What was once a thriving language might have languished into a dialect today, and a dialect could evolve into a literary language. Politics and economics play their part in the flow of these rivers.

What is the relationship between boli (dialect) and bhasha (language)? Is it a fixed or permanent relationship, or does it allow for change and impermanence? Is it true that what is today considered a dialect could have been a fully evolved literary language a few centuries ago, and today’s literary language could gradually decline and lapse into a dialect? Also, what should be the society’s and the state’s attitude towards living languages and dialects? These and other thoughts came when one was told that a Bhojpuri Academy has been set up in Bhopal by the Madhya Pradesh government and was reminded that many other so-called dialects are facing neglect.

Hindi literary circles have witnessed a long debate concerning the emergence of what is generally called a Hindi Jati — a term that can be variously understood and interpreted as Hindi nationality or Hindi community or both. Here, one can mention that even the term Hindi is problematic as there is no unanimity over what all it includes or excludes. In view of the praiseworthy step taken by the government of Madhya Pradesh, a State that has nearly 1.6 million Bhojpuri speakers, there is expectation that Uttar Pradesh, where many times more Bhojpuri speakers and users live, will also follow suit. It may be mentioned that even the Delhi government thought it fit to set up a Maithili-Bhojpuri Academy in 2008. Moreover, people feel that academies for other dialects such as Bundeli, Bagheli, and Awadhi, just to name a few, should also be opened for preserving and promoting their literary and folk traditions in other states as well.

All the present-day dialects are not at the same stage of development. Some of them like Braj or Awadhi were fully evolved literary languages that could boast great poets like Surdas and Tulsidas among their finest writers. In fact, till the latter half of the 19th century, even Bharatendu Harishchandra, considered to be the father of modern Hindi Khadiboli prose, did not find Hindi suitable for writing poetry and opted for Brajbhasha instead. One may notice the nomenclature that assigned the status of a dialect to Hindi as it was called Khadiboli and the status of a language to Braj as it was known as Brajbhasha.

Today Hindi has an overarching presence, subsuming the speakers of all the dialects of the sprawling region that covers Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, parts of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and even Arunachal Pradesh. Not many people might be aware that nearly all those who have received their education in Arunachal Pradesh speak fluent Hindi. Andhra Pradesh too has its own version of Hindi that is known as Dakani Hindi. Fortunately, all the major dialects of the Hindi region are still alive and kicking, yet there is a danger lurking in the background of their decline and extinction over a period of time if due care is not taken to stem this process of natural selection. All over the world, dialects have disappeared owing to disuse or neglect or both.

Also, the question of dialect versus language involves linguistic and cultural identity and pride. The case of Maithili immediately comes to mind as its speakers have not been very comfortable with the dialect tag and have always felt proud of their literary tradition that produced a great poet like Vidyapati. In the years immediately preceding and succeeding Independence, there was a strong demand for the creation of a separate Mithila state. Even an eminent scholar like Dr. Amar Nath Jha considered it “shameful” that books in Maithili were being published by Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, and Dr Umesh Mishra, a Maithili scholar, declined to contribute to the three-volume “History of Hindi Literature” being brought out by the Indian Council of Hindi, as its third volume was supposed to include Awadhi, Bundeli, Marwari, Bhojpuri and Maithili literatures.

Dialects can once again gain the status of a literary language if a conducive political and economic environment is available to them. Conversely, they can die a slow and agonising death if the state and society neglect their duty of providing consistent support and stimulus to help them survive. Setting up an institutional mechanism for this purpose can go a long way to achieve this goal.