The Mauritian Bhojpuri
By Anjani Murdan
The Mauritius population is a multicultural and multilingual society. The people trace their ancestry to the four corners of the world and value their ancestral languages which they have, in large part, preserved to this day through daily use. Most languages coming from Africa have not survived because of the inhuman survival conditions prevailing during the slavery period in Mauritius. However, others coming from the Indian subcontinent in the wake of the Indian Immigration have survived and are flourishing in certain domains. Whereas some are taught in schools (like Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi), others are used at home (like Bhojpuri, and till quite lately, Tamil and Telugu).
Today, the people of Mauritius value not only their ancestral tongues, but also all the other languages spoken on the territory, especially those that are indispensable for communication on the wider scale. The Mauritian Creole (Kreol Morisien) is the language spoken fluently by all. The two international languages English and French, taught as from kindergarten and primary school, are valued as the languages of education, for better job prospects and generally of social uplift, making the people of Mauritius essentially multilinguals. Ignoring this characteristic of the population can only lead to misconceptions about languages spoken in the country. Especially so on account of the polyglossia that characterizes the language situation prevalent in the country (Asgarally, 2015).
The language situation in a country can be apprehended in two ways: first by the figures supplied by censuses and second by observation of the size of linguistic groups. Censuses being State undertakings no doubt carry the weight of objectivity. However, can censuses render exact pictures of realities or for that matter, can the official interpretation of figures be true to reality? Above all, can subtle crookedness of questions jeopardize the very validity of the census exercise?
According to the ‘2011 Population Census Main Results’ issued by the Central Statistics Office of Mauritius, some 5.3% of the Mauritian population speak the Bhojpuri language. The graph provided in the report compared the figure with that of the 2000 census, whereby 12.1% spoke Bhojpuri.
This would mean that, in the span of ten years, more than half of the speakers of Bhojpuri dropped the language, but this does not seem very realistic. If we analyse the figures supplied by the different decennial censuses of Mauritius since 1983, when for the first time Bhojpuri was considered a language in its own right to figure in the census, the results are as follows:
In the ‘2000 Population census – Main Results’ report (2000, p. 6), the Table 5 presents the different languages spoken in the island by numbers and percentages. The title of the table reads as follows: ‘Resident population by language usually or most spoken at home, Republic of Mauritius – 1990 and 2000 Population Censuses’. The different entries in the table read as ‘Bhojpuri only’, ‘creole only’, and so on for all the languages spoken in the country. In the ‘2011 Population Census – Main Results’, again the term ‘only’ is used.
One major problem with the Table 5 (Central Statistics Office, 2000, p. 6) is the term ‘only’; it is quite ambiguous since no explanation is given as to its real meaning. One possible meaning is that the term ‘only’ refers to speakers who speak only that particular language. Hence the 12.1% ‘Bhojpuri only’ in the 2000 Census Report and the 5.3% of ‘Bhojpuri only’ in that of the 2011 Census surely refer to the monolingual speakers of Bhojpuri.
Concept of ‘current language’
The concept of ‘current language’ (CL) is another problematic issue. The ‘current language’ as described by the census questionnaire reads as follows: “Language usually spoken: Write the language usually or most often spoken by the person at home”.
In multilingual Mauritius, where almost every individual uses at least two languages in daily life, the concept of ‘Current language’ is quite invalid. Especially so for speakers of Asian descent who currently use Bhojpuri as well as Creole, even if some speakers have switched to Creole and French or to Creole and English, or Creole and Hindi/Urdu/Tamil, or Creole and a Chinese language. But the census questionnaire obliterates this multilingual aspect of the respondent’s identity by using the expression ‘most often spoken by the person at home’. In fact, this expression, while literally forcing the respondent to give only one language as answer, paradoxically acknowledges the fact that there are other home languages that coexist. And indeed, there are several home languages: in the home environment, multilingual speakers can be using one language with elder family members and a different one with young ones and yet another language with peer group members.
To put it simply, for example, in an Indian descent household, children might be using Bhojpuri with grandparents, French or English with parents and Creole with siblings. Moreover, it’s not only the interlocutor who determines the language choice but also the subject matter; hence, to talk about matters related to culture or religion, the language used could be Hindi/Urdu/Tamil and so on.
Concept of ‘Ancestral language’ (AL)
Likewise, the term ‘Ancestral Language’ (AL) is also quite ambiguous. In the 2011 Population census questionnaire (as in the previous ones), the ‘Ancestral Language’ is explained as ‘languages of forefathers’ and the instructions are as follows: ‘Write the languages(s) spoken by the person’s ancestors. Up to two answers are possible.’ (2011 Census, Enumerator Manual).
The term ‘Ancestral language’ is misleading as it can refer to long disappeared ancestors as well as to the living grandparents of today. Grandparents of this generation (among the descendants of those who came from India) are highly proficient in at least three languages: in Bhojpuri, in Creole and in one of the literary written languages (Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Urdu, Gujarati). In fact, the group of speakers aged fifty and above are the most versatile language-wise and they are the natural multilinguals, having acquired the different languages out of sheer use in everyday life.
