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Updated: May 25, 2013 01:41 IST

Stories they tell about languages

Rama Kant Agnihotri
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The idea that a tongue spoken by a large number of people across a territory is ‘pure’ and therefore must not be changed is wrong

Our perception of language, formulation of language policies and their implementation, and our attitudes to other languages are all almost invariably polluted by the myths about language that we effortlessly inherit, nourish and transmit to our subsequent generations; we make sure that the damage is irreparable and irreversible. As long ago as 1620, Francis Bacon in his celebrated Novum Organum warned us against the idols of the ‘Cave, Tribe, Theatre and the Market Place’ that impede any scientific enquiry. We persistently refuse to listen to him. Unless some major steps are taken at the school and college levels, and the study of language is brought out of the clutches of traditional prescriptive rote-learnt grammar to be replaced by a scientific study of language, the future will continue to be what the present is and the past has been. We will continue to neglect the languages of children and the community; the levels of silence will continue to increase in classrooms; the clamour for English will become more intense, privileging a handful and neglecting the majority on the margins. Yes, there is something inherently wrong with the formulation ‘minorities on the margins’; those minorities constitute the majority of our population.


One such myth concerns the language/dialect dichotomy. Linguists who work on the science of language use these terms with the awareness that these are related varieties which are equally systematically organised at the levels of sounds, words, sentences, meaning and discourse. They are fully aware that what is one language today may become two languages tomorrow (mark the cases of Hindi and Urdu emerging from Hindustani or Serbian and Croatian from Serbo-Croatian) or that mothers may come to be called daughters (or dialects) as is the case with languages like Braj, Maithili, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, etc., which people without even a moment’s thought dismiss as dialects of Hindi. They are not even aware that not so long ago great poets considered it below their dignity to write poetry in Hindi; they would rather write in Braj. Linguists are also aware that what are pidgins and creoles of today may become standard languages of tomorrow and vice versa. Standardisation is a socio-political process that takes a particular variety through the process of codification and elaboration through grammars, dictionaries and reference materials of different kinds. Any variety given that opportunity has the inherent potential to become what we will legitimately call a ‘standard language’.

There are also idols of the cave that individuals nourish in their minds because they, as Bacon said, would love to see things as they think they ought to be rather than as they are. Since such myths permeate almost every individual mind, they become a part of our social psyche. People who have never bothered to read the Constitution of India claim vehemently that Hindi is our national language. Our Constitution was a product of intense Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD), particularly in the case of language. Following the CAD, several provisions regarding language were made in the Indian Constitution. Articles 343-351 of part XVII and the 8th Schedule deal with issues of languages of the country. Hindi is the official and not the national language of the Union and English continues to be our associate official language. And yet, most people and several of our books declare Hindi to be our national language. It took 66 deaths and two self-immolations in the anti-Hindi student agitation of Tamil Nadu for the government to realise that a language could not be imposed on any people against their wishes and that repression of a student movement would automatically involve parents, teachers and the whole community. English was assured the status of the Associate Official language in 1965. Resolving the issue of national language by having official languages instead was a stroke of striking genius. Still, the myth of a national language (Hindi) dominates the Indian psyche.

Consider the case of the 8th Schedule of our Constitution. Ask anybody what it is called. The stock answers would include: ‘Indian languages; National languages of India; Regional languages of India; Official languages of the State’ among others. It is just called: Languages. The 8th Schedule started with only 14 languages; soon Sindhi had to be included and now it has 22 languages and still remains an open list. Languages (hitherto dismissed as dialects or minority/tribal languages or dehati, etc.) like Konkani, Manipuri, Bodo, Nepali, Dogri and Santhali among others would have never made it to the list but for the wisdom of our Constitution makers. They could indeed rise above the traditional myths. This rather naïve looking listing was simply a stroke of ‘raw genius’ as it built another bridge between the multi-linguality of India and identity of groups of people. Since it was an open list, more could be added to it; the inclusion, on the one hand, would cost almost nothing to the State in financial or administrative terms but lend a distinct aura to the language to be included, on the other.

