In its meeting on July 23, 2013, the “Classical Language Committee” (this is how it is commonly known) of the Government of India recommended to the Central Government that Odia be accorded the status of classical language, a recommendation that the Central Government accepted in the following year. It brought much happiness to people in Odisha, going by the reports in local and national newspapers at that time. The State Government declared 11 March as the Classical Odia Language Day. Since 2014, the Odias, in and outside India, have been celebrating this day.
In the time of the celebration in 2014, Professor Ratnakar Chaini, the President of Utkal Sahitya Samaj, the oldest and the highly reputable literary organization in Odisha, observed that this was also the time for reflection about the present situation of Odia language. He said that the language, for quite some time, had been “seriously struggling for its meaningful existence”. He drew attention to the fact that parents were increasingly sending their children to the English-medium schools. When someone asked them why they were doing so, quite a few responded with the counter question, “Why should my child learn Odia? What job will he get?”
For us, however, the question that makes sense is why an Odia-speaking child would learn any language other than Odia. Learning the mother tongue is a cultural value, like looking after the old and the sick; cost-benefit calculations should not apply to such things.
A few years ago, a friend had told me that in Odisha, there is a school system under the control of the Central Government (I am not sure which system, probably the Sainik school system) where Odia is not compulsory for Odia-speaking students. That is, an Odia-speaking child can leave high school without having studied Odia. This is not desirable because it gives the student the impression that his language is not important. Similarly, if Odia is not used in the domain of administration, then people get the same impression about their language.
Chaini said that he was not and that no one should be, against English, which is the language of opportunity, (as far as the Indians are concerned, we may add) but the mother tongue should not be neglected either, since it is the “language of one’s expression”. For us, more than that, one’s native language has to matter because it is an important marker of an individual’s and a speech community’s identity.
Chaini’s and my friend’s observations are important. It is not just a matter of school. Television and Internet are increasingly becoming important sources of information and knowledge in today’s world everywhere, and the dominant languages of these are Hindi and English respectively, as far as the people of Odisha are concerned. If he (or she or them) does not learn Odia at school, the child gets even more distanced from his language, and if this situation remains unchanged, then in another fifty years or so, Odia might become the language of home, cultural and religious practices and the market place, and of informal, casual conversation. Affirmative steps must be taken today to ensure that this does not come to pass.
By the way, it is not the case that the situation described above holds for Odia alone in our country. Quite a few of our so-called privileged (scheduled) languages are more or less in this situation. Parents almost in all parts of the country want to send their children to English medium schools and the governments of many States are responding to their aspiration favourably. Men and women who work in the unskilled and unorganized domestic service-provider sector in big cities and do not earn enough to meet their basic requirements, often try their best to send their children to English medium schools. Our considered view is that most parents who send their children to these schools have no negative feelings towards their mother tongue; they only want their children to have a better future. In any case, the fact that many other languages are in the same situation as Odia must give us no comfort or a sense of complacence.
What Baishnab Charan Parida, Member of Parliament in 2014, said is worth noting. He suggested that Odia must be developed so that it could be used as “medium of education, business, administration and culture”. One could add more domains of language use of course, science and technology, for instance, but it’s a matter of detail. Of late, many Odia linguists and language activists have been saying this.
Any developed language would have a rich knowledge(-based) literature in addition to imaginative literature. In the past, Sanskrit had a great imaginative literature and a great knowledge literature in humanities (Natya shatra, Vyakarana), social sciences (Artha shastra, Neeti shastra), sciences (Jyotisa shastra) and technology (Shilpa shastra, Vastu shastra, Vimana shastra,). It appears that its decline coincided with the non-production of knowledge literature in this language. For various reasons, for hundreds of years, Sanskrit was no more a vehicle of expression of new knowledge in such fields as those mentioned above. Today it is seen by most as a great classical language but not as a developed modern language, as Latin and Greek, for example – a “developed modern language” being one in which modern knowledge in various fields are created and disseminated. It is only recently that efforts have been made in order to create resources and discourses in this language so that it again becomes the language of knowledge discourse as it was in the great days of its past.
Odia needs to be “developed” in the sense above; that is, it must become at least, or to begin with, the carrier of modern knowledge, if not a language in which knowledge is being created, in humanities, arts, social sciences, hard sciences and technology. We need to create the necessary linguistic resources and discourses.
It is important to note in this context that sometimes traditional societies do not fully appreciate the importance of knowledge literature, which embodies another way of making sense of ourselves and the world we in live in than imaginative literature, and feel secure that their language is thriving if imaginative literature continues to be produced in it. In such societies, it is often taken for granted that knowledge literature is inherently inferior to imaginative literature and that it is only the latter that is creative and the former, mechanical, uninteresting, and merely informative.
An essay on evolutionary biology or bio-linguistics is surely much less interesting than a work of fiction for the non-specialist, but is not less important or less creative. When a culture continues to undermine the need of knowledge literature in its language, one of the consequences of this would be that at some point of time people would choose to send their children to schools where education is imparted in a language that they believe will open the doors of knowledge and opportunity to their children.
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur
Email: [email protected]
(Images from the net)