However, in the Census questionnaire, as per instruction, only up to two languages can be chosen — ‘Up to two answers are possible.’ (2011 Census, Enumerator Manual)
The census section on ‘Languages of forefathers’ hence forces the respondents to make a choice of only two languages when actually the present grandparents use at least three: the first one is Bhojpuri which is used as the main language of communication among the different linguistic groups coming from India; the second one is the literary language (Hindi or Tamil or Telugu or Marathi or Gujarati among others) which is mainly used in religious rituals, in literary materials and also as an ethnic identity marker. The third language is the newly learnt Creole language whose importance lay in its function as a lingua franca for much wider communication. Hence, among this group aged 50 (to take a rough estimate) and above, allowing for the choice of only two languages wholly distorts the real facts.
One of the positive points to be acknowledged about the census questionnaire is the fact that, as from 1990, provisions were made to take into account the multilingual status of speakers. Hence, some of the questions pertained to the combinations of languages used in daily life. As can be noted from the table (Table 1), for the 2011 census, a total of 18.5% and 0.6% of respondents declared to use a combination of Creole and Bhojpuri in everyday communication; another 3% used a combination of Bhojpuri and Hindi; as for monolinguals, a total of 19.3% and 5.3% used it as an ancestral language or a home language.
A rough estimate of the total number of people using the Bhojpuri language thus amounts to around 36.7% of the total population of the country. It seems to us that this figure is closer to the real language situation. Officially proclaiming that only 5.3% of the population speak the Mauritius Bhojpuri is quite evidently a gross inaccuracy, especially as the figures of Ancestral language (AL), which amounts to 19.3% has not been taken into consideration.
In the 1983 Population Census, the data gathered showed that out of a population of 966,863 individuals, some 328,033 considered Bhojpuri as a home or ancestral language. Hence, approximately one third of the population spoke Bhojpuri, making it as one of the major spoken languages of the country. The data for the 1983 census are no doubt quite close to the real situation considering that some 68% of the population are of Indian descent and have used, up to the 1940s (Issur, K., 2017) the Bhojpuri language as a lingua franca. Moreover, the Hindus and the Muslims, mostly coming from Bihar, spoke it as a mother tongue.
However, unlike other written Asian languages, Bhojpuri has not been favoured in the calculations of the respondents. Its use among the Indo-Mauritians has been under reported; as pointed out by Rajah-Carrim, Hollup and Bissoonauth-Bedford (Bissoonauth-Bedford, 2019; Hollup, 1996; Rajah-Carrim, 2007), this could be due to negative attitudes. Indeed, the Bhojpuri language being only a lingua franca among the different ethnic and linguistic sub-groups of the Indo-Mauritians, probably found itself as an orphan-language as described by P. Sooriah (1977), cited by Hookoomsing (2009).
To conclude, we would say that in the decennial census form, the label ‘Home language’ is a most inappropriate one since in most cases, two to three languages are usually used in the home environment: the Bhojpuri language is the most used language by Indian descent adults aged about 45 or above; in some homes, with Hindi-literate parents and grand-parents, Hindi is used as a high-variety; some old parents also speak Tamil and Telugu, and what’s more, with recent sensitization campaigns, some youths have also started conversing in these tongues with their elderly.
Finally, alongside these languages, the Mauritian Creole is spoken by the younger generations. Therefore, in multilingual Mauritian society, the ‘home language’ label used in the census forms is inaccurate and leads to a distorted view of the language situation in Mauritius. Instead, we believe that the term ‘home languages’ (in the plural form) would be a better formula, which would render a more accurate picture of the linguistic situation of Mauritius. Secondly, the restriction to mention only two languages regarding ‘Ancestral Languages’ has no validity; opening up the space for one more language can give a chance to the one waiting at the door. The added bonus would be the act of giving due visibility to minority languages that are losing ground, in part, for want of recognition and prestige.
Asgarally, I. (2015). ‘Ecrits sur les langues’. Super Printing Co. Ltd, Maurice.
Bissoonauth-Bedford, A. (2019). Language and attitude shift of young Mauritians in secondary education. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. Retrieved from https://ro.uow.edu.au/lhapapers/4028
Central Statistics Office. (2000). Population Census Reports. Mauritius.
Hollup, O. (1996). Islamic revivalism and political opposition among minority Muslims in Mauritius. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 13(4).
Hookoomsing, V. Y. (2009). Language loss, language maintenance : The case of Bhojpuri and Hindi in Mauritius. In L. N. & al. (eds. . Kadekar (Ed.), The Indian Diaspora : Historical and Contemporary Context. New Delhi, India: Rawat Publications.
Issur, K. (2017). ‘La guerre des langues et des cultures à Maurice : contribution à une reflexion sur le Bhojpuri’. Cahiers Internationaux de Sociolinguistique, 12(2), 211–226.
Rajah-Carrim, A. (2007). Language use and attitudes in Mauritius on the basis of the 2000 population census. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 28(1).
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 10 June 2022
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