By Paramanund Soobarah
There are other views on the subject
The Brindaban Linguistic and Genocide Watch Group wishes to respond to some views expressed in recent months by Mr Dev Virahsawmy. While we do not normally wish to enter into polemical arguments with any party, his article entitled “On Bhojpuri” in Le Mauricien of 28 June 2010 has prompted us to respond to some of his positions expressed in that article as well as in some previous ones. Our self-assigned mission is to defend our Mother Tongue Bhojpuri against attacks and continuing genocidal attempts and restore its status as the home language of Bihari-origin Indo-Mauritians. We will also support the restoration of the home language status of Tamil, Telugu and Marathi, however quixotic that might seem to some. We will welcome Creole in a script that does interfere with the subsequent acquisition of French. We will fight tooth and nail all efforts to replace English as the official language. Last but not least, we will also defend French against efforts to displace it as the mark of education, culture and civilisation in the country.
The public allegation in the referenced article that Bhojpuri “was despised” by some people, advanced as a statement of fact, immediately reminded us of the hurts to which our languages, cultures and religions have been subjected in this country and the indignities that have been heaped on us for a hundred and seventy five years — to the point that many have left our linguistic, cultural or religious groups to join “more civilised ones” – in short, of the genocidal pressures that we have been subjected to in those areas. We immediately decided that the treatment inflicted upon the Indo-Mauritian community must be brought to the attention of the Truth and Justice Commission and we took action accordingly.
There are plenty of people around who will despise any language, culture or religion. But we question the propriety of speaking about particular cases publicly. The case of people being referred to as “bane je-ci-je-la” in a contemptuous reference to their habit of speaking French at home has also been referred to in the press. It is one thing to quote such a statement to criticise people who make it, and an altogether different matter to quote it to congratulate them, or to use such stupid criticisms to base policies on them with the assumption that they were right in the first place.
While talking about French, it is plain to us that efforts are being pursued to drop the language from among the languages taught at school, in favour of the so-called Creole languages, that is to say, Mauritian Creole itself and — believe it or not – English! We will fight in all public fora for the preservation of French in our education system just as we will for the inclusion of Bhojpuri.
Brass does not become gold
Regarding English, it is true that, like many other languages, it shares some characteristics with Creole, for instance that of readily absorbing vocabulary from other languages. Brass can share the characteristic of shining with gold, but it does not for that reason become gold. One is reminded of the specious argument “A stone is a body, You are a body, Ergo you are a stone.”
The Penguin Dictionary of Language by Prof Crystal Davy defines “creole” as “a pidgin language that has become the mother tongue of a speech community. “A pidgin, the eminent professor explains, is “the native language of no one”; “it emerges when members of two mutually unintelligible speech communities attempt to communicate,” and “creoles are created when pidgins acquire native speakers.” The important point of these definitions is that a pidgin is a necessary pre-requisite for the formation of a creole.
Does English come from a pidgin? We do not think so. We are not historians and are only aware of the broad lines of the history of the language – a Germanic Indo-European language brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons from mainland Europe when they invaded England after the Romans left the country in fifth century AD.
English evolved naturally as all living languages do. It came into contact with Celtic in England, but that did not give rise to any pidgin. In fact there are practically no Celtic words in English. It next came into contact with Scandinavian languages, brought over by Vikings and organised naval expeditions from the Scandinavian countries; as these languages were also of Germanic stock, English enriched itself by the vocabulary items without becoming a pidgin. The next encounter with a foreign language was cataclysmic – when Duke William of Normandy came over with an army and captured the country, bringing with him the French language. The English nobility was replaced by French-speaking Normans, who held sway not only in England but also in Normandy and further inland in France through marriage connections. French became the language of the Court, of the aristocracy and of all powerful functionaries. The language of the Church and of Education was Latin, but the common people went on speaking English. England became a trilingual country. This state of affairs continued for three hundred years, during which a very large number of French words, mainly those used in administration, came into English. But the language of the conquered people did not change into a pidgin; actually in the end it emerged victorious. The ruling class in England finally became more English than French and were eventually thrown out of France.
To our knowledge every time the English language came into contact with a foreign language, it grew by augmentation in its vocabulary and not by pidginisation. Our understanding is – No pidgin, no Creole. We would appreciate Mr Dev Virahsawmy’s telling us at what stage, in its development from Old Indo-European, did English pass through the pidgin stage. Growth by absorption of vocabulary cannot be described as a process of Creolisation.
Bhojpuri: A thriving language
We next offer some information about Bhojpuri. We have written about this before but it would seem that further dissemination of the information is required. Calling Bhojpuri a dialect of Bihari is like calling French a dialect of European. It may be true or false, depending on the meaning one attaches to the words. Some foreign and foreign-inspired linguists have proposed that the three main languages of Bihar, namely Bhojpuri, Maithili and Magahi, be jointly referred to as Bihari, but the proposal has remained purely academic. Besides Bhojpuri is spoken not only in Bihar but also in UP and in Jharkhand and, according to Ethnologue, the well-known linguistic website, in 2007 there were 36,500,000 speakers in India and a total of 38,546,000 worldwide.
