Why worry about your language?
Since the last decades of the last century, a new anxiety has descended upon humanity – that of the endurance, decay and death of language.
“How long will my language live?” ask a lot of people. “Can we call it wholesome and hearty – as we talk about it now?”
the ethnologist, an American journal, publishes annual reports on linguistic health around the world, and these have rightly alarmed not only linguists, but also those concerned about the state of their language or of human language in general. At the beginning of this century, he informed us that about half of the languages (about 14,000) that human beings had begun to speak are already dead, and of the approximately 7,000 that survive today, half will never be. not spoken before the end of this century.
However, from the outset, we want to assure our readers that our own language, Bengali, glorified by the martyrdom of its sons and daughters in Bangladesh and India and, moreover, esteemed globally after February 21 was declared of the mother tongue, is not threatened with immediate or even near extinction. It is nowhere on the UNESCO list of “endangered languages”. Worried remarks are however exchanged here and there on his state of health. Why?
The reason for this is that we, by which I mean people who have been more or less exposed to English education, do not always speak what is called ‘pure’ Bengali. We speak a variety of Bengali, often called “banglish”, translated as “bangreji”, which is a strange mixture of the two, close to a pidgin. In this document, English words and phrases are liberally scattered, and often we skip completely in Bengali to get to an English phrase or two. In the linguistic language, they are called “code switching” and “code shuffling”, which makes our language an intermediate language. This happens because we live in a bilingual environment where both languages are used. Also, because in West Bengal, there is a craze for English schooling for children, who are often discouraged from speaking Bengali even at home. Thus, English and Bangla, life partners in this bilingual home, do not lead an innocuous married life or love.
In many South Asian families, English is the dominant partner; more powerful, more esteemed, more esteemed. Meanwhile, the power and usefulness, and therefore the prestige of Bengali, are much less. And when we speak English, or even Banglish, we are immediately placed in the sacred social category of babus and sahibswhile people with no English are marked non-babus – a lower caste in the new social classification. We neo-Brahmins speak a language that puts us a cut above the ashikshita (read people with no English but otherwise quite educated) chhotoloks (one word we”babus“Often want to pronounce but stop before doing so).
Is this a real reason to worry?
Well, yes and no. A word first on the changing life of languages. A language veers from the end of “maintenance” to the other extreme, “loss”. Depending on the complex contexts in which it is spoken and the attitude of its speakers, its movement towards the end can be slow or fast. A Bengali boy of immigrant parents in the United States, living among English speakers, will lose his language faster than one living among fellow Bengalis. The loss can be somewhat stopped if the parents help the boy by speaking Bengali to him. With us too, the maintenance of our language depends on the intention of the parents. As we all see now, that of the parents here is heavily tilted towards their wards learning English more than Bengali.
And the attitude of the parents matters a lot. As we all know, English, as an imperial language, had a much higher prestige and power here even in the middle of the 19th century, when the Empire was still young in our country. My favorite quote is prank Ekei Ki Bole Sabhyata (“Is this what is called civilized behavior?”, 1859) by Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1824 – 1873), in which a group of spoiled young people, descendants of new rich people, decide to meet in the living room of a prostitute to take some good times.
Some of them had arrived at the lounge early, but the chef, who had to bring the drinks, was late. When he finally arrived, he offered many apologies, but a friend, a kind of aspiring leader, said, in English, “That’s a lie.” This infuriated the chief, who shouted, “Ki? Tumi amake liar bolo? Tumi janona, friend ekhuni tomake shoot korbo!” (What? Are you calling me a liar? Wait, I’m going to shoot you!) Of course, he didn’t have a gun on him. The two “friends” are about to come to blows, but others keep them at arm’s length and gently say that friends shouldn’t argue over such a trivial matter. Naba, still resentful, said, “Good? What do you mean by ‘stupid’? He called me a liar, and you mean it’s insignificant? not called mithyabadi in Bangla, and if he had, no son of a bitch would have complained. But “liar”? It’s too much!”
The situation in West Bengal
The same disease continues to plague our discourse in West Bengal, reinforced by the new rampant race for English schooling by middle class parents and proto or aspiring middle class parents. They speak a little English with their children and scold them if they say: “Maa, dekho, tram line and ekta goru. The mother usually said, “Don’t say gorubaba, say ‘cow’.”
It is a deadly offense for children if they call domestic animals or common birds and animals by their Bengali names. Many of our “educated” people speak Bengali littered with English words, and will look and act like idiots if asked to avoid it.
I report the events of very common quarrels in a crowded bus in Kolkata that we witnessed so often before the pandemic. Someone had unknowingly stepped on the foot of his hanging neighbor, who cried out in pain and said, I translate his Bengali – “Hey you, why did you step on my feet?” The attacker replied in an apologetic tone: “Sorry, Dada, I didn’t know!”
The victim is not appeased and continues to growl: “‘Sorry’, he says, as if saying ‘sorry’ would take away my pain! Why don’t you pay more attention when you are in a crowded bus?” The other, protesting, said, “I said ‘sorry,’ didn’t I? Such things happen on a bus! You should have traveled by taxi!” This made the other burst and asked why the other didn’t choose a taxi to travel. In this way, the exchange ignited, to reach a point where we shouted “Shut up!”, in English.
The moment when this “Shut up!” is pronounced, the quarrel is suddenly elevated to a much higher level. The other shrieks, “Ki, ‘shut up’? Shut up! Bhadrata jane na, abar Engreji jharchhe! Dekhbe moja?” and he almost attempts to punch him, a difficult effort in a crowded public vehicle, but the other passengers intervene, and the two are separated and forced into an uneasy peace.
Often our Bangladeshi friends complain about the dominance of Hindi in Kolkata jargon. This is apparently true, because on the streets of Kolkata, Hindi is the most widely spoken language. In fact, it has been that way for a long time. Most of them come to shop at the New Market, where Hindi is the most common trading language. Those who come for medical treatment and are hospitalized have to grapple with nurses from northeast and south India (mainly Keralan) who know little Bengali and use Hindi instead. But Hindi has not been able to penetrate so much into the Bengali home, although young men often use dialogue from Hindi film heroes for effect. The fact is that the average Bengali gentleman’s Bangla is not much invaded by Hindi, as it is ruthlessly ravaged by ill-dispersed English words.
This is, of course, not just a concern for Bangla. Other provinces of India have their variety of Banglish – Hinlish, Tamlish, Punlish – you have them all. If you watch the news on Indian television, you will find Indian political leaders of all colors speaking their language, be it Hindi, Marathi, Tamil or Gujarati with a liberal mixture of English words, so the Bengali in West Bengal is no exception. As long as society holds a language in disproportionate esteem, and its own language is deprived of it in proportion, the latter will continue to suffer the ignominy of degenerating into a kind of “pidgin”, even if that seems somewhat exaggerated.
An “educated” Bengali speaks with “but”, “so”, “just”, “thank you”, “OK, OK”, “actually”, “practically”, “obviously”, and a hundred other words and English expressions appearing happily in their Bengali. Listening to them for a while is a pain and a punishment for anyone who wants to hear Bengali as Bengali. When pointed out as a linguistic defect, the speaker nonchalantly says, “Why, English is also an Indian language, isn’t it?”
It’s a stupid argument. There is rarely a trace of any other Indian language in its Bengali. I know things in Bangladesh are much better. But we keep our fingers crossed.
Pabitra Sarkar in an author and former Vice Chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.