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Pure Odia Matters

The other day a close friend of mine from Bhubaneswar – we were batch mates in the English Honours and M.A. classes in Ravenshaw College (now a University) – asked me whether Odia had become an endangered language and whether the frequent use of mixed Odiain day-to-day interaction was not contributing to its weakening. He said he had recently seen some news reports and had read some expert views published in the newspapers to that effect. He said that some language experts were of the view that the time had come to start a movement for the use of “pure Odia” to save Odia.

Since we didn’t think Odia was in a critical situation, demanding our urgent personal attention and also since telephone – talk time is limited, compared to face-to-face talk, we decided to skip the endangerment matter. We focussed on mixed Odia, which is a day-to-day experience. Not just the TV persons, although many consider them particularly guilty in this respect, everyone these days uses, and in turn receives, mixed Odia and the user-receivers are not just the urban educated. Most of the users are cool about it, some aren’t but do not complain and there are others who find life difficult with so much mixing all-around. In sympathetic consideration of their situation, we agreed that something must be done about it – too much mixing is not auditorily pleasing if nothing else. But we had no idea how much would be too much.

As for language mixing weakening our language and making it vulnerable, I told him that I didn’t agree with that view. A language is “weakened”, if its speakers do not use it, not if they mix words from other languages. True, shifting to another language is not unheard of but language mixing has never led to or will ever lead to language shifting. Speakers do not wake up one morning and say that now since we are mixing so much, why not give up our own and shift to that language? We left the matter at that and started talking about the soon-to-be held centenary celebrations of our department.

Sometime in 2014, if my memory serves me right, Odisha TV (OTV), a popular television channel organized a panel discussion on Odia. It had just received the “classical language” status. One of the panellists strongly argued in favour of starting a Suddha Odia Abhijnana (Pure Odia Movement). He thought it was extremely important to sensitize the people that the language would be in real trouble in the not too distant future unless using pure Odia became the top priority for its speakers. He was concerned with the English-mixed Odia that people freely use these days. However, a non-resident Odia in Gujarat, who was watching the programme with me, observed that insistence on pure Odia would eventually exclude people like him as far as Odia’s identity is concerned. By the way, Hindi-mixed Odia had not become a matter for concern by then and for that reason, of public discourse.

As a non-resident Odia for eleven months a year at that time -i.e., the pre-Covid -19 time – I too felt uneasy. Thousands of non-resident Odiashave strong roots in Odisha, have been educated in Odisha, have their parental homes in the villages and the cities of Odisha, read Odia newspapers on the Internet regularly and listen to Odia news and bhajans on the television channels. But they do not speak “pure Odia”. I am one among them. Should we, for that reason, be made to feel guilty as linguistic offenders?

I soon recovered from that sense of uneasiness and failure and started wondering when the speakers of Odia were speaking pure Odia. We cannot think of pure Odia as that Odia which does not contain words from any Dravidian, tribal and Indo-Aryan language, barring Sanskrit. So let’s characterize pure Odiaas Odia that does not contain words from any “language of foreign origin” by which we mean “European languages”, because Persian cannot be thought of in the eighteenth or even the seventeenth century as a “foreign” language for obvious reasons. Now, the non-fictional writings of Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843-1918) contain Portuguese and English words. Given this, it is difficult to think that in his time Odias used their language unmixed with words from these languages. In his time, Odiasfrom Northern and even coastal Odisha spoke Bengali-mixed Odia as well. So when was pure Odia spoken and written? What was it like?

But whatever it was like, it cannot serve as the model for us today. We have to reconceptualise pure Odia in the present context. The world for us has changed and our lifestyle has changed. Naturally, new words are needed to answer our linguistic needs. So, not by choice but by compulsion, we use words from English when we speak – “English”, because our access to and understanding of the outside world has been mainly through English. English, for us, has been the main language of modern knowledge.

I do not think people have a fondness for mixing. True, sometimes one mixes either to show off (there were a few in my college days in the late fifties and early sixties but these days no one is likely to be impressed) or to make fun of someone’s linguistic habits, etc. These are exceptions. People mix when they feel there is a communicative need. They use English words when their own language does not have popular words for the same. For instance, the words sat (shot) and pas (pass) as in the Odia utterance “(the coach shouting at the player during a football match) sat kahinkimarilu, pas DeLuna (Why did you shoot (literally, kick a shot) instead of passing)? Sometimes in informal speech many tend to use a popular English word in preference to a tatsma (Sanskritized) equivalent: niujpepar (newspaper) is more commonly used than sambadapatra and skul to Vidyalaya.

But haven’t these words, because of their frequent use over a long period of time, become part of Odia’s language?  They sound alien and yet not alien. There are hundreds of such words. They are used in day-to-day interaction and in all forms of non-literary writing. To the best of my knowledge, no one has tried to create Odia substitutes of “shot”, “pass”, “goal”, “hotel”, “omelette”, “cake”, “bus”, “computer”, “mobile (phone)”, etc. and at the same time, as of now (as far as I know), these are not to be found in Odia dictionaries, obviously because despite their having been completely naturalized, they are still at the periphery of acceptance for the specialists. In language matters, it’s the experts, not the people, who decide things. Then they implement their decision through textbooks and teachers of textbooks and we all fall in line.

So let the experts decide for us what constitutes “pure Odia” in today’s context. How much mixing is okay and for which topics? It is certainly problematic when someone says “aji mu phis karikhaichi (I have eaten fish curry today)” instead of “…machhatarakarikhaichi”. My friend told me he was not pleased when a common friend of ours, living in Bhubaneswar, which claims to be the new culture-capital of Odisha, had told him earlier in the day: “ajimarningru mate phibharishphibharishlaguchi (I have been feeling feverish since morning.)”. Why,” he asked me, “couldn’t he say, ‘ajisakalu mate jarajaralaguchi’”? We closed our conversation on this topic agreeing that there is indeed a need forlakshmanarekha on mixing. How that line would be drawn, we agreed, is a matter that must be left to the experts because it’s far too messy for us, ordinary people, to poke our nose into.

(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)

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