Written Bhojpuri also has a long history. Concerns about its grammar and other linguistic aspects are totally misplaced. The poet Kabir, who lived in the fifteenth century, wrote many of his poems in Bhojpuri. It is true that Bhojpuri writing has largely been neglected in Mauritius, but a lot of such writing goes on in India and in the diaspora around the world. One only has to turn to the websites <bhojpuria.com> and <anjoria.com>, for instance, to see what a thriving language it is. It is true that in Mauritius many Creole words have crept in; much of that is due to the fact that it is not (and has never been) taught in the country, this being one the genocidal pressures against the language. But most people who speak Bhojpuri can find, with very little effort, Bhojpuri equivalents for the Creole words they use. Academics are fond of quoting “damboré damboré” as an example of such creole influence, but should the speakers concerned not be using “kinaré kinaré” instead? This is how our elders spoke to us when we were children.
Some people do get put off Bhojpuri because they believe that Bhojpuri is a degraded or “bastardised” form of Hindi, and that the relationship between the two languages is the same as that holding between Creole and French, namely that Bhojpuri is badly pronounced Hindi. This is a totally erroneous concept.
To begin with one has to clarify the meaning of the name “Hindi”. On the one hand this name is used to denote the cluster of languages spoken in the areas now known as Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand up to about two centuries ago. The history of Hindi in this sense stretches back to Sanskrit through the various Prakrit clusters that co-existed with and survived Sanskrit as a spoken language and to the Apabhramsas that followed the Prakrits, with each member of the cluster following its own route from Sanskrit and the Prakrits.
Khari Boli, a major contributor to Modern Hindi, comes from central or Sauraseni Prakrit while Bhojpuri comes from Magadhi or Eastern Prakrit, the language of Emperor Asoka. In addition to Bhojpuri, the Eastern Prakrit also gave rise to Awadhi (the language of the Ramcharitmanas), Braj Bhasha, Maithili, etc… In this sense of the name “Hindi”, Bhojpuri is one of the constituents of the language. Who will say, for instance, that that Awadhi, the language of Tulsidas, is not Hindi? Bhojpuri is “Hindi” as much as Awadhi is. Besides, according to the Wikipedia article on poet Tulsidas, the Ramcharitmanas contains text in Bhojpuri as well.
Modern Standard Hindi
On the other hand the name Hindi also stands for Modern Standard Hindi, the official language of India. Our researches show that in this sense of the name, Hindi is a fairly recent development from Khari Boli, the language of the common people in the Delhi area during the Mughal days, when no distinction was made between Hindi and Urdu, and was also referred to as Hindavi.
Hindi as we know it today was actually started by the British at Fort William College, Calcutta, which the East India Company established in 1800 for the purpose of teaching Indian languages and culture to young British civil servants; that was in the days before Macaulay reversed the policy and made English the language of education. This policy was evolved by the Administrators of the East India Company locally in Bengal where they were based (Delhi was still occupied by the Moghuls) a little against the wishes of the London Headquarters. They had Hindi “constructed” at the College from Khari Boli by replacing words of Arabic or Persian origin by words of Sanskrit origin, whether lifted directly from Sanskrit (tatsam words) or from the current North Indian languages like Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Braj, and others (tadbhav words). Words of the latter type, which while being of Sanskrit origin, had suffered phonetic changes with time (as illustrated by the Sanskrit word “sarva” which changed to “sab” in Bhojpuri). The first book to be written in the “new” Hindi (under a contract with Fort William College) was the well-known “Prem Sagar” by Shree Lallujilall, a native Bhojpuri speaker; it was published in first decade of the nineteenth century.
Our first ancestors who came to Mauritius after the abolition of slavery did so only with Bhojpuri as spoken language and the Awadhi “Hindi” of the Ramcharitmanas; the pandits of course also brought along our prayers and our rituals together with the necessary Sanskrit. At that time the official language of India was still Persian and Mogul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zaffar was still the official ruler of India.
It is true that some people describe Bhojpuri as a dialect, but we need to understand why. All through the forties there was great national fervour in India for Independence and for a national language. A great controversy was raging at the time about whether Hindi or Hindustani (Hindi laced with Urdu) should be adopted as the national language. Proponents of the regional languages like Maithili and Bhojpuri (which were often referred to as dialects to suit the purpose at hand) decided to subjugate their claims to what they thought to be the higher national interest and close ranks with supporters of Hindi as the national language. But more recently the trend is reversing. Maithili has already received government recognition as a Regional Language, and a campaign is being waged to secure the same position for Bhojpuri.
At around the same time, here in Mauritius the Jan Andolan movement of Pandit Basdeo Bissoondoyal, modelling itself on the Forward Bloc of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, also elected to propagate Hindi in this country instead of Bhojpuri – all done in with the best patriotic interests in mind, as Bhojpuri was not recognised as a language for electoral purposes. Their efforts went a long way towards the uplift of the Indo-Mauritian masses, their awakening, their recovery of dignity and their empowerment for political purposes. At that precise moment, with the constitutional consultations that were in progress in Mauritius, it was necessary to obtain results very fast. To be registered as electors people had to pass literacy tests and Hindi with by then its established grammar and literature offered the only way out. Sadly, however, the development of Bhojpuri was neglected. But all is not lost – dedicated individuals and groups are actually reviving the language by teaching it in schools. It is our hope that, in its campaign to introduce teaching in mother tongues, the government will introduce Bhojpuri at the same time as it introduces Creole.
We find that the views of Mr Dev Virahsawmy on both English and Bhojpuri are misleading, but we remain open to debate.
* Published in print edition on 9 July 2010