The Chimera of Linguistic Hegemony in South Asia

Linguistic allegiance remains a strong marker of cultural identity in South Asia.

What role do South Asian languages play in today’s world — particularly since, as in most former British colonies, English often works reasonably well, especially in places a foreigner is likely to go?

India is a nation of over 200 different languages, 22 of which the government officially recognizes. These official languages can be used for answering questions on civil service exams (regardless of the language in which the exam is written), they receive special government attention, and they are entitled to representation on the Official Language Commission.

Indian Linguistic Cultural Diversity

In the midst of this linguistic diversity and creativity, the Hindi language maintains a somewhat uneasy hegemony, and not only in the north. Despite staunch resistance in the south, Hindi remains a lingua franca.

With one exception, however: English still trumps all and continues to offer the path to job security for millions. Parents fight for their children’s admission to English-medium schools, with the sorry result that many well-educated urban Indians remain illiterate in their mother tongues. Meanwhile, their counterparts in village schools may also be learning English, but are usually doing so through the medium of their local languages.

And yet, most people in India, regardless of the level of education, speak more than one language and code-switch between them constantly. This is hardly surprising, given the above-mentioned linguistic diversity. People will speak their own native language, the main regional language (usually Hindi or Tamil), and often English. People frequently express their more private ideas and emotions in their mother tongue, rather than in the “father tongue” of English.

The situation elsewhere in South Asia is not much different. Nepal’s 2011 census reveals native speakers of some 122 languages, while even tiny Bangladesh, the only nation formed (at least in part) on the right to its native language, hosts speakers of nearly 40 other languages. Pakistan gives varying degrees of official recognition, not only to its official languages of Urdu and English, but also to ten other languages.

Only Sri Lanka, perhaps because it is an island, is home to very few languages — namely Sinhala, Tamil, and a few creoles.

Language Acquisition

The American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) has been in the business of teaching South Asian languages to Americans for over 40 years now. The largest programs are Hindi and Urdu, because people recognize that these can serve as lingua francas in much of the region; however, other languages have smaller but no less robust programs with excellent teachers.

This past summer over 200 students, most from the US, studied Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tibetan and even Sanskrit. Many had already worked on at least one other South Asian language, and still more will return to do so. Dozens of others stayed for the full academic year, participating fully in local festivals and other events, living with host families and developing friendships with people in their neighborhoods.

Why are so many foreigners interested in these languages? The students are interested in religion, film, literature, agriculture, education, security, anthropology, politics, urban planning, women’s studies and more, and they plan to work with original source materials and with local people to pursue those interests.

They may expect to work in remote areas without access to libraries, translators or translations, and want to develop genuine relationships with the people and subjects they study. Many are bound for academic careers where they will bring authentic unmitigated knowledge of the region to their students. Some plan careers in the Foreign Service and want to be well-informed about the areas in which they will work. Some are established professionals embarking on a project in a new (for them) part of the world.

Culture, language and identity are inextricably intertwined. If we want to learn about people who live in South Asia, or whose families originated there, we need to know more than how to locate their home towns on a map. What do people eat, how do they dress, and of course, how do they communicate?

For English speakers, “rice” is rice. For Bengalis, it’s dhān when it’s growing in the field, cāl when you buy it in the market, and bhāt when it’s steaming hot on your plate. If you mention your uncle casually in conversation, your Indian friend will want to know which uncle, for their language specifies whether you’re talking about your father’s little brother or your mother’s elder brother, for example.

These seemingly small matters are important, for many grow up in multi-generational families with their father’s relatives, while visiting their mother’s side of the family is a rare treat; the relationships with each side of the family are different.

Linguistic Hybridization

After centuries of linguistic cohabitation, even linguistically unrelated South Asian languages have come to have some features in common and to share some vocabulary. Areal features like tag questions (in English we might say “you know” at the end of a sentence; in most Indian languages, people add “isn’t it”), Sanskrit or Arabic words to describe religious rituals, and loan words dropped into the mix through conquest and occupation are but a few examples. And of course the borrowing goes both ways: “shampoo,” “punch,” “bandana,” “catamaran,” and “mongoose,” to name some that have entered English usage.

Commercial Hindi cinema — Bollywood — is popular all over the world. Its plots and colorful song-and-dance numbers make it easy to follow the action, even if you can’t understand a word.

The film industry and popular culture more generally have unwittingly joined forces with the persistence of the English language to create the hybrid entity known as “Hinglish,” whose speakers code-switch constantly back and forth between the two, even in a single sentence.

Hinglish is currently the language of young, hip elite North Indians, while job-seekers are beginning to list it among their language competencies on résumés. Words that sound very close in the two languages permit a rich array of puns.

But other parts of the region also boast thriving film industries, and in the south, “Tamlish” is beginning to emerge as well. Outsiders who don’t speak both components of the hybrid can be lost when surrounded by its speakers.

Salman Rushdie famously commented some years back that there is no good regional literature being produced in India these days and, in doing so, he launched a firestorm almost as fierce as that which greeted his Satanic Verses in 1988.

He was wrong, of course, but sadly — and here is where he was right — little of it is being translated, and so remains invisible to non-speakers of the language of composition. And while more and more South Asians are writing in English these days, pride in regional language and culture remain strong.

Political moves in India to establish a single language as the national language to displace English cannot succeed in this diversity. Nor should they, in the interest of preserving the region’s rich and productive diversity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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