Stories they tell about languages

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 agniirk@yahoo.com)

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 8:09:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/stories-they-tell-about-languages/article4747023.ece

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