Monday, 21 June 2010

Rajasthan - क्या आप हिंदी बोलते हैं?

It would surprise most people to know that a mere 41% of Indians speak Hindi as a first language. In a country as big as India, it's proved impossible to impose Hindi as a lingua franca amongst its 1 billion plus population and, ironically, English is most often used as the language of communication across India's language divide.

There are currently 22 'official' languages in India. Official in inverted commas, because the Indian government prefers to use the term 'Languages of the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution'! I've noticed that the word 'schedule' is incredibly popular in India, especially when referring to things outside the Hindu mainstream!

Most of the scheduled languages, eg Bengali, Marathi and Gujarati, have millions of speakers. Other more recent additions, such as Bodo and Dogri, number their speakers in hundreds of thousands, rather than millions. Apart from the scheduled languages, there are approximately another 150 non-scheduled languages spoken in India. The Rajasthani language, which is spoken by an estimated 36 million people in India, is recognised at a regional level, but isn't one of the 22 national languages. I get the impression that the linguistic proximity of Rajasthani to Hindi has led to it being considered more of a dialect of Hindi, rather than a language in its own right, although this perception seems to be changing.

In my last blogpost I referred to the north/south divide in India between the Mughal/Sanskrit and the Dravidian/Tamil cultures. This divide is also borne out in the distribution of language families in India, with the northern part being Indo-European and the southern part Dravidian (about one third of India's population).

I remember travelling through India, passing linguistic boundaries from Delhi (Hindi/Urdu) to Bombay (Marathi) to Mysore/Bangalore (Kannada, a major Dravidian language and the administrative language of Karnataka). Not knowing any Indian language, I barely perceived the linguistic changes. Except when it came to the scripts, which became noticeably rounded, as I moved further south.

When I lived in Thailand, I learned to read and write in the Thai script, which belongs to the Brahmic 'alphabets' that originated in the Indian subcontinent. Due to the way these languages are written down, it's more accurate to describe them as abugidas, or alphasyllabic scripts. The main difference between an alphabet and an abugida is that an alphabet has separate letters for each consonant and vowel, whereas an abugida prioritises consonants and is written in a syllabic way. There is often a default vowel (like the Hindi schwa or 'eh' sound) which can be changed into other vowel sounds (eg Hindi 'oo' and 'ee') by adding diacritics, or marks below or above the main consonant.

The Brahmic or Indic scripts are the biggest group of abugida scripts, however this type of script does exist elsewhere in the world, notably in Ethiopia, Canada and even the ancient Irish Ogham script is deemed to be abugida - the name abugida comes from the first four sounds of the Ethiopian language Ge'ez. Learning to read/write in Thai meant looking at the writing system in a completely different way and actually made a lot of sense and was easier to learn than you might think.  It's also nowhere near as difficult as learning to read a logogram system, like the one used for Chinese.

Hindi is instantly recognisable by the straight line which runs across the top of each word, conveniently separating them. Thai was harder in this respect, as Thai sentences look like one big jumble of words with no spaces in between - kindoflikeifenglishwaswrittenlikethis!

In the south of India, the straight line disappears and the script becomes more cursive, apparantly related to the fact that early Dravidian scripts were first written on coconut shells, hence the difficulty of using straight lines. I'll never forget trying to catch a bus at Kohlapur station, finding myself surrounded by a bewildering array of signs in Marathi, any one of which could have been my intended destination of Mysore. I can't describe how powerless I felt, finding myself unexpectedly (and temporarily) illiterate. 

क्या मतलब मैं क्या जानते हो?

Image credits:

The image of the Kannada alphabet is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. 

The image of 'aum' written in different Brahmic scripts is by flickuser tdietmut a.k.a. Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen, originally from Hamburg, but now living in Rotterdam.  Thanks Dietmut for sharing this image with us through the Creative Commons License. 
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