In any multi-lingual country, questions of language will inevitably be political. This is certainly true in India, where local languages, Hindi, and English continue to shift in relative status and as markers of identity and social class.
I came across this interesting BBC radio program on the complex social dynamics around languages in India. It's an episode of a series called Word of Mouth that aired in April, 2013. What I enjoyed about the program wasn't so much that it yielded shocking new insights, but that the producer includes the voices of several mid-range media-wallas, and this helps make vivid the multi-poles and multilayers of the current linguistic reality.
More than a billion people, twenty two scheduled languages, and dozens more mother tongues: In the second of two programmes, Chris Ledgard explores the complex and passionate politics of language in India. In Delhi and Jaipur, we visit schools, business and newspaper offices to ask - how do the languages you speak, read and write in India influence your life? Click here to listen to the story.
Though the situation in India might have become especially layered and fraught since Independence, social and political complexities surrounding language are neither unique nor new to India. In his post on Johnson, the language blog in the Economist, the blogger S.A.P. writes about how diglossia in the history of English parallels a historical diglossia that existed with Sanskrit and the South Indian languages:
Today, English-speakers pick and choose from the different word sets—Latinate (largely Old French borrowings) and Germanic (mostly Old English-derived words)—depending on the occasion. Although English is no longer in a diglossic relationship with another language, the Norman-era diglossia remains reflected in the way we choose and mix vocabulary. In informal chat, for example, we might go on to ask something, but in formal speech we’d proceed to inquire. There are hundreds of such pairs: match/correspond, mean/intend, see/perceive, speak/converse. Most of us choose one or the other without even thinking about the history behind the split. Germanic words are often described as earthier, simpler, and friendlier. Latinate vocabulary, on the other hand, is lofty and elite. It’s amazing that nine hundred years later, the social and political structure of 12th-century England still affects how we think about and use English.
English isn’t alone in having this sort of split personality. Halfway across the world, languages spoken in southern India underwent similar changes. Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu, the four major languages spoken there, are Dravidian languages. They are structurally unrelated to the languages of northern India, which are Indo-European. But Sanskrit, an Indo-European language of ancient India and the liturgical language of Hinduism, has held prestige all over the subcontinent for over two thousand years. Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam—and to a lesser extent Tamil—have absorbed, and continue to absorb, thousands of Sanskrit words. (A relatively recent movement among Tamil-speakers aimed to expunge the Sanskrit borrowings.) Much of southern India, just like Norman England, was diglossic between Sanskrit (used ritually and formally by Hindu elites) and vernacular Dravidian languages. Today, that diglossia is gone, but Sanskrit-derived vocabulary still forms an upper crust, mostly pulled out for formal speech or writing.
As Mayank Austen Soofi notes in the BBC story, "Almost every language which we speak in this country is in a way the language of the colonizers, you know?" This shifting status of languages has surely played out countless times in countless ways since the earliest languages emerged.