Street Child Laxmi a student of ‘school on wheels’ maintained by ‘DoorStep School’ tries to learn hindi on World Literacy Day at Fashion Street in Mumbai. (Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • As the domain of Hindi remains confined only to popular entertainment and colloquial usage, there has been a gradual hollowing out of its vocabulary.

    Starved of the oxygen of modern sciences and commerce, Hindi is neither capable of expressing scientific ideas nor can it act as a medium of trade and commerce.

This is the first part of a four-part essay titled, The Death of Hindi. In part one, taking the example of Hindi, the author talks about how Indian languages are deprived of sciences, technology and business, leading to the linguistic decline of once robust languages. In part two, he chronicles how Hindi, deprived of Sanskrit, was not allowed to develop to its potential. In part three, he will investigate how Indian languages are deprived of sciences by making English as an exclusive medium of higher education and in part four, he would suggest some desperate intervention to stem the linguistic decline of Indian languages.

While languages cannot be issued birth certificates, death certificates can be issued with a fair degree of certainty. Linguists issue death certificate to a language when the last of its speaker die, but the process of the death of a language and atrophy begins much earlier. Before the death of a language, it goes through a long phase of “linguistic famine”, a phase in which it is deprived of sciences, technology and trade, ceasing to be a vehicle of economic activity and social progress. Eventually due to the ‘slow starvation’ from the oxygen of modern sciences and commerce, a stage is reached when a language is neither capable of expressing scientific ideas nor can it act as a medium of trade and commerce.

The transition from the state of linguistic famine to linguistic death is a gradual process. Languages don’t die because the native speaker has suddenly stopped speaking it. The language spoken during childhood would most likely be spoken the entire life. Languages, just like culture and traditions, die during inter-generational transfer. As the mother tongue becomes less relevant to economic and social needs, speakers from one generation to another progressively reduce the use of their mother tongues, till a stage is reached when a few generations down the line they have no memory of their ancestral language. This diminishing economic and social vitality of once robust languages, passed down from one generation to another, eventually leads to the death of a language.

Something remarkably similar is happening to Hindi (while I use the example of Hindi, the same is true for all our Indian languages). Note that no formal business activities, scientific research, engineering, medical and legal education are conducted in Hindi. In Independent India, even if you know all the Indian languages, but not English, it is impossible to climb the ladder of professional success. The domain of Hindi has been reduced to that of bazaar language and mass market entertainment. It lacks prestige. The only need for Hindi these days are in domestic sphere or in the marketplace. One way to measure the decline of Hindi is to ask, how many of us have used the Devanagari script after our school for any formal purposes? It shows. A search for Devanagari keyboard on www.amazon.in gives one result.

As the domain of Hindi remains confined only to popular entertainment and colloquial usage, there has been a gradual hollowing out of its vocabulary. Next time you talk on finance, economics, technology, science, or legal matters in Hindi, notice the flood of English words drowning out the Hindi vocabulary. Notice how Hindi business channels use English words for even simple accounting terms such as assets and liabilities. Notice how most of us would struggle to find the Hindi equivalent of common terms like engineer or plumber! The ability to express complex thoughts in Hindi is rapidly being lost by Hindi speakers. Deprived of its domain, Hindi has hardly any subject-matter for its speakers to talk about and hardly any specialist vocabulary to talk in. Thus, despite its large number of speakers, Hindi’s status and pedigree is gradually eroding, that eventually nobody would want to use it. The fate of a language is sealed, when it is seen as a barrier to social and economic advancement.

The ‘slow starvation’ of Hindi in sciences and commerce is matched by the decline of Hindi in the literary domain. Who are our modern day Dinkers and Premchands? Given the current state of Hindi literacy levels, would we even recognise a potential Dinker or Premchand? How many potential Premchands and Dinkers have been consigned to a life of obscurity because there are not many takers for serious literary work in Hindi? How many of us are even aware of any contemporary Hindi authors or poets? The Hindi publishing industry today survives on publishing translated works of popular English fiction, pulp fiction novels and self-help books. Our mushrooming literary festivals are exclusively for the English language audience and writers. A local language author might be given a slot or two to add some diversity.