‘Perfect’ Sanskrit

Another linguistic myth that dominates the Indian consciousness is that there is indeed something special about Sanskrit; it is a perfect language, spoken with perfection and written in a perfect script. Many people believe that it is the mother of all the languages of the world; most are certain that it is the mother of at least all Indian languages. There is of course no doubt that all Indo-Aryan languages like Bangla, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, Punjabi, etc., descend directly from Sanskrit; but it is equally true that languages of the Tibeto-Burman family in the North-East, languages belonging to the Dravidian family in the South and Munda languages of different tribes across India have very little to do with Sanskrit. Many of them of course borrow extensively from Sanskrit just as languages of the Indo-Aryan family borrow from others but that does not, by any stretch of imagination, make them daughters of Sanskrit.

Yet another major stereotype concerns the relationship between sound and script. Once again, Devanagari is considered superior to other scripts; Sanskrit, people say, is written in it, both the language and the script coming as it were from the gods themselves, and there is thought to be perfect isomorphism between sound and script here. Little do people realise that Sanskrit is actually written in over 14 scripts and can potentially be written in any script of the world with some minor changes. There is then no inherent relationship between sounds and scripts. We can easily invent a completely new script for any language in a couple of days. It should be common sense to appreciate that any set of people who sit down to evolve a new script for a given language would not do anything less than developing a systematic correspondence between sounds and script symbols. It should also be obvious that over a period of time, serious discrepancies would develop between the spoken and the written language simply because speech changes much faster than the written word. There are also several other socio-political and cultural reasons to keep the script intact; on the other hand, there is little we can do about the constantly changing speech. Such are the idols of the theatre that are created by a set of scholars with limited learning or with specific agendas.

The culmination of such myths takes place in the concept of “a pure standard language (say X)”, a concept cherished and perpetuated by great scholars and accepted, no wonder, by society at large including teachers and parents. Who represents this X best, say in English: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Shaw, Keats or Eliot? Who embodies it best in Hindi: Prem Chand, Prasad, Dwivedi, Renu or Kedar Nath Singh? Or where in India or abroad is standard Hindi spoken? Think hard. You may soon arrive at the accurate answer that except for a handful of streets in, say, Meerut or Allahabad, nowhere. People speak Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Maithili, Braj and their varieties over large tracts but that standard Hindi (for that matter any standard X) is ‘spoken over a large area, has a unique script, is grammatical, has a rich literary tradition behind it’ is the kind of myth we need to fight if we wish every human being in the world to live with a sense of dignity.

How do we go about this project? In our schools, normally from Class two, at least 2-3 classes are devoted to grammar of, in the case of many parts of north India, Hindi, Sanskrit and English. This is true across the country, though the names of the languages change. And yet, by the end of 10-12 years of such teaching, children hardly understand anything about the nature and structure of language, and myths about language continue to get perpetuated. It is now eminently possible to replace these classes by the scientific study of language which would subsume grammars of different languages. This will also be the child’s first introduction to the methods of logical enquiry. All data is present in the minds of children and they have the cognitive potential to classify, categorise and analyse, and formulate generalisations. They just need the right kind of guidance. No costs involved except hiring linguistically trained teachers or training existing faculty in the science of language. Given that language is constitutive of our identity and all knowledge is eventually constructed through language, the importance of this project can hardly be overestimated.

