Why are languages dying?

Mulayam Singh Yadav is old school. Craftiest of the lot, not for nothing does he enjoy the distinction of having ruled India’s largest state for three terms. A fourth one was passed over in favour of his son.

Now Mulayam seldom says or does something without a considered motive underpinning it. His fixation with Hindi and fulminations against English, however, are a recurring phenomenon. Like a bored child, he sends up this balloon about throwing out the Queen’s language and promoting ‘rashtra bhasha’ (national language) from time to time.

Which for most South Indians is nothing short of a call to arms. Let’s not forget that the Tamils not long ago threatened to break away from India over the imposition of Hindi. A similar approach to language split Pakistan, a nation founded in the name of faith. Emotions and languages go together.

Now despite coming from a tribe that depends critically on the English language to keep the wolf from the door, I have no qualms in saying that Macaulay’s gift may have been directly or indirectly responsible for the decline and in some cases total decimation of hundreds of rich languages and cultures around the world. Ancient languages like Arabic, Persian, Latin, Greek and even the traditional rival next door, French, find themselves overwhelmed by the all-conquering power of the language from a tiny, cold island.

If this is the predicament of powerful languages with hundreds of millions of speakers, you can imagine the fate of tongues and dialects that are less fortunate. With no state patronage or loyalty of their followers, they are doomed.

Language is perhaps one of God’s greatest gifts to us. The first word revealed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, was Iqra (read). Spoken word is what distinguishes us from animals. Languages are the collective heritage of mankind. They belong to us all.

Each language spawns a whole culture and its own distinct values and etiquettes. A whole way of life revolves around it. It defines our identity and in some cases, as in secular Europe, linguistic identity is more important than a religious one.

This is why it is a human tragedy when a language quietly dies, for whatever reason. And they are dying fast. According to the Unesco, an ancient language dies every 14 days somewhere on the planet. And if nothing is done, warns the world body, half of 6,000 plus languages spoken today may disappear by the end of this century. “With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded in indigenous languages,” cautions the UN agency.

Most of these endangered languages are in the developing world. Rapid globalisation and the total hegemony of Western civilization and culture over the past few centuries has ensured the complete global supremacy of the English language. Like it or not, it has become the global lingua franca — a language the world does business in.

And this global order is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Doubtless, it is a rich and versatile language and has helped bring together cultures and nations of the world. But must its success come at the expense of other equally great languages and cultures?

Being a student of the English language and literature, I naturally love it. Not just because I love my Shakespeare, Shelly, Keats, Frost, Dickens, Jane Austen and Hemingway but also because after all these years of association with it, I find myself at home with the language. And this is the case with most people of my generation and succeeding generations. Above all, it has helped people like me who come from a humble ‘Urdu background’ discover a global audience.

M J Akbar, the veteran scribe-turned-politician known for his extraordinary penmanship, insists on calling it as an “Indian” language. According to him, India is the largest English-speaking nation today. Fellow politician and brilliant author and rhetorician Shashi Tharoor would probably agree.

And so would hundreds of millions of young Indians enrolled in the so-called English medium schools across the country where a comfort level with the language is seen as a passport to prosperity and perhaps a better life abroad.

I have nothing against Hindi. If it was not for the heavy dose of Sanskrit that is routinely forced down one’s throat by the dreary Doordarshan and various ministries and arms of the Government of India in the name of Hindi, it is a sweet language.

Indeed, Urdu and Hindi are inextricably linked to each other, thanks to their shared Indo-Aryan base and “khari boli” heritage. They indeed sound like twins, the only and critical distinguishing difference being the script. This is why at the height of the raging Hindi-Urdu row before the Independence, Mahatma Gandhi ingeniously came up with the term called Hindustani to cool tempers on both sides.

Be that as it may, it is rather strange that after spending of hundreds of billions of rupees in concerted campaigns by successive governments all these years to promote and push Hindi, Mulayam and other champions of Hindi should be concerned about its future. In fact, if anything, the promotion of Hindi has been done at the expense of all other Indian languages, especially the exquisite Urdu.

If any language really faces an existential crisis today, it is Urdu, the eclectic language that came into being following an encounter between the Arab, Persian and Central Asian Muslims and Indian civilization. Heavily drawn from Persian, Arabic and Turkic languages because they formed the linguistic roots of the new arrivals, Urdu is essentially Indian in spirit and character because its base of khari boli, Hindi, Prakrit and Sanskrit is rooted in this land.

The result is a language that for centuries served as the lingua franca of Mughal India and still does, widely understood and spoken as it is across the length and breadth of the country. After being elbowed out as the language of power and courts — and from virtually everywhere else — Bollywood ostensibly remains its last bastion — an industry once looked down upon by good Muslims.

Urdu is slowly dying in India today. Starved of state support and weighed down by the apathy of its own speakers, it is systematically being squeezed out from across the country. Do not let all those mediocre mushairas fool you.

Urdu is in dire straits in the land of its birth. In Pakistan, I understand, things aren’t any better either although the language enjoys the state patronage. A young Pakistani blogger recently bemoaned the fact that most young Pakistanis today see Urdu as the “language of servants” and naturally turn to the Queen’s English to express themselves.

Ludmila Vasilieva, the gifted Russian translator of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, recently pointed out that while she often sees Indian officials speak in Hindi even in an international setting, Pakistanis fastidiously stick to the language that Mulayam insists belongs to the empire. As authors of the Unesco report on the endangered languages note, “a language is endangered when parents are no longer teaching it to their children and it is no longer being used in everyday life.”

So the future of our language is in our own hands. The Jews kept their language alive in the face of great adversity and exile of more than 2,000 years. It would take far less to keep ours alive.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and former newspaper editor.


Aijaz Zaka Syed