Sunday, September 06, 2020

What is in a Language?

 It happens every few years. A desperate politician type hoping to mobilise his dwindling vote bank says something stupid about India needing a ‘unifying’ language and insisting that language is Hindi. A political opponent responds with a loaded tweet about being asked if she is an Indian because she cannot or will not speak Hindi. And that does it. The South Indians rally together to #StopHindiImposition united like never before by their shared concerns about protecting their beautiful languages. And there are always those who leap into the fray, crazed eyes glinting wildly fuelled by dreams of an India where everybody speaks and swears in the same language, worships the same Gods, wears the same clothes, and eats the same veggie saapadu washed down with gaumutra.

Oh my Kadavuley! I have always wondered about the pointlessness of it all. After all, the British have already done a thorough job with English imposition. Practically everybody speaks English in India (pidgin English counts!), since it is the true unifying language not just in India but the rest of the world as well. All parents want their children to study in Angrezi medium schools because hard – bitten practicality wins over pretend idealism every single time. And nobody can claim that fancy, high – paying jobs where you get to wear those perfectly tailored suits and step into air – conditioned sanctuaries of polished steel and chrome away from the unforgiving tropical heat to lord it over the unfortunates who haven’t made it past the hallowed portal can be nailed down if one is fluent only in Hindi. Or Tamil. Or insert any regional language you prefer.

So the great majority of us speak English with varying degrees of fluency and have neglected our mother – tongues. Can we read high – falutin poetry and prose or deliver a formal speech in the language of our ancestors? Of course not. We shell out beaucoup bucks to master the Queen’s English or its poor cousin, American English and yet we hardly speak it like natives even though we like to pretend otherwise. I will never forget that time, when I enthusiastically charged into a Macy’s, NY, to take advantage of a handbag sale only to have the saleswoman look at me with the withering scorn reserved for savage illiterates because she could not follow my Indian accent.

Unfortunately, even that did not inspire me to return to the warm embrace of my mother – tongue – Tamil, which I speak disgracefully according to most. Or learn Hindi. Why should I? The purpose of language is communication so we can understand each other better. And that will happen only if we focus on the essence of what is being communicated. Not the words themselves. Or the language in which they are uttered.

This column was published in The New Indian Express.  

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