Our“killer language” talk

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It seems the expression ‘killer language” in coming up fairly conspicuously in endangered language scholars’ and language activists’ talk, formal and informal, in our country these days. Odisha cannot be an exception. Thus my friend from my undergraduate days in Ravenshaw College (now Ravenshaw University), who lives in Bhubaneswar, long- retired like me, didn’t like it when someone told him that English is a killer language. My friend thought that the gentleman had insinuated that for forty years in the Odisha Education Service, he had taught a language that had harmed Odia. I told him not to worry – he in Odisha and I elsewhere were doing our job, which was to teach English. We cannot be made to feel embarrassed for doing our job, which, we would say with humility, we did with much sincerity. Besides, at our age, getting upset about things that happened years ago, could prove to be harmful to health.

I drew his attention to what some are saying in Odisha these days – that the invasion of Hindi on Odia is a matter for worry. They say that it is being facilitated by the Odia television channels, elite English medium schools in big cities, Bhubaneswar, in particular and the educated and economically comfortable familiesin not just urban areas. I received a letter about eight years ago from someone in Puri (I have that letter with me) in which he said what a young mother near a village in Puri, had told him. He found her teaching her three- year old child the Odia and the Hindi alphabets. He asked her why she was teaching him the Hindi alphabet. She told him that one who did not know Hindi would be good for nothing – that is, such a one would not find any opportunities in life. Genuinely involved in the development of Odia, he was a bit upset, noting that Hindi and an attitude to Hindi had filtered down to the villages in Odisha.

As for the“killer language”, the most benign thing to say about it is that it hinders the development of the native language in a language contact situation. In popular usage, it is not used as a descriptive term, that is, it is a term which has no connotations; it is used instead as a term with negative associations. It tends to accuse the language as being a murderer. More than anyone else, it is David Crystal, the eminent linguist, whose writings on linguistics is a pleasure to read, has made this term popular.He called English a killer language and influenced by him, our language activists say English is the killer language for our languages, although Crystal had not described English as such in the specific context of India.By the way, it may be interesting to note that Crystal is to this term what Galileo is to the telescope. Crystal did not create this expression, Galileo did not invent the telescope. But people associate him with the telescope rather than Hans Lippershey, just as people associate the expression “killer language” with David Crystal, rather than Hull.

Now, because there has been no David Crystal for the term “linguistic suicide”, coined by David Bech and Y vonne Lam, it hasn’t entered popular discussion and debate on the subject as yet. Linguistic suicide happens when parents speaking a minority, low-prestige language teach their children the majority and high prestige language best accessible to them in their situation instead of teaching their children their mother tongue. As far as language death – the end of both killing and suicide – is concerned, at least I do not see any substantial and realistic difference between the content of the terms “killer language” and “linguistic suicide”. At one stage, the parents do the same in both cases. Both are voluntary acts. Parents are not aggressively unfond of their mother tongue; they just want their children to live a more comfortable life. They think that the majority language would give their children the kind of enabling opportunities that their mother language would not be able to give them. They are like the young mother of the village near Puri, about whom we have written above.

The difference between “killer language” and “linguistic suicide” is this: in “linguistic suicide”, the choice of the language shift is the community’s; in the case of the “killer language”, the reason for the shift lies in the nature of the language – that is, swallowing minority languages is its very nature; it’s like a tiger looking for its prey. The truth is that in both cases, it is the community’s choice. It is emotionally comforting to blame one’s circumstances for things you know you are not expected to like. Hindi cannot be invading the territory of our language, despite our non-cooperation.In any case, these emotionally loaded terms must not be taken too literally (metaphors do not make truth claims directly) or too seriously, in the sense that we must not make our life’s choices based on the attitudes these expressions embody.

Turning to the question of the languages under threat – the so-called “endangered languages”. If these languages are to be preserved, then the children speaking these as their mother tongue, must receive their primary in their mother tongue and the adults in the community must be functionally literate in their mother tongue. In case the parents want their children be educated even at the primary stage in a language they consider to be the language of opportunity for them, the government must intervene to ensure that the parents’ will does not prevail. “We know what’s good for you”, has to be the State’s attitude towards its citizens.

The Government in a democratic country can be in a real dilemma. Many Dalits, tribal communities and other marginalized people in India are believed to want the state to make good education in English available to their children and they would therefore prefer their children to be educated in English medium schools. To give an example, the government of Telanganaseems to think that the marginalized people cannot be denied education in the language of opportunity in their situation, so that their mother tongue is preserved, when the socially advantaged people send their children to the English medium schools for better education. This would widen the already existing gap in the society in terms of educational opportunity and economic benefits to its citizens. It cannot be the responsibility and the duty of the disadvantaged alone to protect and preserve their language (see Chakravarthi, Kalyan: 2019 and “Jagan tears into oppn over English medium schools”, The Times of India, November 22, 19).

To conclude, a word about English as the killer language for our languages. It has been with us for about two hundred years, it hasn’t remained the preserve of our elite for at least half a century. It has been and is still being taught at the high school level in our country for about three quarters of a century. It is the associate official language of India and has emerged as one of the link languages in our country. NEP 2020 recommends the inclusion of English in the school curriculum at a fairly early stage.

Now, in course of these two hundred years, how many of our major or minor languages has English swallowed? Setting aside the diaspora, the speakers of which of our major or minor languages have shifted to English? Wherever language shift has taken place, to which language has it been in our country? Just think!

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)