Archive | 3:05 pm

Linguistically Speaking

10 Oct

So the language hydra has reared its head again. One more beautiful construct that we as a species have contorted into ugly power games, but that’s not the point of this post. (Be warned: there may be none at all.) A phenomenon that I had observed on my numerous visits to Pune last year, and commented on to friends, has crept into Bombay recently. Over the past month, I have noticed that most storefronts, hitherto announcing their names in English only, have added Marathi counterparts to their banners. So the Ratan Tata Institute, an oasis of jam tarts, chicken rolls and other Parsi goodies, is now also the “Aar Tee Ai” in bright red devnagari script next to the entrance. Aarti Stores, where the Gujarati housewives of Walkeshwar flock to when guests drop in unannounced, now has its Indian name written in an Indian language. And the NCPA, where no non-English-speaking person sets foot, staff included, has a seemingly unnecessary little plaque outside its hallowed gates. Whether reluctantly, resignedly or compliantly, businesses and store fronts have moved toward bilingualism quickly and noiselessly, changing the city in insidious, permanent ways.

While some reference Raj Thackeray’s indulgence in petty politics for the “ghati” vote, others express dismay at the loss of the city’s much-mentioned cosmopolitanism. (You see, we in Bombay knew the word a long time before Sarah Jessica Parker came along to popularize the drink.) Still others (or maybe just an unsure I) believe this sort of inclusionism may actually help the city’s linguistically marginalized population, namely, the non-English speakers, feel more a part of it. Or will it? Is this move really about people at all? We know the answer to that.

If the masses of Bombay are so alien to the English language, I can’t help wondering why a majority of our movie posters are in English, a majority of our working class sends text messages in local languages using Roman script, and whether those who can now magically read signs all over the city will be able to afford entry into the places that were hitherto monetarily inaccessible.

I’m partial to languages, I’ll admit it up front. Yes, some more than others, but languages and their usage fascinate me and my radar may be a little more sensitive than most. So I wonder how many people all over Bombay have noticed this makeover of their city and whether they have given a thought to the nature of change and how it affects a city’s identity. Does it reverse the increasingly international flavor of an aspiring-to-be-global city? Does localism take a back seat in this race to be citizens of the world? In typical Mumbaikar get-on-and-make-money fashion, we’ve done the deed and moved on, but will our city take to the change as readily as we have?

There’s something clearly primal about language and its use/ disuse that raises hackles. Is it because our earliest memories are associated with certain semantic structures? Is it because it prompts a feeling of belonging to a group? Or is it because it’s a comfort zone we are reluctant to step out of? I don’t claim knowledge of all the answers, but I suspect it’s a combination of these factors, among still others, and can’t help wondering what comes next in these attempts to create linguistic insularity, because this certainly isn’t the last we’ve seen of it. Any thoughts?