Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Notes of a Nobody: Languages in Limbo

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 18, 2013

LanguageIf  languages had personalities then English would most certainly resemble the Indian mythological character Vali. His character in the Indian epic, The Ramayana, holds a great fascination for me even today. He was strong, tough, tenacious, brilliantly regenerative and gifted in his ability to absorb (and thereby deplete) fifty percent of the power and vitality of any opponent who came face to face with him in combat. It is for this reason Rama slays him by shooting powerful arrows from behind. The perceived amorality of this act of Rama evokes a righteous indignation and debate in many a child who first encounters this incident in The Ramayana. The valiesque traits of English language are there for everyone to see. Absorbing from which ever language it encounters and by becoming a language of science and business, it appears to be regenerating, sustaining and gradually dominating all other languages. If human tongues and vocal chords is the hardware then English is becoming the de-facto operating system and dominant programming language. One quick look at the addition of words in Oxford English Dictionary (OED) over the last ten years shows the accelerating pace with which the word stock of English is growing. English now resembles the mythical salt mill at the bottom of the ocean that the two brothers in the old fairy tale have forgotten to stop. The mill continues to grind out the salt and add to the growing saltiness of the ocean waters. In our Tower of Babel its stridency is clearly on the ascendant

When I was a child, being a bi-lingual was taken for granted and if one were from south India most often one eventually grew to be tri-lingual. (We jokingly defined bespectacled south Indian toppers at school as mono-minded, qudra-eyed, trilingual bi-peds). Besides, there was this fascinating ability to switch in and out of languages at will. Increasingly we all are gravitating towards English with a programmed determinism that at some times horrifies me. In a fit of guilt driven umbrage, I tried reading Prem Chand’s stories in Hindi in the recent past and was dismayed to find how I have allowed my ability to read and understand Hindi atrophy. As a child, I remember having a sense of ease at plodding through his stories. Luckily, my ability to read and understand Telugu, which is my mother tongue, appears to have remained intact. I cannot say the same about my writing in Telugu. Much has chipped and worn out by time and disuse. Language, I am coming to realize is one of the most precious things that defines us and yet here, as in many other facets of our lives, we are moving towards a leveling. This is more pronounced with our children. In the recent past, I went to my native place with my children and viewed from the lenses of language, they could have pretty well gone to Timbuktoo and be equally surprised to encounter an incomprehensible alien tongue. Sign boards, hoardings and wall posters with pictures were just pictures for them with no meaning. This leveling and homogenization of languages may have frightening consequences almost at the same level as that of the environmental catastrophe that we are currently in. Cut ties with language and we would close doors permanently on some aspects of our culture. What substitutes this void is hard to predict. Given the way we are going, anything can fill this void and there is no guarantee that it would be something wholesome. Above all, we would irrevocably miss some superbly fashioned and refined aesthetics from our music, literature and poetry and that would be a sad loss

Between these formal languages there were words that we created as kids for ourselves which had immense situational and interactive currency. As an example, in a game of marbles that we played in a quiet and dusty ground near school there was a lingua-franca of our own: Lanta meant a cue marble, dop meant turn and pimpri meant a small marble used in special circumstances of the game to avoid collision of marbles. Having good lantas and pimpris enhanced your status in the circle and anybody who violated a dop had to bear a mouthful of choicest invective. Children do not play marbles anymore these days and the associated lingo is gone forever. Children do not live in the same places they are born in and therefore are losing the language forever. What can reverse the tide, (if at all it can be reversed) is something I do not know. Maybe, some lucky attack of cultural atavism might give us and our future generations back what we are losing and will have lost forever

We know our Vali and we have him in front of us standing menacingly… it is the Rama who I think is missing in action.

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