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A Case of Classic Confusion

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on November 23, 2008 7 Comments

The Indian government recently decided to confer “classic” status to a select few languages, using the yardstick that a language has to have been around at least 1500 years in order to make the cut. The official designation of a language as “classic” comes with a sizable grant to be used for its “preservation and propagation.” Naturally, in a remarkably multilingual country (home to hundreds of languages and dialects, many of which are endangered or seriously neglected), where language is a politically, emotionally, as well as ethnically charged issue, this has led to not little consternation. What’s troubling to many is not just the privileging of some languages at the cost of others, it is the arbitrary nature of the yardstick itself, a sentiment I share myself. There are other discontentments with this kind of assignation. According to India Today, for example,

…Sukumar Azhikode, former chairman, [Indian] National Book Trust [said]: “It is foolish to stake claim for the classic status. For it is an honour granted by fools to fools.” According to him, only literature and not languages can be classified classical or non-classical. “There is no concept of a classic language in linguistics.”

Prof. George Hart, chair of the Tamil Studies here at UC Berkeley, would disagree. In 2000 he wrote a widely-disseminated letter, in which he wondered “why Tamil has not been recognized as a classical language” [emphasis added]. He argued,

“To qualify as a classical tradition, a language must fit several criteria: it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature. Tamil meets each of these requirements…”

One of the questions that persists is how ancient a language has to be, then, to be so qualified (leaving aside the question of whether the qualification of languages as such is even a good thing to do). The Kerala state government is understandably up in arms about the exclusion of Malayalam, a language younger than 500 years, and thus not given the “classic” status, despite meeting some of the other criteria.

It’s a little difficult to try to assess the public mood and sentiment about this when filtered through the lens of media, as I am forced to do, but I can imagine the resentment that many must feel…for now, I am opening the door…for comments.

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7 Responses to “A Case of Classic Confusion”

  1. daveski on: 23 November 2008 at 11:49 pm

    This looks like a contentious argument, one that I better do some reading on…hope those articles and other commenters can shed some light. But I’m just wondering, is there a difference between a “classic language” and a “classical language”?

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 23 November 2008 at 11:53 pm

    Prof. Hart’s argument is that Tamil should be considered (and is, officially now) “classical.” In my review of the stories covering the news, I find BOTH words being used to define how the government made the assignation, which is why I didn’t think too much about it. But you’re right! 🙂

  3. Usree Bhattacharya on: 24 November 2008 at 12:07 am

    And my point primarily was that Azhikode’s claim, that “only literature and not languages can be classified classical or non-classical,” would be refuted by Prof. Hart.

  4. Youki on: 24 November 2008 at 10:31 pm

    The contrast between the following two excerpts fascinates me. One is from the Telegraph India article linked above:

    [M.A. Baby] said the Union government should not “grade” languages in this manner. “This kind of grading will create an inferiority complex in the minds of people who speak a ‘non-classical’ language.”

    this one is a comment from the India Today article, also linked above:

    Oops… I thought Malayalam originated from Tamil and Sanskrit. In a similar way, Tamil as used today is not the same in ancient literature. Malayalam and Tamil have the same ancestry. But then, Malayalam does not deserve the classical status. We Mallus are proud when our kids don’t speak Malayalam. It will die soon anyway.

    What I’m curious about isn’t that the opinions differ so greatly (which shouldn’t be a surprise), I’m curious about the ecological factors that led each person to have their own distinct language ideology.

    What shapes a person’s “attachment” to a language? I’m sure the answer is different for each individual, but I wonder if there are any larger issues that can be discussed, like the use of language in various institutions/fields, or language in mainstream media.

  5. Usree Bhattacharya on: 26 November 2008 at 11:13 am

    Intriguing comments, Youki. It would be great to have a discussion on the topic of “what shapes a person’s attachment to language” on FIT. [btw, I wonder, why put “attachment” is quotes?] What also interested me is how both “commentators” seemed to assume that people speaking a particular language are a distinct group, thinking the same way. [Insert linguistic theory here 🙂 ]

    In India, like in other places, language issues lead to highly contested debates. The dependence on English, at the institutional level, seems to be a working compromise to bring together speakers of different tongues, but there are problems: English is a colonial inheritance, and this creates a privileging of a “foreign”/colonial language that angers locals. Hindi, the other official language, is also widely resented in areas where there are few Hindi speakers, and seems to privilege the populous north, where it is spoken most widely. The Indian constitution, so far as I can tell, recognizes 18 Indian languages; there IS some institutional support that comes with such a recognition, but it still leaves too much unresolved.

  6. Youki on: 26 November 2008 at 3:05 pm

    “attachment” is in quotes because I wanted to mark it as a term that was particularly heteroglossic – not necessarily my word, not a word I want to put into other peoples’ mouths, and certainly not a word other people may use to describe their relationship with language.

  7. Usree Bhattacharya on: 1 December 2008 at 4:15 pm

    Just came across this: Bengali speakers would like it to be considered a “classical language” too!

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