court language of the time, Persian. During the early years of the British rule they settled in Calcutta, came in contact with the English and laid the foundations of the family’s material prosperity. It reached its zenith under his grandfather Dwarakanath whose phenomenal success was not only due to his enterprise but also to his knowledge of the rulers’ tongue, English. Dwarakanath’s friend Raja Rammohan Ray, the first modern Indian, was an excellent Persian scholar and learnt English by his own efforts. The poet’s father, Debendranath, appears to have been the last member of the family to learn Persian. All his sons went to English schools and colleges for their education. The womenfolk of the family learnt English either at home or at schools. The second eldest son became the first native member of the ICS. The East India Company initially patronized the cultivation of classical languages like Sanskrit and Persian. It was mainly through native efforts that the first College to impart English education, the Hindu College, was set up in Calcutta. Through this language the Bengalis came into direct contact with the Western civilization. It offered not only opportunities but also challenges. The initial impact of this contact however was not an unmixed blessing. It threatened to swamp everything native – religion, culture, way of life, including the native language and literature. On the socio-religious front there were two extreme reactions, one pro- and the other anti-Western till Raja Rammohan Ray began his Brahmo movement. The Raja not only showed that Hindu religion, encrusted by age old superstitions, was not polytheistic but monotheistic and stopped us from burning our widow mothers, sisters and daughters alive but also petitioned the foreign rulers for introduction of the study of English and science subjects. Along with his friend Dwarakanath and others he was the prime mover behind the establishment of the Hindu College. To the Bengalis English became the window to the world and since then they have been in love with it. The first modern Bengali novelist Bankimchandra Chatterji, the author of the famous Anandamath and our national anthem Vande mataram, wrote his first novel – Rajmohan’s Wife – in English and the first modern Bengali poet Madhusudan Dutt wrote his first epic poem – The Captive Ladie – also in English. This early start in English education gave the Bengalis a primacy over others and made the 19th century Bengal Renaissance possible. And in time Tagore came to represent its full flowering.

The influence of English education was also far reaching on Bengali language and literature. In their passion for English the Bengalis did not abandon the cultivation of their mother tongue. On the contrary their knowledge of English inspired them to cultivate and improve their native language. Earlier there was no prose literature in Bengali. It came into being with the prose translation of the Bible by the Christian missionaries. But this prose had no logical syntax and it was almost unintelligible. Here again the Raja wrote his tracts and pamphlets in Bengali prose, started a periodical and for the first time set the rules of syntax in his Gaudiya Byakaran or Bengali Grammar. Thus he may be called the father of Bengali prose. Bengali newspapers and magazines began to be published and development of other genres – drama, novel, short stories, lyric poetry etc – also followed. Henceforth Bankimchandra wrote his novels and Madhusudan his epic in Bengali. Significantly they came to be known as the Scott and the Milton of Bengal respectively. But instead of being imitators they were original creators. Thus English education enriched the native language and literature like never before. The educated Bengalis also became mostly bi-lingual. There was great demand for English education among the newly emerging middle class. To cater to this demand many schools were set up where English was taught mostly by natives themselves. Tagore went to one such school in his childhood and, among other things, the manner in which English was taught there seems to have shocked his supersensitive mind so much so that he does not appear to have overcome it in his whole life. Yet his English Gitanjali is proof enough to show that if he wished he could have mastered that language like many Indians who are reputed to be good masters in it.

* * *

Two world wars, the end of the European overseas empires and the cold war following them held the process of globalization somewhat in check, but it began to gather momentum by the third quarter of the last century. After the collapse of communism, particularly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the pace of its progress has become bewildering. Multiplicity of languages has always stood in its way and attempts were earlier made to develop a world language artificially. As many as 53 languages are said to have been proposed between 1880 and 1907 without success. Three European languages vied with each other to become the world language. English language at last seems to have won the race. The pundits will be able to tell the linguistic reasons of its ascendancy, but the chief reasons seem to its widespread use in modern technology and its mass appeal generated by modern media – the internet, the TV and the films both Hollywood and British. The first encounter between Bengali and English languages took place in the closing years of the 18th century in which Bengali not only survived but also flourished. Will it be able to survive its second encounter with English? More than thirty years ago English was banished from our primary schools on the assumption that the mother tongue is the best medium for the initiation of children’s education. Now it has been re-introduced. The compulsion is understandable. With very little or no employment opportunities in government offices and the steadily shrinking public sector organizations the young generation has to be made eligible for employment in jobs outsourced by developed countries where power to communicate in an international language is an essential requirement.