(The author retired as Professor and Head, Department of Linguistics, University of Delhi. He may be contacted at

More In: Lead | Opinion

I have no knowledge of economics,but I think Professor Agnihotri's
article discusses language in the abstract,cut off from the political
and social contradictions of history.Attitudes on language policy can
not be separated from those contradictions.
At the present moment there is a steam-rolling process of
homogenising the world to make it safe for democracy,i.e. the
market.The anxieties of small language-groups will necessarily be
dismissed,and complicated problems of the politics of languages will
be ticked off as unscientific in the Anglo-phone capital.

from:  Hiren Gohain
Posted on: May 27, 2013 at 08:40 IST

Couple of points:
a) What is 'Hindustani' in the context of language?
b) In response to a comment here on 'apanineeyam', Panini only codified the usage of Sanskrit as spoken by the public at that time, he didnt set the rules. Considering its highly evolved standard, what then is the purpose of further twisting it? I am glad it did not mutilate, otherwise who would be able to read the Vedas and Upanishads and the various texts and commentaries on multifarious disciplines, and make sense of it?
c) I agree with what the author has to say on how languages are taught in schools. There is too much emphasis on rote learning rather than understanding it. However, not all is lost, at least in terms of Sanskrit thanks to the efforts of a voluntary organization called Samskrita Bharati.

from:  ramesh
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 12:32 IST

Brilliant article. These many days I was under the belief that
Hindi which is my mother tongue is the National Language of India.
Thanks for this educating piece of writing. Now I understand that
ALL languages of India are National Languages of India.

from:  Namit Choudhary
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 12:08 IST

I must say this is a very good article. Congratulations to the writer

from:  Vivek Shankar
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 11:40 IST

Good to see an article on language.Its time we realised that a language survival
depends on its usage in the society including mass.To quote that today the oldest
languages in the world are Sanskrit,Hebrew and Arabic of which the former two are
under extinction while the latter remains undeterioted is surprise. According to census
2001 Sanskrit is spoken by only the meagre 14000 as a spoken language.I wish Sanskrit
to be a national language of India.At the mass would know what it says in Vedas.

from:  syed mazhar hussain
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 10:59 IST

Brilliant piece on language. Institutions must apply the suggestion for
better teaching-learning.

from:  Kaikubad Ali
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 10:36 IST

very educating.. comes as a revelation.

wish had a 'like' button of its own :)

from:  jaya
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 10:01 IST

Design as a way forward stems from experience in designing for language that creates new opportunities
and not just for analysis of what exists but an opportunity to create new forms and structures that are
the need of the place and time. My former students from NID have designed new type faces to meet
various challenges and new expressions for books and multi-media settings. In some cases even new
scripts for languages without an existing or living script through a process of design. Neelakash
Kshetrimayum created a Manipuri script and Vaishnavi Murthy on Tulu and Neha Bahuguna a Hindi as
written by hand and Satya Rajpurohit a range of digital fonts.

Mahendra Patel (NID) and (late) R K Joshi (IDC), both teachers of design, have a body of work that is
impressive. However using design as an approach to understand culture, education and social
transformation have been stymied by the science mindset and we are all in a dilemma. When will we think
differently? Will the new NIDs be able?

from:  Prof M P Ranjan
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 09:26 IST

Rama Kant Agnihotri article on Languages is not only brilliant but also bold enough to talk about the status of Sanskrit, in a country which is more chauvinistic rather than scientific. The Author's call for study of Linguistics in schools highly commendable. It is high time our country becomes a scientific society with more thought and less emotion. Kudos.

from:  R.Sivakumar
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 08:51 IST

Very serious subject discussed very lightly !
If we believe in our original tradition and culture the only
medium is language spoken over decades and centuries.Language
should be allowed to evolve naturally not through so called
experts.We know we are best expressed in our own native language
which we know well with huge vocabulary in our brain stored
through our changing environment.There must not be any deliberate
effort.I am 80 who has learnt English language in old grammatical
ways.When I came in USA,I used the same way and people
appreciated as better than the American english language.What is
important is which language helps us to express better.It is our
own native language.Say for a "Sea"there are seven alternative
words in any Indian language each having true meaning.So is for
example for a word like "Smell",ther are seven alternative words
each with specific meaning.No other language of the world has
such perfect expression.That's the culture associated with
language.We must

from:  Ashok
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 02:51 IST

A thought provoking article, but no mention of how Tamil (or it's Dravidian parent)is at least as old of Sanskrit if not older.

