Monday, June 21, 2010

May be some time from now,the tower of babel could be built

On 26 January 2010, an 85 year old woman of Bo indigenous community in the Andaman Islands died and with her death another storey is added to the already heightening tower of babel.*

Every day hundreds of languages of the planet are facing extinction or on their way to this ill-fated destiny.Though this is a global phenomenon let us study it's effect on India, the land of rich linguistic diversity,a prime reason that earned this country the sobriquet of sub continent.
when a language dies all the natural feelings, centuries of refinement, a wealth of knowledge accumulated over generations stored in the folklore also die with it.

There was a time in India when new vernaculars developed out of the rich soil left behind by ancient languages of Sanskrit and Prakrit.Literature in these languages flourished despite some initial resistance.Now a days we are witnessing the opposite.We are moving towards the merger and consolidations in the linguistic arena that threatens to create a motley tongue which is neither fully English nor fully Indian.

Recently during a conversation,somebody passionately listed the titles that won Booker prize and Nobel prize in literature along with their authors.Some of these works are not even original works in English,but only translations.He has studied most of them and commented on them.Out of curiosity I have inquired if he could name the author who won Jnanpith award this year,or any author who won Jnanpith anytime in his mother tongue.But the answer is in the negative.Today most of us do not even have time know the works that won Jnanpith or a Sahitya academy award,but we would miss no opportunity to let this happen to an English title.

Even though the Europeans,the Chines,the Japanese and the Russians too are anxious not to miss the fast moving ship of globalization,are they deeming it incumbent to burn their boats of native languages as a prerequisite and jumping into the alien waters as we are doing? Aren't they using them as a natural means to ferry them to the destined ship sailing in the deep waters?

What irrational market force decrees us to even publish the titles of our movies in the Roman script? Why do we take pride in denying our children even the basic knowledge in the mother tongue and raise them as cultural orphans?

If globalization is only an economic activity of the market place that makes national boundaries irrelevant and English is only a tool to participate in it,why do we Indians let it seep into our cultural ecosystem to the extent that towards our own mother tongues we are turning out to be irreverent? Or does the history of our indifference towards our languages predates the twenty first century globalization and is the result of our centuries of subjugation that resulted in our craving to mimic the habits of our victors?

This aversion of globalization towards linguistic diversity is a new found phenomenon.
The trans-world trade along the ancient silk route,which is the old world equivalent of the present day globalization is particularly congenial to the reach of new languages to different cultures and societies.Many ideas and thoughts were shared and many books from different languages were translated thus unlocking the ideas stored in one culture to the other.
The fact that the first ever printed book,Chinese translation of a Sanskrit Buddhist work exemplifies this symbiosis.

Then may be the greed of the present day globalization is gobbling our languages.
Today languages in our country are facing the same fate as that of our rivers, mighty as though they appear(all our national languages have millions of speakers),choking slowly with the garbage thrown in.The catchment areas getting shrunk day by day.Unable to give birth to fresh and original thoughts they are becoming the dumping yards of ideas exported from elsewhere.
At one end the pressures of globalization are killing the languages at the other hand,at the other end the state of the art information processing techniques(aided by globalization)make it easy to digitize the ancient works that were compiled over millennia than at any point in the past.This is a highly deplorable situation because even though we are best equipped with all the necessary hardware to attain the mastery over this wealth of literature,we are fast loosing the necessary software to achieve this.

During the middle ages the fusion of Indian and persian/arabic ways of life and mingling of populace of different cultures did not do a damage to our languages but in turn enriched the vocabularies and literary traditions of many an Indian languages.At the heights of this harmonious syncretism it gave birth to another Indian language,Urdu.Indian linguistic bio diversity that survived the tyranny of colonization is seeming to be incapable of enduring the promise of instant opulence offered by coca-colonization.

However before English,many other languages attained the status of a world language at different times in history,as Sanskrit in the south east Asia,Persian/Arabic during the middle ages in many parts of Asia and French in the Europe.But none was able to retain its hold and fell from this status.Yet the hegemony of English is particularly threatening and its effect on other languages seems to be permanent.The twin factors that it is the language of the world commerce at the time of greedy globalization,and it is the dominant language of the scientific community of the previous century that has seen unprecedented growth in science and technology seem to cement its place for ever.Only future shall venture to decide otherwise.

Is the day not far when our future generations look at the great works of our literary masters at a museum, much like a contemporary Egyptian looks at the cuneiforms composed by his forefathers?

Is this only the case of Darwinism among the many competing languages and the small price we need to pay in our ascent to global heights,or a serious threat to our identity and ingenuity and symbol of our shattering confidence?

*According to the Bible,Many a eons ago people decided to build a tower up-to the sky.But God wished otherwise.He caused them to speak different languages in order to confuse them among themselves.Those people,unable to understand one another,abandon their project and the tower remained unfinished.