Similar developments are taking place throughout the world. The English language has become the second language almost everywhere. This language is also undergoing a sea change. The Royal Society wanted that ‘In all reports of experiments to be brought into the Society, the matter of fact be barely stated’ … in the language of ‘artisans, countrymen and merchants.’ It no longer holds good. With specialization came jargons peculiar to different disciplines almost totally unintelligible to outsiders. Even words familiar to the common man began to have unfamiliar meanings. Emergence of various media other than written also made the situation increasingly complex. Today after its adoption by various countries of the world it is assuming peculiar spatial forms under the influence brought to bear upon it by the people of those countries from their native tongues. Already there is American English which is considerably different from the British English and the former is the default setting of Bill Gates’ windows installed in 99 out of every 100 pcs all over the world. Then there is the ‘babu English’ of colonial vintage. Now there have emerged Indlish, Chinglish and many other varieties of English. Englishmen once used to say that America will be the death of English. What will they say now? These are however what two characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest had to say:

Caliban: You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
(Act I, Scene II)
Stephano: ….where the devil should he learn our language?
(Act II, Scene II)

On the internet its users are the largest in number and many of them, including many of its native speakers, do not bother about the rules of syntax or grammar and even spelling. A considerable part of the vocabulary is pure slang. The vocabulary generated by the computer, the internet and the cell phone seems to consist of borrowings from another planet. When the English king dies it is wished – ‘The king is dead, long live the kin!’ If someday the King’s English dies what will be wished?

kumud biswas
29-Jul-2010 07:31 AM

Comment It is amusing that Rajinder Puri is a freelance journalist and I am a retiree and it is both his devotion to his profession and the abundance of free time at my disposal that can easily sustain a dialogue for any extended length of time. A high school graduate from New Delhi and a sufficiently well-read babu whole my working life, I always tend to perceive things, including serious subjects such as the topic of the current My Word, in a simple to understand comical manner. I know a particular couple in the Queens borough of New York City who have been living together with their kids but they are not married. “We will marry some day,” they would say gleefully. Now, I view their living arrangement akin to the harmonious cross-cultural living experience by a huge migratory Indian population—no knit-picking, please; I read about Raj Thackeray—that would perennially evolve around changing socio-economic and other conditions.

It is getting serious now talking about the can of worms. Indians are a body deeply rooted in the cool of thousands of years of divine culture and a multitude of religions but it is also exposed to the scorching heat of corrupt leadership, bureaucracy, and their own follies like greed and lust that drives it crazy. The issue of a national language in such national environment would easily become a fodder for exploits by the crooks.

Now for the common roman script for a national language, it may sound plausible knowing about the mediocrity that has crept deeply into our national character. Even after two centuries of British occupation of Indian sub-continent, English could never substitute the rich literary languages in regions across the country. Not even during the past sixty-three years that the language reigned freely through our educational institutions. We do not have to experiment with Roman transliteration in the name of a national language for it will kill the very spirit of our regional languages, their script and should the foreign-looking monster prevail, the languages themselves. When I said popular Indian vernacular, I hinted at Hindi for it, along with all other dialects in Hindustani group, is spoken over a vast expanse of the country. Although my mother tongue is Punjabi, I would love to ponder on why and how Hindi as the national language would not only be the pride of people of India with diverse cultures and languages and a cause for their unity but how it would also define their social and economic wellbeing.

Whether and when the good American couple with kids would bind in long-awaited matrimony or India would eventually have a national language is only a matter of opportune time. Both are now ready.

Prem Sareen
14-Jul-2010 12:52 PM

Comment I have not quite understood what Mr Prem Sareen wants to convey. He welcomes the bonding influence of Bollywood Hindi. But he considers a common script as a can of worms. Actually it was my error in suggesting a common script for all regional languages. The common script should be for Hindi and Urdu, for Devnagari and the Persian scripts. Only those regional languages that use Devnagari might adopt the Roman as an alternative script. The experts would be attached only to the official dictionary. Periodically they would review and induct words in common usage regardless of the language of origin, whether indigenous or foreign, as is done by the Oxford English Dictionary. This spoken language would never be artificially imposed as a national language. But in a few decades this Roman Hind might well develop into a nationwide and even a regional global language that would be voluntarily accepted as a national language. If this does not happen, no sweat. What is lost? Everything would be voluntary, there would be no imposition. This effort would merely augment the Bollywood Hindi growth.

My Word
13-Jul-2010 22:17 PM

Comment The subject of this article is quite interesting and comes naturally without any pretense from someone Rajinder Puri’s background. It is, otherwise, a can of worms and must be left alone. We have Hindi and English as official working languages and if we do not have a national language provided in the Constitution since after the independence, it is chiefly because of the regional politics. The most other minor reasons have been better understood as inconvenience, helplessness, or frustration in communication when one travels across the country for whatever purpose and duration. I remember such an ordeal one early morning in April 1962 when I found myself on the phone at a local post office in Ponda, Goa, so close to my destination, trying hard to get the operator at the other end connect to my host. The operator spoke in Konkani or Marathi and hung up on me a couple of times when we both failed to understand each other until a Sikh soldier came to my rescue and spoke in Marathi

I am no linguist but any attempt at evolving a common script for multiple Indian vernacular languages would be dangerous and as futile as was the designation of Hindi as the national language. The national language, as observed by Roy D'Costa, is not only the pride and strength of people of a nation with diverse cultures and languages and a cause for their unity but it also defines their social and economic wellbeing. I had never seen India as mobile as it is today. Thanks to the Hindi cinema and particularly the economic opportunities, the traveling Indian has adapted very well. As observed by Swati in her comment, Indians are now more versatile and with the unique nationalism that I see in youth in India, it is perfect time for political will to push for a popular Indian vernacular as the national language.

