Mother tongues, passion, globalisation

Unesco declared February 21 as the International Mother Tongue Day in 1999. On this day in 1952, four young men in the present Bang-ladesh sacrificed their lives to police bullets defending Bengali language. They were termed martyrs and their death is commemorated by an international annual ‘Mother language Day.’

The same year — December 15, 1952 — Potti Sriramulu’s 58-day fast unto death demanding the formation of a separate Telugu speaking administrative territory ended in his death. There were more such incidents all over independent India.

The kind of passion and the emotional attachment exhibited by individuals towards their language was a phenomenon unique to the 20th century. The linguistic reorganisation that followed these incidents drew independent India’s internal map on language lines. Power, territory and identity were claimed in the name of language/s.

The Census of the Government of India defines mother tongue as ‘the language spoken in childhood by the person’s mother to the person. If the mother died in infancy, the language mainly spoken in the person’s home in childhood will be the mother tongue...’ D P Pattanayak writes that the word –‘matrubhasha is relatively new. The word found a place in Indian languages in the 18th century as a literal translation of the English word ‘mother tongue’.

In English, the word came to be used in the 11th and 12th century for the first time. Aligarh Institute Gazette records the etymology of the word as a translation of a Urdu word ‘mutanaffis ki zuban’ meaning ‘breath’ or ‘being animated’. India had spoken languages which were called vernacular languages by the British. Few languages among them had scripts.

Three phases can be traced in the development of spoken languages — naming, developing and ignoring. In the first phase, the 18th Century philologists grouped and arranged and named languages on the basis of genealogy. These languages were used in colonial administration, revenue collection and formation of districts, education and religious practices.

The promotion of local languages and the position conferred on English as a language that opened better life chances for the natives aided in the formation of the binary — mother and the other languages. The making of mother tongues coincided with bequeathing an anthropomorphic form to the country. Rabindranath Tagore termed it as ‘idolatry of geography.’ Land and language were merged into the form of a mother, ‘mata’, and the narrative was repeated at the regional level.

Linguistic reorganisation of states made some languages into official languages. The Constitution gave some mother tongues a higher status through the Eighth Schedule. This began the veiled/militant tug of war between languages: each was jostling for more space, more domains and more power.

The little languages which did not enjoy the status of an official language had to face threat from English, Hindi and the regional language. The persistent economic inequality pushed the poorer masses to perceive English as a language of opportunities and better life chances.

Language and education

Economic globalisation has tied education and employment opportunities together. There is a direct correlation between language and education. Globalisation has also turned education, language and human resource into commodities. Within this paradigm, where is the space for emotional attachment to the language? The global language is occupying domains which were earmarked for mother tongues.

The effect of globalisation on mother tongues is complex. It is no more the centre-periphery dichotomy. Mere protectionism doesn’t seem to be helping languages to survive the onslaught of English. The focus of state governments ought to shift from guarding the regional languages to saving the little/oral languages. District level language policy in education where the local/ oral languages are a part of the curriculum would energise the linguistic landscape. 

Lisa Mitchell recounts a picture published in a newspaper on the 48th anniversary of AP. The picture shows the garlanded statue of ‘Telugu Talli’ in Hyderabad. The pedestal of the statue bore English inscription. This seems to be the plight of every mother tongue in India today. The work that began in the 18th century with the mother tongues, their development in the 19th and 20th centuries culminated in partial rejection of the mother tongue in certain domains like education.

Strangely, people don’t have a colloquial question — what is your mother tongue? The nearest question is — what language do you speak at home?

(The writer is Professor and Head, Department of English, Nehru Memorial College, Sullia, Karnataka)

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