Passion is a fire. It can cook up a tasty meal. It can equally burn a house down. The passion for a country, a region, a language or for that matter even a food item, or how it is pronounced, is equally so. It cuts both ways. Positive and negative.
Take the humble dosa, it is pronounced by different people differently and literally every hundred kilometres has a version of its own. And everyone wants to own it. The taste and food item part of it apart, its very pronunciation sets its connoisseur in divide. While some call it a “dosa”, others call it a “Dosa” with a hard accent on the D, and then there is of course the traditional “dosai”. And tens of other versions.
The passion for this humble rice and lentil pancake is therefore deep. Any affront to it is not taken kindly, as we saw in the recent north Indian dosa versus the south Indian one fight. What’s more, the humble dosa has a Schezwan variant as well, which the Chinese may own one day and patent. Who knows?
Passion is therefore a fire that burns in every heart. It is about ownership, pride and a certain sense of love for products or services. This passion starts from the very personal and moves in outward circles of progressive group adoption. It starts with a passion that is about yourself, and then spreads to your family of five and on to the community you live in, over to the city that is your immediate ecosystem, and spreads on and on. From city to country to a continent to the world and finally to the cosmos at large.
Passion that is personal and restricted to the innermost circle of self, family and local community seems to be the strongest binding glue in our lives. The passion for a food item that is local, a language that is local and a custom that is deeply local is strongest at the core and does certainly get dissipated in passion scores as it spreads to the larger circles of adoption.
Let me just pick one passion for now. The passion for a language. Languages have been known to divide people into sub-groups that have often fought with one another. An affront to language is not taken lightly even today. To many, language is part of the regional affiliation kit that is so basic. The state, its political boundaries, its flag (if there exists one), its anthem and its primary language is oftentimes protected with passion and fervour. And oftentimes fought for even.
The passion for language is really not about size, as much as it is about who you are and what you speak. If it were all about size, Mandarin Chinese would rule with literally 14% of the world speaking it. If you were to add Wu Chinese to it, that would be a notch higher by a percentage point.
Would it then be right to say that language is an imperialism? A force that will eventually dictate passion-bonds among peoples of the world? Will one language try to make inroads into the territory of another? Will the world be divided by language more than political boundaries that divide the world today? Will commonality of language bind more and create language islands that will rule? Will language wars be a reality of the future? Will the largest languages try to consume the smallest? Will the big iron-box effect of a common language iron out the small languages that are really little creases of differentiation? Many questions. Not enough answers yet.
Will the smallest languages of the world disappear altogether? Will different language groups be owned by a different ethos, each that will define their isms? Is Mandarin Chinese the flag-bearer of Communism, just as English and Hindi are possibly flag-bearers of the best examples of democratic tradition? Will language divides define religious ones as well? Will nations have their own languages? Can language have a religion? More questions.
What then of countries like India, which houses the second largest population in the world and yet has a variegated language culture within the country? Hindi, the official language of the Union of India (adopted by the Constitution in 1950), is spoken by 528 million speakers. The rest among the 1.38 billion people in India therefore speak a myriad set of languages, English included, with pride and passion. Each language represents a crease of differentiation that fights being erased by the great big iron-box culture that wants commonality in a mass that desires differentiation in everything, food, clothing and language included. The ultimate example of unity in diversity is the brightly quilted language culture of India.
The passion that each of these many languages of India pack is truly unassessed to date. Each language is a powerhouse of deep passion, kept latent most of the time by those who speak it.
Time to then let each language be. Let each language swim in its own territory, both geographic and psychographic. In India, we seem to have emerged with a three-language formula, mostly with Hindi, English and the local language leading the way. English has certainly become a language that bridges and replaces the discomfort shown in many places to Hindi. And therefore we record around 260 million English speakers. As a comparative marker to note, the population of the United Kingdom as of now stands at 67 million. English is the second most spoken language in India with Bengali coming in third position at 97 million.
Numbers apart, the important thing to remember is that the world speaks more than 7,100 languages today. India boasts of the oldest spoken language to date (Tamil) and the smallest as well (Sanskrit, with around 25,000 active speakers). We have large languages, and we have micro-languages in our midst. The best thing to do is let language be. Let the large languages be and when it comes to the smaller ones, let’s protect them with good intent. And passion to boot.
Let’s then create an ecosystem to let every language thrive, both in the physical and digital world. Let’s remember that some languages need focus and care to get them back on track. In a progressively digital world, we don’t write and read as much as we listen and see. Niche languages like Konkani (2.3 million speakers), as an example close to heart, need that digital nudge to keep them going. Let the big languages be. Let’s focus on the micro-languages of India. Let’s go.
Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc