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The Spoken Word!


On International Mother Language Day, Sanjeev Chopra, the Festival Director of Valley of Words, offers a synoptic review of Peggy Mohan’s work “Wanderers, Kings and Merchants” to understand how the spoken word is evolving in India that is Bharat and also Hindustan in many imaginations.

There are so many ways in which the story of India, or indeed of any country can be written. It can be documented as a chronicle of kings and emperors; it can be portrayed as the making and unmaking of boundaries, or as the narrative of religious domination and persecution. Other historians may focus on trade – both inland and maritime, as well as on waves of migration, contestation and assimilation. Typically, history books centre around dynasties, wars of succession and generals who emerged victorious in battle, and the narrative is built on contemporary and later day hagiographies. All these point to certain aspects of truth, but not the entire truth of how a nation and its people imagine themselves, or about their everyday expressions which reflect the lived reality in greater measure than any list of rulers and their successors!

From the nineteenth century, linguistic nationalism came to the fore, and many an epic battle was fought for determination of boundaries based on the language which a people spoke – and thus language became a significant marker of identity. Many lives were lost before the linguistic reorganisation of states took place in our country, and where this right was denied (as in Pakistan) the nation itself broke apart.

The book under consideration, Peggy Mohan’s ‘Wanderers, Kings and Merchants: The story of India through its Languages’ raises an even more fundamental issue: how do languages of daily discourse, as well as the languages of power and ritual evolve: how do they interact with each other, and how have they shaped and defined India as we know her today? Starting out with her own example of learning English Creole in Trinidad & Tobago in the neighbourhood, formal Hindi in school with whiffs of Bhojpuri from her grandmother, and her mother’s Canadian accented English at home – she saw both similarities and distinctions between the languages that surround all those who grow in a multilingual environment. Every language has some aspect that is unique – as for example in Trinidad Bhojpuri – the basic numeric count is not up to base ten, but up to base twenty. Thus, up to twenty, the numbers are more or less like Hindi, but at twenty, they are flipped back to the start, and like twenty in English, there is twenty-one but, at forty, it is ‘two twenties and one’ (dui-bis-a-ek), and so on. Mohan was left wondering whether this was an original concept, or was it the influence of the ‘aboriginal’ on Bhojpuri!

While it is true that, across the world, languages and dialects within the same language change every few miles – the process is gradual. Thus, one sees that even within Punjabi spoken in the now truncated Punjab, there are three distinct variants – the Majhi ,which is spoken in Amritsar and the districts bordering Pakistan; Doabi – spoken in Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Kapurthala; and Malwai, which is spoken in Patiala and the cis Sutlej areas. However, newer languages were different. They ‘did not only sprout in continuity like new branches from the same tree from where they started (as in the example given above), but were like different trees that happened to be neighbours stretching their branches, touching each other, and sharing (the common) structure.

No discussion on Indian languages would be complete without a reference to Amir Khusro, who is credited with having created Hindavi – also called Urdu and Rekhta – as the language of communication among the very different and distinct linguistic forms prevalent in his times. Khusro’s father, Amir Saifuddin Shamsi, was from Central Asia, and his mother, Daulatnaz Bibi, was from a Muslim Rajput family, whose father was one of the highest-ranking officials of Balban, with the title Nawab Imadul Mulk. Khusro learnt Turki (Uzbek), Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, and also picked up the various dialects spoken in the Delhi region: Awadhi, Braj, Bhojpuri as well as Khari Boli, or Dehalvi. This was Hindavi, later called Urdu or Rekhta, and quite distinct from Persian, the formal language of the court elite. This then was a moment of transition and transformation, for in the normal course languages do not change much, except for addition in vocabulary – and English is a fine example of adding words and expressions from all the languages – such that the corpus of words has grown from a few thousand in the times of Shakespeare to nearly 1.5 million at the last count. English is the predator, encroaching into Hindi to create Hinglish – a new format which is accepted by Bollywood, the media and even the political class. Most speeches of the Prime Minister are now peppered with English words. In fact, it is now almost impossible to find Hindi words for mobile, computer, control, driver, speed, petrol, diesel, ration – to name a few.