Rabindranath the Linguist
Rabindranath Tagore is known chiefly as the greatest writer in Bengali language, but few bother to know that he was also a great linguist and a great patron of native languages. He advocated their cultivation by his countrymen more and more. He was of the opinion that Hindi, spoken by the largest number of Indians, should be our national language. He made fun of those who imitated the English in dresses, manners and in the use of foreign languages. Indians during the British rule took special pride in their ability to write and speak English. [This they still do perhaps more than before, even after sixty years of independence, and look down upon their countrymen who do not know English.] According to Tagore it was a slavish mentality. He was however not at all parochial – he welcomed the absorption and assimilation by his countrymen of what was good in other cultures, but never at the cost of their own culture. In his view Indians should feel proud of their own culture and enrich it by assimilating good things from exotic cultures. In fact that has been the great characteristic of Indian culture – except during the medieval period, it has never been insular. Tagore called India a place of pilgrimage for the humanity at large where through the ages different races have met and commingled in a single body. To quote from his famous poem Bharat-tirtha –
He mor chitta punyatirthe jagore dhire
Ei bharater mahamanaber sagartire.
Keho nahi jane kar aobhane kato manusher dhara
Durbar srote elo kotha hote samudre holo hara
Hethay arya hetha anarya hethay dravir chin
Shak hundal pathan mogal ek dehe holo lin
Paschim aji khuliachhe dwar
Setha hote sabe ane upahar
Dibe ar nibe milabe milibe jabena phire
Ei bharater mahamanaber sagartire.
[My heart, awake in this holy land of India; it is a place of pilgrimage for nations to mingle in a confluence of humanity. Nobody knows who urged them yet they came from different lands and merged in a single body – the Aryans, the non-Aryans, the Dravidians, the Chinese, the Scythians, the Huns, the Pathans and the Mughals – all of them like so many separate streams flowing irresistibly to lose at the end of their journeys their individual identities in one vast sea. Now the West has opened up its gates, all are collecting its prized gifts and the same irreversible process of mutual exchange and assimilation is taking place once again in that holy confluence of humanity.]
Here is an essay by Rabindranath in my translation in which he reviewed a book of Bengali grammar written by an Englishman who was himself a great linguist and a lover of Bengali language. Here he views this Englishman and admires his achievements in a truly catholic spirit and at the same time criticizes his own countrymen for their ignorance and neglect of their own native tongue. Is this essay still relevant?
The Bengali Grammar of Mr. Beames
In English there is a proverb – ‘To err is human’, specially so is the commission of errors by the Bengalis in their use of the English language. The other part of the proverb is – ‘to forgive is divine’. But when a Bengali uses English incorrectly no Englishman treats him in a divine manner.
We commit mistakes in our English because the English which we learn in schools is bookish. Those among us who have lived in England for a long time have grasped the spirit of that language well. They may commit grammatical mistakes like native Englishmen, but to commit idiomatic mistakes for them is rare. But those who learn English here at home may be able to save the grammar but they cannot avoid murdering the language. The Englishmen feel greatly amused by this.
For this we also feel very much tempted to take revenge by making fun of those Englishmen who commit mistakes in their use of the native language even though they have resided in this country for a long time, got enough opportunities and have taken pains to learn it well.
We do not have to seek far to find out good examples. Samples of babu-English are generally collected from the petitions of poor illiterate people. But they cannot be compared with the erstwhile Bengal civilian John Beames. Mr. Beames has learnt the Bengali language with care; he spent his youth and middle age in Bengal; for many years he had to record depositions of Bengali witnesses, heard pleadings of Bengali mukhteers and is said to have cultivated Bengali literature too.
Not only that, he has also written a grammar of the Bengali language. It is indeed very audacious of him to have written a grammar of a foreign language; it cannot be compared with the petitions written by people who are impelled by hunger. So when we come across mistakes in almost every page of that grammar that appear very improper to a Bengali it becomes very difficult to resist the temptation to have some fun at the cost of Mr. Beames. But at the same time when we see that so far no Bengali has made any attempt to write a proper grammar of the Bengali language we have to resist such temptation. When we consider the fact that in writing such a grammar we write a grammar of the Sanskrit language and a Bengali looks blank when asked to tell the rules of Bengali grammar we feel ashamed of ourselves and admiration for this Englishman.
It must be admitted that the writing of this grammar by a foreigner, though full of mistakes, needed a lot of hard work and industry. He undertook this work driven solely by a passion for knowledge. None of our countrymen felt impelled to do this not only for his love of knowledge but also for his love for his country. Yet to a native this job is easier than to a foreigner.
We can also learn a lot about our language if we discuss and analyse the mistakes committed by Mr. Beames. Many riddles in our language escape our notice because of our overmuch familiarity with it. Through the mediation of this foreigner our curiosity about those riddles is roused and our acquaintance with our own language is renewed and becomes closer.
Mind Your Language: Needed, A National Script!
Towards Linguistic (Dis)Harmony
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