Hindi, Tamil and English: linguistic lessons in pragmatism
Press Council of India Chairman and former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju has lived in India all his life, but he made a two-part statement on Sept. 20 that sounds like the kind of innocent remark that would land a visitor like me in trouble.
Here is the gist of what Katju said in an op-ed in The Hindu:
“If (children) did not learn English they would only be fit to drive bullock carts (Hal chalane layak rah jayenge). I said I too loved Hindi, which is my mother tongue, but that did not mean I should behave like a fool.”
- “At the same time, people in non-Hindi speaking States such as Tamil Nadu should learn Hindi, because it is the link language in our country.”
This is, as you might suspect, a touchy subject. Hindi, one of the two official languages of India, is part of a group of languages spoken primarily in northern India. The group includes its many regional variations in the so-called Hindi Belt, its sort of twin sister Urdu, as well as Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Assamese, Nepali and more.
The primary languages of southern India, meanwhile, are Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. They are unrelated to the northern languages, which mostly are Indo-European in origin, sharing a common root with English and other Romance languages, Celtic languages, German languages and more.
In southern India, there is a history of people resenting the imposition of Hindi as a compulsory language, and there are people who prefer English as the language of communication with other people in India who speak different mother tongues.
These days, languages are a source of pride for many all over the world, but the idea that someone is imposing a language on you might rankle. Here is one comment on Katju’s article:
There is a trace of imposition of Hindi in this article. Voluntarily we were learning Hindi during school days five decades ago but after the imposition by fanatics from North the politicians started the agitation in Tamilnadu. That was for giving headache to the ruling govt and to gain political base. We were studying well, the third language-Hindi but it was stopped. The Northerners do not study Tamil,Malayalam,Kannada or Telugu along with English and Hindi. Studying Oriya, Marathi,Bhojpuri, Rajasthani and learning Hindi also will not be very difficult. Imposition of anything language, culture, or social norms is bringing the conflict among society members. –Chandrasekaran
Katju responded to criticism on Friday. His basic points:
- “If my suggestion that Tamilians should learn Hindi made sense to Tamilians, they should accept it, but if it did not make sense to them, they should reject it. Where is the compulsion?”
- Regarding criticism that Hindi chauvinists say that their language is superior to Tamil: no, but you’re talking about a population of some 72 million Tamil speakers vs half a billion in the Hindi belt. Think about it.
- Regarding English as a preferable “link language” to Hindi for Indians: “It’s the language of the elite. Only about five percent of Indians know English (though I myself have appealed to people to learn English, since much of the knowledge of the world is in English, and I have strongly criticised those who say ‘Angrezi Hatao (abolish English’).”
I’ve visited India on four short trips in five years, and have become familiar with the barest essentials of language politics (try getting a straight answer on whether Hindi and Urdu are different languages — not the standardised languages of today that they teach in schools, but their origins not so long ago. Best you study them yourself and draw your conclusions.). We all link some national and (in some cases) ethnic pride to the languages that we speak, but let’s leave that aside and consider one simple point: yes, it’s hard to learn a new language for many people, but when did learning a new language — any new language — ever hurt you?