Why is language an emotive issue?

It’s in this language that primary communication between the child and its environment happens and the first thoughts and needs are given expression
Last Updated 04 May 2022, 23:56 IST

Popular actors Kichcha Sudeep and Ajay Devgan were recently embroiled in a gentle squabble on Twitter. Without going into boring details, they sparred over the primacy of Hindi over other regional languages - in this case, Kannada. Professionals that they are, they made up; but not before sparking off a storm of articles, arguments and statements - both online and offline. Not to be left out, Karnataka politicians of all hues have jumped into the fray and taken that rare unanimous stand of rejecting the idea of Kannada playing second fiddle to other languages.

Why, one wonders, is language an emotive issue?

The answer could lie in the fact that the first words uttered by a human being are in the mother tongue - also the native language usually. It’s in this language that primary communication between the child and its environment happens and the first thoughts and needs are given expression.

With time, the native tongue gets internalised in such a way that our memories, longings, fears, expletives and even jokes get stored in it. It’s like a smartphone one owns – without it, nothing seems possible. No big surprise then that a perceived threat to the native language is received with hypersensitivity, aggression and resentment.

When it comes to other languages, we normally learn them to help us adapt ourselves to new surroundings or for establishing communication with a non-native speaker. Thus, a Kannadiga would pick up Bangla either to make life easy for herself in West Bengal or to be able to communicate with her Bengali tenant in Mysuru. Another reason for learning a language would be for professional purposes. A Kannadiga workman would toil hard but willingly pick up Malayalam words in order to manage in, say, a tea plantation in Kerala.

So it’s quite clear that one learns a second or a third language because of a ‘felt need’ - and not because it’s being shoved down the throat. This is why hackles rise when politicians talk of making Hindi a pan-Indian language, or when an actor (in a burst of jingoistic fervour) calls Hindi the ‘national’ language when it actually is one of India’s two ‘official’ languages. By now, hopefully, Ajay Devgan has realised that he jumped the gun, and that as per Article 343 of our Constitution, Hindi is to be used by the Centre only for ‘official’ purposes in dealing with states in the Hindi belt. In other states, English (the other official language) is to be used.

Which brings us to the exact number of Indian states in which Hindi is the native tongue. Nine, as per Google: in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. A further search reveals that in a number of the aforementioned states, native languages and dialects like Garhwali, Chattisgarhi, Maithili, Mewati and Santali are spoken in lieu of Hindi. Setting aside that fact, there are still a good 20 Indian states with ancient (the earliest form of Kannada script goes back to 450 AD) and historically-significant languages having a rich repository of literature. That being the case, wouldn’t it be unfair, even ridiculous, to think of singling Hindi out and making it our national language?

Agreed, in a country like ours with its mind-boggling diversity in religions, ethnicities and customs, a common language would go a long way in engendering administrative ease and mutual understanding among the states. But to base, the choice of that language on the seat of power being New Delhi or on the popularity of Hindi films (on the wane now thanks to creative content and box office success of recent regional films) would be ill-conceived and frivolous.

What then is the solution to the National Language problem? For now, sticking to the status quo would be a good idea. With a correction. Why not Hindi be dethroned as the official language while English is allowed to continue as a unifier despite being the language left behind by our erstwhile oppressors? After all, in a globalised world, English is no longer England just as Yoga is no longer India.

(The writer is an educator and author of e-books)

(Published 04 May 2022, 18:00 IST)

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