Hold your tongue

Monarchies may be dead, but we still speak their languages

That “the few rule no matter what” ism is in place is an accepted travesty. Monarchies flourished on the concept that some were divinely destined to govern. The heydays may be in the past but there lies something soft within the heart of hearts of sovereigns even today, that echo with part of the United Kingdom’s national anthem “born to rule over us.”

The Queen actually doesn’t “rule” per se, but is widely loved and respected. The dichotomy is true and apparent but not challenged. There are slippages though. Voices of dissent are growing among  Australians, New Zealanders, and West Indian countries to shake free of their monarchical ties. Among the broad isms of democracy, communism, autocracy and the like, processes differ but all aim at whittling down consensus so as to leave decision-making in the hands of the few.

All of such, should it need reminding, is “for the greater good.”

Through reigns and civilizations, language has stood out as a stumbling block to the rule of the few. Anything except South English is considered as the common man’s blarney, to be frowned at and looked down upon. Those in the Indian sub-continent fortunate enough to lap up the Colonial English, however archaic it sounds now, were considered  with condescension, though never as blue-blooded.

That language persists today, totally befuddling the heroic efforts of citizens to get local language in ascendancy. Mirth over wrong usage and pronunciation of English continues to be mercilessly rubbed in by the fortunate few as if there is a kind of superiority involved. That the shoe is on the other foot when a local language such as Bangla is tripped over by the fortunate few, doesn’t give rise to similar guffaws.

On the contrary, the stage is taken by the unfortunates that can’t help but combine Bangla and English into some gibberish called Banglish. The blame for this is usually put on a combination of falling education standards and commonly practiced speech. That isn’t helped by communication specialists insisting that if what’s meant is understood, other rules aren’t that important. 

Change the narrative to any other language and the substance remains similar. The speaker of the Indian Lok Sabha was trite in suggesting to Shashi Tharoor that he speak in Hindi as opposed to English. Tharoor is more eloquent in English though he can more than hold his own in Hindi and was speaking in a language approved in the Lok Sabha. He was arguing against a new move by the ruling BJP to begin reaching some form of consensus of Hindi as the state language to unite India. That comes in spite of the fact that, while Hindi and English are official (not republic) languages, the first  is in a position where, in many parts of the country, it is not spoken or understood, such as in Chennai.

If you hear West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee speaking in Hindi, she is, like many, from the state close to warbling incoherence. The BJP move does contradict a motion of introducing the compulsory study of Marathi replacing state languages. Mohammad Ali Jinnah caused a similar kerfuffle in 1948 when he announced that little-known Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan. This led to violent protests in the then East Pakistan and the sad but epoch-making Language Movement that left martyrs, sparked Bangladesh’s March for nationhood, and a befitting script on Jinnah’s tomb in Bangla.

That the Pakistanis lived with this imposition is part of the narrative of their confused being. Of importance is that the will of the few prevailed.  Jinnah had not considered, till the last moments, today’s Bangladesh being part of Pakistan; just as he, a Farsi, never understood the crucial aspect of a state language.

From an international perspective, English has found its way as the language of choice. In a century or so, that position has been challenged by a number of nations which are exercising their right to speak in their own languages on the international stage. National anthems too have been composed combining more than one language. China, Japan, and Russia to name a few have successfully translated whatever Western or Middle-Eastern science wrote down in scriptures. India, just as Bangladesh, is far behind such moves.

Post independence, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s attempt to get Bangla used in all spheres came a cropper because of the unavailability of science curriculum in Bangla. Fifty odd years from independence, we still have the same dilemma in science, law, and a host of other subjects. India and Pakistan are worse off having had 75 years to do so.

Of greater and more immediate concern is the stubborn, if quiet, resistance to overcome regional dialect in favour of the national one. Many countries have dialects that defy the concept of their nationhood. Think of Russian-speaking Ukranians or Telugu-conversing Indians. One can be forgiven for not understanding a word of Chattogram speak. The mind-boggling prospect of deciphering African languages and then that of tribes is a hard nut to crack.

In many ways, dialects of languages such as English are easier to fathom only because they too have evolved somewhat. Original Gaelic or Celt is a different matter altogether as is evident when trying to pronounce names of some places in Wales. The English of the great American South is unique in the swagger, pronunciation, and use of words. Add to the melting pot the inexorable evolution of languages and one has to question the relevance of language and nationhood.

For the foreseeable future, the approved lingua franca that citizens must follow will dent regional pride. It may impact quality of expression and cause the “superior” few to cringe . The snobbish, superiority complex of the few may continue in the same vein that decisions impacting countries are made. There’s collateral damage everywhere in sight.

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.