Friday, October 17, 2014


[The Bharatiya Janata Party tends to be nationalist in superficial ways - in dress, lingo, headwear etc. During its first long tenure at the centre, it was trying to promote Hindi, which is spoken at best by two-fifths of the population. I had some practical advice on how to promote Hindi, published in Business Standard of 28 August 2001.]


The BJP has done much to displace English in the central government. Raj Nath Singh used to insist that all notings to him must be in Hindi. North Indian ministers, who are far in excess of the proportion of Hindi speakers in the country, insist on having north Indian civil servants; the chances of an IAS officer from Bengal or Kerala serving in the centre are nowadays trivial. The IT Task Force recommended that programming should be done in Hindi. Hindi interpretation has been one of the most prolific channels of employment under this government. How likely is it that the Hindu nationalists will be able to make Hindi a truly national language?
India is one of the very few polyglot countries in the world; and as Florian Coulmas pointed out in his fascinating book, Language and Economy (Blackwell 1992), a polyglot world is expensive. Canada has for long tried to make itself bilingual. It spends enormous amounts on translation between English and French, and on teaching both to students in school. Yet if one goes to the western provinces, it is as if French did not exist. French-speaking Quebec has the opposite problem – it is more advantageous for the Quebecois (just as it is for Indians) to learn English, and the Quebec government has to make strenuous efforts to prevent English from being used. France has the same problem. Coulmas mentions the case of a company which spelt cigarettes as being filter instead of filtre in France and was fined 7500 Francs. Just as Delhi Golf Club has been penalized for not admitting enough babus, Murli Manohar Joshi should consider fining companies for not using Hindi words in ads; he should give a Padma Vibhushan to the writer of the slogan, “Dil maange more!”
C D Deshmukh used to say that the more Indian languages develop, the more similar they will become, for they will all draw on their common heritage of Sanskrit to extend their vocabulary. This was actually put into practice in the case of Hindi, where Raghuvira mass-produced technical terms out of Sanskrit; that is how BJP’s pidgin Sanskrit was created. But there is a conflict between BJP’s desire to promote Hindi and its determination to exterminate “foreign” – that is, Persian or Arabic – words. One only has to look at the evolution of modern Indian languages to understand why Sanskrit went out of circulation: it was a difficult language to pronounce and learn, and modern Indian languages are its simplifications. Simplicity is an important advantage in languages that get accepted. For so many Sanskrit words there is a derivative in one or the other Indian language that is easier to pronounce; and most of the languages have simpler grammar than Sanskrit. If Joshi were interested in winning wide acceptance of a national language, he would put a team on devising a language that chose the simplest and commonest words from modern Indian languages and constructed a language out of them. Gandhi’s Hindustani was designed to do this for Hindi – to construct a mass language out of the simplest words irrespective of their origin. Unfortunately the programme was hijacked by Sanskritization.
If Joshi were seriously to take up the design of a new, efficient national language, he would find it useful to read G K Zipf’s brilliant book, Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort (Hafner 1949). Zipf showed that if one ranked words in a language on the basis of the frequency with which they are used and multiplied them by the frequency, their product was a constant: in other words, that in languages as different as Nootka, Plains Cree, Chinese and German, a small number of words are used most frequently, and lots of words very infrequently. Further, the more frequently used words have more meanings; the frequency of use is proportional to the square of the number of meanings. And finally, the frequency of use of words varies inversely with their length; the most used words are short.
Someone like Joshi, who wishes to promote a language, would do well to ask himself how he could persuade people to use his language; one answer arising from the existing languages is that people prefer to use short words with multiple meanings. Chinese goes to the extremes: Chinese words are extremely short – generally only one or two syllables – and the same word with slightly differing pronunciations carries a multiplicity of meanings. Paradoxically, Sanskrit also has this characteristic; many Sanskrit words have multiple meanings. If only Sanskrit were as easy to pronounce as Chinese, Joshi’s problem would be solved. One solution may be to shorten Sanskrit words to two syllables at most and throw out superfluous syllables, and to replace all diphthongs with simple, unjoined letters.
He would also have to think of simplifying the script. Any Hindi typist knows what a pain it is to keep adding vowels, which are written within the letters; if only vowels and consonants were separated as in European languages, Hindi would become more acceptable. Many languages have adopted Latin alphabet. Kemal Atatürk introduced it in Turkish, and Soekarno in Indonesian. Most African languages, which had no script of their own, have adopted the Latin alphabet. Even Hindi was written in it as taught in the British Indian army. But with independence, nationalism erupted even in script. Admittedly, the Latin alphabet is not too well adapted to Indian languages; there are a number of vowels and consonants for which it has no equivalents. But an extended version of it could be devised.
Finally, there is the vast labour of inventing technical terms in Hindi. There is an entire industry engaged in this; the results are evident in the verbal obscurities of BJP leaders. But no one apart from them uses the terms. The simplest solution is the one adopted by the Indonesians; they imported Dutch terms wholesale into their language. This has happened in Hindi without anyone’s by-your-leave; when educated people (other than linguistic zealots) speak Hindi, they lace it liberally with English words. This practice might as well be given official sanction.

A purist might wonder what will be left of Hindi if it adopts English words on a large scale. My view is that it is far more important for a language to be widely used than for it to be pure. Mighty languages like German and French are failing to stand up to English because they do not import foreign words as easily. The best chance for Hindi would be if it were used for poetry. Foreigners are unlikely to learn Hindi for access to low-temperature physics or palaeontology. But they may be attracted to it if Hindi songs become world hits. If Joshi wanted to make Hindi a world language, he should invest money in Bollywood, and make it churn out tuneful songs with an easy meaning and an even easier pronunciation. Starting with “Dil maange more!”