India’s myriad tongues and the English debate

There are countries that have suppressed other languages and forcibly imposed the most-spoken language on everyone else, seeking to standardise and harmonise.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

What is the word for “friend” in Sanskrit? If asked for synonyms of “friend” in English, I will hesitate. Companion, confidante? There aren’t too many good ones. For that word in Sanskrit, I will hesitate. There are too many good ones—mitra, sakha, bandhu, suhrid, bandhava, vayasya. (I have given the masculine gender.) The structures of the two languages, English and Sanskrit, are completely different. In English, a noun means something, directly. In Sanskrit, a noun means nothing, except indirectly. In Sanskrit, the critical bit is the verbal root. The noun is unimportant and the meaning of the noun is derived from the verbal root. Since the noun and the pronoun are unimportant, I do not capitalise “I”.

Since the noun and the pronoun are relatively unimportant, not just in Sanskrit, but in most Indian languages, typically, most Indians will not say, “I am so and so.” The response will be, “My name is so and so,” or, “I am known as so and so.” Notice the emphasis in the second statement on the verb. So, unless you tell me what the friend is supposed to do, I don’t know what word to give you in Sanskrit. There is a famous shloka, which I am not going to quote. Someone I work with is mitra. Someone who is dear to my heart is sakha. Someone from whom separation is intolerable is bandhu. Someone who is always devoted is suhrid. Someone who follows me when the king summons me (invariably for punishment), or my body goes to the cremation ground, is bandhava. Different shades of meaning and not quite synonyms. The focus is on the friend’s function, the verb.

If someone asks me the word for “curds” in Bengali, I won’t hesitate. Doi in the colloquial and dadhi in more polished language. In the Hindi heartland, I will get what I want in a restaurant or shop, especially if I say dadhi. That’s unlikely to be the case in the south. But asked for the word for “curds” in Sanskrit, I will again hesitate. Dadhi certainly, but also takra, amiksha, sara, payasya, kshirasara, shandala, shula, perhaps even something based on manthana. Having failed to make myself understood with dadhi, if I try takra, I suspect many people in the south will understand.

I don’t know how many people still remember Pandit Lakshmi Kanta Maitra, member of the Constituent Assembly. I am going to quote part of what he said in Constituent Assembly debates on September 13, 1949: “Wherever I have travelled, if I have not been able to make myself understood in any other language, I have been able to make myself understood in Sanskrit. Two decades ago, when I was in Madras, in some of the big temples at Madura, Rameshwaram, Tirupati, I could not make myself understood in English or in any other language, but the moment I started talking in Sanskrit, I found that these people could well understand me and exchange their views.” Sanskrit has an incredibly rich vocabulary, more than any of the other languages in the Eighth Schedule. There are an estimated 1,70,000 words in the English language. Because of sandhi and samasa and the ability to form new words, the number of words in Sanskrit is, in principle, infinite. Unlike written Sanskrit, such as in literature, spoken Sanskrit, shorn of sandhi and samasa, is relatively easy. Because of the way Census questions are asked, many more people speak Sanskrit than you might think. Census doesn’t reveal the whole truth.

However, this column isn’t about Sanskrit. It is about India being a multicultural and multilingual country. I anchor a programme for TV. It is bilingual (English and Hindi). But I am constantly abused (through comments) for using English. Colonial legacy, Macaulay’s children, all reminiscent of points raised in Constituent Assembly debates. In passing, had it not been for former colonies (including USA), a tiny island’s language would have become irrelevant. English is as much India’s language (Eighth Schedule), as it is of Albion’s. Witness an extensive corpus of Indians writing in English. I use English because I want the programme to be watched outside the Hindi heartland too, within India, and outside it. Back to the comments. “Use matri bhasha.” Matri bhasha means mother tongue, mother language. Several people, ready with comments, may not know International Mother Language Day is on February 21, and will certainly not know why the date happens to be February 21. The UN chose that date because Bangladesh (then East Bengal or East Pakistan) fought for recognition of Bengali and there were martyrs to the cause on February 21, 1952.

My matri bhasha happens to be Bengali. There is a presumption that every Indian’s matri bhasha is Hindi, that too, Urdu-permeated Hindi, encouraged by Bollywood. For instance, imagine a stipulation, “Everyone must henceforth say thank you”, just as mechanically, almost everyone says “Sorry” now. Hence, we must all say, “shukriya”. I am certain, outside the Hindi heartland, despite Bollywood influence, several won’t understand. Try “dhanyavad” instead. In Constituent Assembly debates, Hindi was chosen because it was Sanskrit-permeated and easy to understand, throughout the country. A far cry from the current version of Hindi. International Mother Language Day consciously recognises diversity and encourages multilingualism. The official Bharatiya Bhasha Samiti also does so and speaks of 270 Indian languages and mother tongues, not just the Eighth Schedule. There are of course countries (one that’s a neighbour) that have suppressed other languages/dialects and forcibly imposed the most-spoken language on everyone else, seeking to standardise and harmonise.

The most-spoken language in India is Hindi, by a considerable margin. There may be people who possess sneaky admiration for what that neighbouring country does, not just for language policy. They will thus seek to overwhelm and “acquire” languages and language-speakers bordering Hindi—Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Odia, Punjabi, Assamese, Maithili and whatever else you might want to add. But that’s not the Indian route of diversity.

What binds Bharatavarsha together if we do not have a common language? How do we define Indian culture? Those are meant to be rhetorical questions. When Adi Shankaracharya travelled throughout the country, how did he make himself understood? For that matter, how did Swami Vivekananda? (No, within the country, it wasn’t English.) India is fine, eating curds and whey in local languages. There is no need to let loose a venomous spider.

Bibek Debroy

Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express