How many people know that the Telugu branch bifurcated from the Tamil branch probably a thousand or more years ago? And that 'daughter' languages of the Dravidian family still exist in areas of Baluchistan and near the Uttar Pradesh area?

How about a discussion of how current day Indian languages are rapidly changing on a day-to basis with the fast and furious infusion of English?

from:  Pilli Subba Rao
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 02:44 IST

Excellent article! I studied in an English medium school and all through my
childhood, till a few years back I was made to believe that Hindi was the 'national
language' of India and 'Kannada' was a language that evolved from Sanskrit. The
result of which many people like me gave special prominence and acceptance to
these two languages and a few go over board promoting them over their own mother
tongue. Thanks to linguistics like D. N. Shankar Bhat who is unthreading the myths
around Kannada with his scientific questioning and logical reasoning. His books and
articles in Kannada daily have helped us understand the uniqueness of Kannada and
the importance of language in our lives.

from:  Hariprasad Holla
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 01:08 IST

This is a very well written article that urges readers to examine some "common sense"
notions scientifically. This is useful in many aspects. For example, understanding the
linguistic properties of various languages (e.g., their sound structure, their grammar,
their orthography etc ) would greatly facilitate the instruction of one language to speakers
of another language.

The wonderful linguistic variety of India, the taken-for-granted multi lingualism, and the
vast playground of dialects, sociolects, and language histories are ripe for continued
scientific enquiry!

Thanks Prof Agnihotri.

from:  Navin V
Posted on: May 26, 2013 at 00:08 IST

Truly very informative one! There is a need to make children feel and
cherish the varied culture which we had. Language taught with
interesting background history stories would help children know the
importance of that particular language. As I have personally gone
through the rote educational system, I hope the structure provided by
the author to tackle this problem becomes reality. Language is the base
required for the access to information and sharing of thoughts and

from:  Saumya Trivedi
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 23:12 IST

Prof. Rama Kant Agnihotri's article is very good and thought provoking
article. it persuades the readers to arise their curiosity to know the
origin of each and every language in the world.

from:  Mari
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 22:39 IST

The author may be correct in general observations, however there are exceptions to this rule. Persian has been spoken in South Asia as far east as Calcutta and as far South as Mysore over several generations. However, this Persian has not picked up any local vocabulary, although local languages have been impacted heavily because it provided much needed vocabulary. Just in the culinary field Persian words like Biryani, Polao, Naan, Paneer and Qulfi are now used in a large number of South Asian languages.

In the Western half of Pakistan, Persian and Pashto have existed side by side for thousands of years, often in the same household and yet Persian has remained very isolated from Pashto, once again it is not true the other way round.

from:  Tipu Qaimkhani
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 21:26 IST

language like culture is a dynamic entity. There's no such thing as
culture of a group of people, since it's a function of time and
location, as the group moves. So why do we keep clinging on to something
claiming that it belongs to us? I suppose it's more from a feeling of
comfort, desire for dominance or superiority, none of which really makes
sense in the larger scheme of things. Indeed, as one of the readers
pointed out, internet language and cell phone language may be the
dominant language of the future, binding all humanity.

from:  sriram
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 20:43 IST

Really Insightful!

from:  saurabh chawla
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 19:44 IST

A refreshing and off the line article. very informative. thanks.

from:  naincy
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 19:18 IST

Great Article...