Discrimination Against Hindi

The plight of Hindi is further exacerbated by the active discrimination it faces in the private sphere. Indian companies exclusively publish their annual reports and financials only in English. Even if a company makes fertilizers for Indian farmers, the websites and product information would still be exclusively in English. The subtle message is that if you don’t know English, you are not good enough to participate in the capital markets or be a part of the growth and development of our economy. European multinational corporations publish their annual reports in multiple European languages, but in India they do so exclusively in English. Why is it not compulsory for our companies to adopt the three-language formula and report their financials and annual reports in Hindi and another Prakrit?

Our e-commerce companies have websites exclusively in English. Our start-up eco-system cater only to the English-speaking population of the country, the rest 90 per cent of the non-English speakers are irrelevant. The websites of our private airlines for ticket booking are only in English. In fact, the second largest airline in India has a website that offers language selection of Italian, Mandarin, Dutch, Spanish, German, and French but not a single Indian language!

The crassest form of discrimination against our languages happens in schools. There are thousands of convent schools in India where students would be punished for speaking in their mother tongue! India is probably the only country in the world, where this is allowed to happen. The ‘inferiority’ of our languages and the shame associated with speaking it are ingrained from childhood. This writer studied in a school, where students were told to keep track of their classmates and report immediately if anybody is heard talking in Hindi or Bengali. From a young age, we were trained to be traitors to our own language!

Government forms, the driving licence, lifesaving medicines and even Hindi cinema tickets are all printed in English. Even the nutritional and ingredient labels on our daily food items are exclusively in English. There is not a country in the world where a company can get away selling mass market consumable food without informing most of its consumers, in their own language, what they are consuming. In European countries, such information is printed in multiple languages.

We have just scratched the surface. The list of discrimination against speakers of Indian languages is long. While our socio-cultural activist beats the drum of caste, no one ever looks at the language issue and its vicious role in perpetuating inequality and stratification of the Indian society. Even before Independence Mahatma Gandhi had agonised over the state of our languages, writing, “The process of displacing the vernacular has been one of the saddest chapters in the British connection.”

It is not that most of us are not aware of this glaring discrimination and the precipitous decline of our languages. That is why there is misdirected backlash against ‘Hindi imposition’, especially in the southern states. Sometimes we even choose to hide the guilt of exclusively using our coloniser language by claiming that English is our language too. Leading Kenyan writer, Ngugi, offers a stinging rebuttal to such argument, saying: “When you erase a people’s language, you erase their memory. And people without memories are rudderless, unconnected to their own histories and culture, mimics who have placed their memories in a “psychic tomb” in the mistaken belief that if they master their coloniser’s language, they will own it.” He further states that this deracination from cultural roots “makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other people’s languages rather than their own.”

This aggressive claim on English was even championed by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru when he asserted that English should also be considered a sauteli bhasa (step-language) of India, to which Premchand had wryly remarked, “Far from being a sauteli bhasa, it is rather a patrani bhasa (head language) and the other languages of India are reduced to the status of beggars in front of her. The pity is that those who call themselves our leaders are often ignorant of their mother tongue and the consequences of a society in which its leaders have become so far removed from society that they have no relationship with their language are in front of our eyes.” One could have easily ignored such sentiments from a Hindi writer if this was not so devastatingly true.

In the next three parts of the essay we search for the causes of this pitiable state of our languages and offer some concrete solutions. In part two, we chronicle how Hindi language, deprived of Sanskrit, was not allowed to develop to its potential, in part three, we investigate how Hindi and the other Indian languages were deprived of sciences by making English as the exclusive medium of higher education and in part four, we suggest some urgent intervention to stem the eventual linguistic collapse.

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