Cultural Backlash 1: The Language Issue


This is the sixth article in the culture series

The penetration of the English Language is undoubtedly increasing with each passing day; this is driven by the fact that English is the language of international of commerce & science. It is also the language with the widest spread; and is thus the link language between cultures. That is undisputed, and this will only increase at least in our lifetime. 

The spread of languages is governed by culture and politics both; consider Latin - which was in its heyday enjoying a vast following till socio-politico-cultural changes in the European continent changed that, Or Sanskrut - which was the link language for the entire Indian Subcontinent and some areas in the immediate east: the rise of various politico-cultural changes made first Prakrut, (in simple terms, a spoken version of Sanskrut) and then its various offshoots (the modern Indian languages - esp Hindi predominant). Similar is the case of English; it enjoys the status of the primary link language. It has massive momentum behind it in the form of science and commercial communication, its brand of movies, the lure of the economic might of the west and a vast body of literature to sustain its continued dominance over world affairs at least for the foreseeable future. 

But every coin has a second side. In the case of English - there are 2 other sides. First is the interaction with other languages, which is showing signs giving rise to what are already being called dialects. At the extreme is the case of the interaction with Hindi, which is giving rise to what some people are already referring to as Hinglish - a mix of the 2 tongues Hindi and English. This is the way languages evolve: Sanskrut led to Prakrut (disputed by many linguists who state they are parallel in emergence), Prakrut in turn, gave rise to Maharashtri Prakrut (among others) - which, by AD 300 - 800, came to be known in its modern form as my mother tongue - Marathi. Similar is the case with all other languages; Hindi emerged out of several languages. Languages evolve - and we can see this happening already, as British, American and Indian English are already known to be quite different. As to in which direction they will evolve is anyone's guess. 

Secondly, this change  is further enhanced by the sceptre of cultural backlash, as the increasing dominance of an essentially alien tongue gives a push to a backlash, which has massive socio-politico-cultural shoots. The purists go on a speak-mother-tongue binge, and quite a few people can and do get converted. There are 2 modern examples of a backlash leading to to political upheavals - Bangladesh, where imposition of Urdu gave a massive popular push to existing resentment against Pakistani excesses. The second - Tamil Nadu (and other southern Indian states), which, in 1967, saw a massive political movement against Hindi when India tried to make it the national language in 1967. Till date. Hindi is still not the national language. Cultural backlash is also in evidence, for example the pro-marathi campaign in Maharashtra during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mumbai people still praise the Thackerays for re-instilling pride in Marathi - which, they say, is now again the primary spoken tongue in Mumbai. There is an increasing push towards sustaining the mother tongue almost everywhere; this is a natural evolutionary development. India even has a central body that is preparing a scientific and normal vocabulary in Indian tongues; quite a few top IT guys are involved in this initiative, as another example

The point is that English is not killing any language; that said, there are various evolutionary forces on it that is causing it to change  This is normal, and on par for the course of any language's  development. Will the changes lead - eventually - to another language -  is anyone's guess - and is decades - perhaps centuries in the future

The survival of languages is a function of the number of native speakers  of the language; the smaller numericals do tend to get subsumed into the larger numbers. Not talking about English here; the absorption is typically into allied related tongues- for example, Bhojpuri into Hindi. Tamil will never be subsumed by Hindi - or HIndi / Bhojpuri into English. The vast difference between the 2 tongues would preclude such a possibility. It is easier to adopt a relatively familiar tongue - and it also gives rise to less friction. The friction and the cultural backlash when a language begins to threaten another is a reality when the subsuming tongue is perceived as alien. I would love to know if there is any evidence of the reasons of the depletion of languages being due to English. It seems to my untrained (but hobbyist) eyes that the real threat to minority languages is from the related tongues. 

The only caveat is the political factor. That would seem to kill languages, that seems true, But, if you consider Persian - which was the political tongue in India for nearly 5 centuries - that complicates matters. The moment it lost patronage, it vanished within the space of a generation.

Thus, while the political factor is important, it seems to me that the presence of indigenous literature, art and culture in the said language is the real factor behind the sustenance of languages. Example - Sanskrut, While there are no native speakers anymore, the vast body of literature in it ensures that it is still a live language - at least in the realms of religion and higher studies. Or Marathi - the constant stream  of class literature has ensured  its continued survival for 1500 years now...  The moment literature dies, the language has started to die... literature seems to give a language life; it keeps its adherents glued to it; as does art and cultural traditions. 

I am sceptical about the effects of globalisation, and the ability of English to overhaul our indigenous linguistic heritage. It is more of a colonial hangover, and is limited in scope to only the top 3-5% of native speakers; the rest still use their respective vernacular tongues as a matter of course. With only a penetration of a few percentage points, we are already seeing a massive cultural backlash in India at least, targeting western customs that are seen as non-Indian in nature; as well as promoting Indianness and Indian languages. On the positive side, more and more youngsters are going the culture way, and consciously creating an Indian identity for themselves in both tongue as well as appearance and behaviour. Vernacular literature is showing signs of a robust revival, with translations of famed English books into Hindi and other local tongues being available everywhere; the next logical step is a revival of original literature... of which there are signs available. Vernacular literature is still alive in India and vibrant; what is required is popular mass following. The first step has been taken - popular Indian writers like Chetan Bhagat have now started releasing their works in Indian languages. This should go a long way towards bringing in popularity and numbers to the literary landscape.

That is why I dont think that language depletion will happen - not in a 100 years, and not in a 1000 even. In India alone, there are 29 languages with over a million speakers, 57 with more than 100000 speakers. And the number is not depleting as per information available to me;. 

The reason is the cultural backlash that is now raising its head, with more and more people returning to their roots. In this day and age of easy bonding, IT, Social networks, and unhindered information flow - it is easy for people with similar thoughts to come together and for views to find receptive eyes and ears.  No people would like to lose their language: when this threat passes acceptable levels, visceral forces are unfortunately unleashed; which is why this cultural backlash is welcome - it is a safe outlet for pent-up emotions. A safety valve, if you will.  At least in democratic political systems, I perceive little threat. And in unfriendly systems (with forcible suppression) , the backlash will unleash visceral forces that will be to the detriment of everyone - as we have seen earlier.

That leaves the smaller tongues: and I am of the opinion that these will also show revival; maybe not all - but most will. As an example - you can now spot Bhojpuri film DVDs at DVD parlours in North India. Yes, there is a chance that some of the smaller tongues will get susumed; but not too many in my opinion...

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