Just a thought; It was my impression that modern Indian languages are
descendants of Prakrut rather than Sanskrut; further, the link between
Prakrut and Sanskrut is also now being questioned. It has been proposed
that Prakrut and Sanskrut have a parallel history... correct me if I am

from:  Vishal
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 15:44 IST

Identities and languages die with time. Uniformity is not against the
knowledge compiled in so many distinct languages. Though you cannot
give preference the one group of knowledge or language over another
yet no minority language can be given veto power to stop a evolution
of uniform language. This is transition period between Indian
languages and Hindi on one hand while between lingua Franca and Hindi
on the other. Development of language is also related to state power.
In past there are so many example.
Language is not static nor is identity. We can assimilate or can be
assimilated while keeping our knowledge and identity intact though not
in rigid framework.
it is the rule of nature some dies some born. And for god sake we are
not living in a stone age it is binary now. Ideas can be translated by
the trained teachers. So do not confuse the coming generation. Give
them what they need. Do not push distinct identities and minority in
the name of diversity.

from:  shivraj singh
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 15:35 IST

Prof. Agnihotri and The Hindu, thanks for this educating article.

from:  venkat
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 13:17 IST

A very good and thought provoking article.Thanks to the author for
providing various facts that we didn't know till date and also for
breaking various myths that we hold in society!!

from:  Hari Krishna
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 12:58 IST

I always agreed that language evolve, change, gets modified but I somehow made
myself believe that the rise of internet will have profound impact on the way in which our languages evolve.
Is it only me who believe that in long run internet as a prime medium of world connectivty and knowledge dissemination will lead to evolution of a single global language and as our histories will no longer go into oblivion due to internet connectivity and storage revolution, it will make our languages lesser dynamic. I don't know if my fantasy is right!

from:  Mahesh
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 11:10 IST

Dr Agnihotri's article was brilliant, and thought provoking. Its nice
to see someone address this issue dispassionately, refreshingly moving
away from linguistic chauvinism of one linguistic group or other. No
one language can be considered mother or daughter language, and least
of all perfect and unchangeable. Even sanskrit in Vedas, so called '
unchanged' tradition of Indian knowledge, evolved during the Rig Vedic
times, and had apparently different form by end of Rigvedic period. A
language that doesnt evolve is close to its death.

from:  dr durga prasan
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 11:09 IST

Sanest article on language (and Indian Languages and constitution oertaining to those) in a long time. Good to start the day with such articles.

from:  karthik
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 09:23 IST

One of the best articles in the recent times..

from:  Satyendra Singh
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 09:20 IST

Kudos to Prof.Agnihotri for tackling a sensitive and complex subject
so elegantly. However, I must admit that his erudite piece raises more
questions than answers, at least in my mind. An approach to a solution
he has prescribed in the last paragraph is no doubt too idealistic to
be implemented successfully. But just thinking about it is a good
start. We all know how politicized the modern education system is, not
just in India, but all over the world. Perhaps one could recall how
Tagore viewed education, at least its propagation to the young. He
thought it's an organic process; linguistic education even more so.
Classrooms are not appropriate laboratories for such processes to be
conducted properly.

from:  Dipak Basu
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 08:35 IST

Rama Kant Agnihotri is pushing the Semitic (Jewish) agenda into India. Rigvedic-Sanskrit and Abvestan-Persian are twin languages and both are devine.

from:  Dr. Vimla Raje
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 04:12 IST

Good write up, but, "Hindi and Urdu emerging from Hindustani", really ? I am surprised.

from:  Krishna
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 04:08 IST

This, is a much awaited missive which should start the process of us seeing language as a living dynamic rather than a fossil. For too long have we seen grammar as prescriptive, rather than what it should be i.e., descriptive. The great grammarians are credited with the death of many classical languages, Sanskrit being among them. After Panini, the concept of "apanineeyam" stultified the growth of the language, so it had to be discarded as a means of everyday communication. Hindi, as spoken, rather written by the academics is a cluster of words which do not resonate with our minds. The "scholars' have Sanskritised it to a horrible extent, just like their cousins in Pakistan have managed to destroy Urdu by Arabising it. And this is happening to all Indian languages. Chauvinism and conservatism do not form a good nurturing feed mix for a dynamic entity. They either kill it altogether or distort or stultify its growth.

from:  Jayadevan
Posted on: May 25, 2013 at 03:46 IST
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