Diglossia

The languages we assume to be thriving are all dying.

I was recently reading a book called Wanderer, Kings, Merchants by Peggy Mohan who is a language researcher. The book summarises the rise of various Indian languages and the metamorphosis that they have undergone over the millennia. The first language to come to India was the one that was used by the Harappan Civilisation. It is now lost to history because we have not found any way to translate it.

The people of the Harappan civilisation who continued their wanderings moved down along the western coast to finally settle in what is today’s south India. From there emerged Proto Dravidian which gave birth to Tamil. From that, a cornucopia of other languages emerged including Marathi and Gujrati. The language that evolved in north India was Prakrit. Somewhere in the midst, Sanskrit arrived from what would be Uzbekistan today, along with the Rig Veda.

Language takes on a new flavour either because it is the only way to communicate with those in power or breeding between people who know different languages causes the progeny to acquire language. In the case of Sanskrit, the Aryans who came into India married local women and passed on the language. 

While Sanskrit survived due to the Vedas and the Vedic rituals, it cannot be said that the language assumed widespread common usage.

The same was not true when the British came to India. They brought English and were eventually able to ensure that the language became the language of the government. They taught English to locals, to administer their loot of India. Unfortunately by the time independence came around, there were two factors that made Indians hold on to English. 

Inertia, the existing systems of governance were meant to work in English and changing them would cause a lot of disruption. 

The Southern states did not want Hindi imposed on them. They were willing to deal with English rather than utilise another Indian language.

As a result, most of the government machinery uses English and it became a status symbol to know the language. It has also meant that we are no longer working on the preservation of our own languages. Even when someone like Modi, who likes to stick to Hindi, gives a speech today; he is forced to use English words. Yesterday at the COP26 he said, “Bharat mein hum 500-gigawatt ki renewable capacity create karenge” [In India we will create renewable capacity of 500GW]. Sure, some of those words can be translated to pure Hindi. What is the Hindi word for Giga and Watt?

Almost every Indian language is a state of Diglossia.

Diglossia -the use of two varieties of the same language in different social contexts throughout a speech community

Source: Merriam Webster

We are all losing our languages. English is slowly but surely creeping into the language we use and there are so many words for which we know not the equivalent in the Indian language we use. When the most staunch proponents of a language do not know word equivalents, you can rest assured the days of that language are numbered. Languages don’t disappear. They decline slowly and then become irrelevant.

Almost every Indian language is on a decline.

I had visited Iceland a few years ago and it is a country of some 3 lac people. But they had a department in their govt that was dedicated to creating word equivalents. The rise of science and technology has given us so many new words like the keyboard, the mouse, crypto-currency; it is impossible that your language has an equivalent. Icelanders keep inventing new Icelandic words to mean the same. This is so that they do not let English penetrate and kill their language. 

That ship has sailed for the Indian languages. The next time you use an English word while speaking in your mother tongue, that is a sign of Diglossia.