Prem Sareen
13-Jul-2010 21:16 PM

Comment Dr. Hebber forgot to give the link of which talks about Tulu language.

Rajender Krishan
11-Jul-2010 22:06 PM

Comment If a nation cannot speak in the same language., it ceases to be a nation. Pick whatever language you want, but damn well, be proud that you can speak the same language. Be proud that you are Indian. Be proud that you can communicate. The question is not which should be the national language. Question is: Are the Indians willing to speak the same language through and through. Throughout the nation. Without making it a stupid political issue and create bandhs (loss to national exchequer) in the name of "The" national language.

Roy D'Costa
11-Jul-2010 21:59 PM

Comment By adopting Latin script for Hindi instead of Devanagari script, we should be prepared for the fact that the latter may eventually become extinct. There is precedence to such an occurrence in an Indian language called Tulu.

Tulu is a Dravidian language that evolved alongside Tamil from Proto-Dravidian language had its own script. It is spoken by about three million people in and around Mangalore and Udupi (coastal cities of Karnataka). In fact, Tulu script was utilized by Keralites to write Malayalam language in the Middle Ages, which later became the basis for the script for that language.

In the nineteenth century, German priests who were involved in churches and educational institutes in Mangalore, started printing Tulu literature and articles in the Kannada font. They had started a Kannada press, which they used to print folklore and literature from local languages. Within decades Tulu script became extinct. Today there are only a handful of people who can read and understand Tulu script, though the spoken language remains popular.

So beware of losing the cultural identity if Devanagari is abandoned in favor of Latin script. India has done well in the international scene, especially in the field of information technology despite the fact that English language is a foreign language. Perhaps, having been exposed to many languages for centuries, has made Indians quite savvy in adapting to any language and excelling in the same.

There is a case to be made to leave the scripts and fonts of Indian languages alone.

Neria H Hebbar
11-Jul-2010 19:04 PM

Comment I think instead of adopting Roman alphbets as common, we should adopt devnagiri alphabets common to all Indian languages, from kashmiri to Tamil, let all languages be written in devnagiri script.

The society who feels inferior adopts norms, culture, traditions from the society it feels is superior.

Let's feel proud of what we are and what we have, let's not give in.

Dinesh Kumar Bohre
05-Jul-2010 14:47 PM

Comment English should be our National and Official Language. There is nothing wrong in accepting that.

Meantime due respect should be given to South Indian Languages like Tamil,Telugu,Kannada and Malayalam which have their own culture.

I have seen the photo of European Parliament where all the European languages were given importance.

Indian ( HINDI ) officials should know that imposing hindi on southindians may trigger another protest ( like 1937- 1967 anti-hindi imposition protest in Madras presidency. This protest kicked the congress government out from State. Later the state was named as Tamilnadu.

So Better we can use ENGLISH as NATIONAL Language...automatically...all will try to learn that..

04-Jul-2010 02:33 AM

Comment This idea has to be appreciated. In the world now languages in Computer use are very, very handful. Among them English has established a status no language can attain easily. So, if we don't want to waste our precious time it is better to adopt Roman script for all Indian languages for use in various categories of activities! Many points the author suggested are worthy of note for the authorities concerned to take a quick decision for the adaptation of Roman script at the earliest!

01-Jul-2010 09:24 AM

Comment Politics aside, a lot of people are open to learn new languages. I am from Chennai and a lot of people around me speak Hindi. Language learning has a lot to do with economics. Once, on my trip to deep south - Rameswaram...all auto drivers spoke a fluent Hindi...quite a few no. of shops had the names written only in Hindi and one Ashram...gujarati...coz it benefits them to attract travellers. on my trip to UP, we resided in an area dominated by South Indians and the shop display board was in Tamil and Telugu and ppl from chai wallahs to sari shops picked up Tamil from ppl visiting them. Azhagiri's reluctance to attend meetings is not due to communication problem, but rather because he's more interested in grabbing the CM's chair.

01-Jul-2010 06:25 AM

Comment I appreciate that you have rightly said that National Language is not yet finalized in India. But at the same time, the central government has unofficially declared as the official language in Parliament. This is unfair. I dont know whether it is fortunate or unfortunate that we have neary 24 to 30 languages in India. If you accord importance to Hindi, why not other languages. For this, I would suggest that we should use only ENGLISH as official language.

First of all, declaring any language should have some sense. English is the most useful language nationally as well as internationally. If the MPs are not even qualified enough to speak in English or understand English, they can very well stay at home. Moreover, I have been having a feeling that since we have no educational qualifiations for politicians, anybody becomes leader, sometimes they are goondas. To avoid this Gov should keep IAS as the basic qualification and preferred langauge should be English. Then the real essence of democracy can be realized. God bless India. Thanks.

01-Jul-2010 04:56 AM

Comment Strength of any nation is reflected through its unity. National language therefore is a must for a multi-lingual and culturally deeply rooted multi-ethnic Indian society. There should be a sense of pride in everyone accepting with grace the national language and strengthening India.

Roy D'Costa
29-Jun-2010 08:38 AM

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