India: Moving towards linguistic imperialism

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Afreen Fatima

When Hindi is forced on speakers of different languages we rob India off the cultural diversity that it celebrates so much of. Language and society are deeply interrelated. Our language affects our world-view and to bring it down to a simple theory of ‘one nation-one language’, we will be limiting our world view, aesthetics, traditions, and culture. India is a land of diverse cultures that assimilate as one nation, Indian nationalism cannot be brought down to a single language. We thrive not just in our oneness but in our togetherness. Does our Home Minister suggest that we abandon our sense of togetherness? Our long tried and tested history of unity in diversity? “Whoever controls the language controls the culture”, says Liberman.

Reagon Timothy, Professor of Applied Linguistics at University of Maine, USA, says, “The rejection of the linguistic legitimacy of a language- any language used by any linguistic community- in short, amounts to little more than an example of tyranny of the majority. Suchlike rejections strengthen and fortify the long tradition and history of linguistic imperialism in our society. The harm, though, is done not to those whose languages we reject, but in fact to all of us, as we are made poorer by an unnecessary narrowing of our cultural and linguistic universe.”

Often also known as Linguistic nationalism, Linguistic imperialism is the imposition of one language on speakers of other languages. The global expansion of English is often cited as the prime example of linguistic imperialism. We must learn from what has happened in the past and refrain from making similar mistakes.

The presence of English has, indirectly or directly, caused much linguistic devastation, with 90% of languages moribund in Australia suggests David Crystal, a British Linguist, Academic, and Author. A similar situation will arise in India if Hindi is imposed on speakers of different regional languages and dialects, where all other regional and indigenous languages and dialects will die a slow death in the hands of Hindi.  Linguistic imperialism interconnects with a structure of imperialism in culture, education, communication, the economy, the media, politics and military activities.

Native American languages were initially used in missionary work and education, but when competition for territory and resources intensified, conflict between the settlers and indigenous peoples increased. Education was then established on the principle “that the only prospect of success was in taking the children in boarding schools, making them ‘English in language, civilized in manners, Christian in religion’” (Spring, 1996, p.152). As a result of such policies, very few of the languages originally present in USA, Canada, and Australia have survived. This illustrates linguistic imperialism in comparison to minority languages within a polity. It can be compared to the way, once Hindi is imposed, be it in the name of unity, nationalism, or any other thing, all other languages present in India will struggle to survive and eventually die. In crux it is about inequality, exploitation, injustice, and hierarchy that privileges those able to use the dominant language.

If the Government of India wishes to develop competence in Hindi nationalism by its imposition on native speakers of other Indian languages, it may as well entail subtractive learning. Proficiency in Hindi and learning it in education involving its consolidation at the expense of other regional languages in India.

Linguistic imperialism is structural because more infrastructure and material resources are given to the dominant language than to others, in our case, Hindi. Its dominance is hegemonic as it is being naturalized and internalized as being ‘normal’. Hindi imposition is ideological as beliefs, attitudes and imagery glorify Hindi, stigmatize others, and rationalize the linguistic hierarchy. This brings forward unequal rights for the speakers of other regional languages in India.

Society and language are associated terms. Language is a community based product, growing up with the first community, developing with the increasing needs of traditions, culture, and civilization, and disappearing when society disappears and vice-versa. When you take away a language from its people their culture, their ideas, their struggles, their fights, their existence ceases to exist, it disappears. Language is the index of the progress of society and hence everything that a linguistic community had, stops being and so do they, eventually. Anthropologist, Edward Sapir states that, “It is difficult to see adequately the functions of language because it is so deeply rooted in the whole of human behavior that it may be reckoned that there is little in the functional side of our conscious behavior in which language does not play its part”.

If and when Hindi is officially imposed, it will become a form of
Linguism, a favoring of one language over others in ways that match and parallel, societal structuring through racism, sexism, casteism, and class. Linguism serves to privilege users of imperial Hindi, which will represent convertible linguistic capital. Languages are central to an individual’s identity and as a marker of a social group. Can our Government be arrogant enough to rob its people of their very identity and given them a language to learn and speak and celebrate because they feel or believe that it will unite India as a nation. History is proof to the very fact of India uniting against all odds even after having such great differences culturally, traditionally, and linguistically. Crystal has suggested, “Language is the repository of the history of a people. It is their identity. Oral testimony, in the form of sagas, folktales, songs, rituals. Proverbs, and many other practices, provide us with a unique view of our world and a unique canon of literature”.

I’ll end with the words of Wittgenstein, “the limits of my language are the limits of my life”. India must not limit itself, India has a rich history of struggles in many languages, and it must continue to do so.

Afreen Fatima is a Masters student of Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the elected councilor of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union 2019-20 and former President of Women’s College Students’ Union, Aligarh Muslim University 2018-19.

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