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?

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8 Responses to “Linguistically Speaking”

  1. Aunty G October 10, 2008 at 8:48 pm #

    This post is serious; yes, what a pity
    And it wants Shanghai as a sister city
    Parochial as it seems
    Does it pander to Marathi dreams
    This fuss over the language nitty-gritty?

  2. D October 11, 2008 at 12:34 pm #

    Most Indians are bilinguals so whether a signboard is in English or a regional language doesn’t bother me. What does bother me though is that the reason why people in Bombay are feeling compelled to put up signboards in Marathi. It’s the mindset that forces people to pander to parochialism that takes away from the city’s cosmopolitan nature.

  3. Suzy October 11, 2008 at 8:25 pm #

    I don’t think having signposts in a local language (especially alongside the English) should or does affect a Bombay’s aspirations to be a global cosmopolitan city. It hasn’t affected cities like Paris, Rome, New Orleans etc.

    I think it’s wrong to assume that English is India’s ‘national language’ in practical terms even though most of the population may be familiar with it and use it quite regularly. However, I can well understand how the huge number of ‘english-medium’ schools in India and the fact that the manguage is taught as a second language in regional-speaking schools may lead one to believe that to be so.

    French is taught as a second langage in all English schools and understood by a majority of the British population but no one would ever consider it to be one of this country’s national langauges (albeit we were not subjected to French rule for three hundred years and haven’t developed a certain mindset as a result).

    I personally see anything regressive about a country/city celebrating its lingual diversity but, then again, I don’t know how I would react to the sudden and unexpected changes that you are experiencing if I lived in Bombay myself.

  4. Suzy October 11, 2008 at 8:26 pm #

    *I personally see nothing (excuse my lethargic weekend digits)

  5. Suzy October 11, 2008 at 8:27 pm #

    *language

  6. Orange Jammies October 12, 2008 at 10:49 am #

    Aunty G: I’m not convinced they’re en mass Maharashtrian dreams to begin with. It’s just disturbing how everything has a political agenda, but then again, that’s hardly a recent development. The political has been infiltrating every other sphere of living for eons now.

    D: You couldn’t have said it better.

    Suzy: Oh but I’m not assuming any such thing. What is disconcerting to me, personally, is how swiftly and noiselessly and without public dialogue this change was enforced. Societies that have entrenched second languages have had decades and even centuries to get used to them visually. Which is not to say that we didn’t have any signboards in Marathi or Hindi earlier, but they certainly weren’t plastered everywhere there is the hint of an English letter! And like I said in my post, if this was a more inclusive move (and naive idiot that I am, I still want to believe it), I would’ve been completely fine with it. I’m comfortable with both languages. But it’s not about the people in the ease-of-functioning sense at all. It appears to be yet another oh-look-what-i-did-now-give-me-your-vote ploy, without a thought given to how it will affect the nature of the city.

  7. Amrita October 12, 2008 at 10:48 pm #

    Ha, reading you and Pitu on (approximately) the same subject, makes me realize anew how complicated this issue is and how ambivalent I myself feel about it.

    As far as including a Marathi subscript to existing signs goes: why not? I personally feel it’s tokenism because seriously, it’s not whether the customer can read the sign that’s important, it’s whether he or she feels comfortable going in, and that’s always a class issue.

    But as for the overnight nature of the change: it’s unfortunately a survival mechanism. I can see the thinking behind it perfectly. Do I like it? No. Do I see it happening again? You betcha.

  8. Orange Jammies October 13, 2008 at 2:55 pm #

    Amrita: Yeah, those are pretty much my sentiments too. Will go read Pitu.

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