Mind your language...

Mind your language...

Mind your language...

Nanna look bere ne, nanna touch bere ne’ — this was the first Kannada song I heard when I moved back to India. Some other local songs also had me scratching my head. There was so much of national and international languages mixed into the local songs that, at times, I just didn’t know what language was being used in the song. 

Seven years later, the head-scratching still continues. There is so much mixing of languages going on that one never hears the pure local version anymore. It all starts from how children address their parents: it is no longer ‘Appa’ or ‘Pithaji’, ‘Amma’ or ‘Mathaji’. More often than not, it is ‘Daddy’ or ‘Dad’ or ‘Papa’, and ‘Mom’, ‘Mummy’ or ‘Mamma’. And then it goes all over the place... they go to ‘school’, ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, then to ‘college’, then search for a ‘job’, and ‘settle’.

All this leads to a very relevant question: are local languages going extinct? There are some people who swear they are. It is just a matter of time, they tell you, before we convert totally to English. But there are others who say that local languages are like native weeds. Ask any farmer, they say you can never completely stamp the local flavour out.

In times like these, it does seem likely that English will win out in the end. When the British left India, they left behind their language. This language of the rulers became something to be treasured. It became a symbol of babudom, the bureaucracy, because they used it the most. And, since the babus were the upper-middle class, their English was their ‘neighbour’s envy and owner’s pride’. 

The beauty of it all was that only the middle class cared about English. The rich didn’t need it, and the poor didn’t care. This ‘language aristocracy’ continued for almost 50 years.

Then came globalisation, which swept all before it. Technology and gadgetry became accessible to all, and with them came, technical language. ATMs sprouted all over the place, and cell phones became ubiquitous. Before long, everyone, I mean everyone, was ‘missed call’-ing, ‘What’sApp’-ing, ‘SMS’-ing, internet surfing and, yes, ‘selfie’-ing. People may think that ATM means ‘Any Time Money’ and ‘currency’ means talktime on the phones only, but they are using those terms all the same. And as expected, the terminology shows up in the institution which is the mirror of society: movies and movie songs.

‘Beta, selfie le le’, sings someone indulgently, only to be overpowered by ‘Sari ke fall sa kabhi match kiya re’. Meanwhile, a female voice breathlessly croons, ‘Ee touch-alli yeno ide!’ I would dearly love to capture a picture of an American or Britisher being bombarded by these songs. It is one thing to not understand anything, when you can ignore the spoken word and concentrate on trying to understand body language. How much worse must it be to catch familiar words being used wrongly and in unfamiliar ways between stretches of pure gibberish?

All things considered, I tend to side with people who think local languages will never die out. Like the people themselves, language is a living, breathing, metamorphosing entity which evolves according to local trends. Viability of a language depends on its flexibility, and its growth actually depends on its ability to absorb and change itself to suit the needs of the day. 

In fact, language is very much like clothing. These days, jeans and t-shirts have taken over the wardrobe of the youth, relegating saris and dhotis to traditional family occasions and the weird ‘ethnic’ days. On these days, we see boys with velcro dhotis and belts cinched so tight that breathing becomes a chore. As for the girls, they are so pinned up that a man with an MRI machine can literally become a ‘chick magnet’.

The huge number of selfies taken on these days reveals the truth: new trends in local languages and customs do not replace them, but grow on them. They may alter the original thing, sometimes rendering them almost unrecognisable, but they won’t change one thing: in the end, ‘ek dil chahiye that’s made in India’.

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