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Misframing of Hindi, Hinglish: A response

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on June 18, 2012 No Comment

The article, Hindi, Hinglish: Head to Head” by Ananya Vajpeyi (Assistant Professor of History, UMass Boston), published by the World Policy Journal, jumped out at me from among the sundry language policy related news items in a listserv email I received. While the attempt to parse out delicate and complicated issues related to broader language politics in India is to be commended, the article was deeply disappointing in its scope, depth, and originality. I grew up in New Delhi, in the “Hindi belt,” and “Hinglish” has been part of my linguistic repertoire since at least the early ‘80s; and yet the article resonated little with my lived experience of Hindi or code-switching practices with English. Perhaps more disturbingly, previous scholarship around Hindi and “Hinglish” seems to have been set aside in order to make sensationalistic claims, in a way that does more to misinform than generate discussion.

One of Prof. Vajpeyi’s early claims invokes the “partition of Pakistan over six decades ago,” a claim which is somewhat confusing given that the partition of Pakistan (into Pakistan and Bangladesh) actually would have occurred in 1971 (41 years ago). The “Partition” of India into India and Pakistan, which is clearly what was meant, happened in 1947. Further, her claim that Indians no longer “expect their separate languages to count as the bases for distinct nationalities” does injustice to the generally strong alignment of identity with one’s home language, as well as ignores regional movements for autonomy aligned with linguistic kinship (see, e.g., Bhaumik, 2004).

A next section explores the Three Language Formula (TLF)—which she broadly conceives as the study of a “local language,” Hindi, and English (though this leaves out what happens in the Hindi belt)—with the vague statement that “relative proportions of these three vary, of course, as a function of class, literacy, education, and culture.” The kinds of language used, research shows, is actually a function of a variety of things, taking into account the issues of regional/local politics, socio-economic relationships, teacher proficiency and availability, parents’ and children’s desires, and, of course, national level policymaking. She continues: “increasingly though, this three-language policy that exposed millions to both Hindi and English has led to a new language hybrid,” which I can only assume to mean “Hinglish.” This locates the development of “Hinglish” at a moment in history that goes back to the establishment of TLF, back to the 1961, a point contradicted later on in the essay. Further:

What remains beyond dispute, however, is that the evolution of Hindi will play a critical role in determining India’s place in a world still embracing English as the core language of commerce and culture. The ability of India to survive and prosper may indeed hinge on this question of how Indians communicate with each other and the world. The decision of whether or not to continue along the “three-language” path is the central linguistic choice that India must make in the coming years.

I disagree that the “evolution of Hindi” will play a crucial role in determining India’s establishment of a place for itself in the world; English is not a subtractive language in the Indian context. Indians don’t have to make a decision to learn one or the other. One can continue to use Hindi for local communication purposes, and English for international ones. People in the “Hindi belt” grow up immersed in it, and can acquire English in addition to Hindi and any other languages they know (as I did). In fact, how Indians communicate with each other does not need to depend on how they communicate with the world. Language use in the Indian context may most clearly be mapped out in terms of domain use; we use different languages in different domains. Within such a model, the use of one may or may not inflect the other. It’s not clear why the TLF issue is implicated in such an enterprise here either: as my own work reveals, it’s not just TLF—which is ultimately a policy recommendation (see here)—but local implementation practices and policies that also determine regional language use.

A next section maps out the historical “baggage” Hindi brings, including its “internal fragmentation,” “its contrived relationships with the two classical languages closest to it (either the artificial addition of Sanskrit or the artificial subtraction of Persian); and its ‘intimate enmity’ with Urdu.” What is left unsaid here is the positionality behind such a statement. Leaving aside the question of how the use of Persian and the relationship with Urdu are here treated as two different subjects, who is being voiced as speakers of “Hindi”? While there are admittedly large pockets where the deliberative Sanskritization of Hindi is at work, the process of “Urduization” of Hindi is also underway. Anyone who turns on the TV in India (especially to news channels) can switch from stations that engage in one or the other project. Sometimes, like my own use of Hindi, both processes are simultaneously at work. Because policymakers attempt to do certain things does not mean that these always unfold effectively in practice. People’s linguistic agency is not so easily suppressed. Then, her warning:

But now, Hindi is mingling in unexpected ways with Indian English, morphing into yet another language. The new language has a name, albeit only a half-serious one: “Hinglish.”

Firstly, “Hinglish, as Hindi-English code-switching, is more accurately described as a mode of communication rather than a language” (Anderson-Finch, 2011, p. 64). She also, rather surprisingly, tries to position this as a new phenomenon: for example, later on in the essay, she says: “Hinglish is in fact one of many half-Indian, half-English argots to have mushroomed in the past five or 10 years.” I began this response by noting that I’ve engaged in “Hinglish” practices since early childhood, and a simple Google Scholar search spits out many scholarly articles that have engaged with the issue prior to 2002 (see, e.g., D’souza, 1992; Thussu, 1999). In fact, Trivedi (2011), for example, notes that: “Evidence suggests that [Hinglish] may have begun as soon as Hindi and English began to inhabit the same geographical space-with the coming of the British to India” (p. xiii).

Next, she makes the political claim that Indian and Pakistani learners are unwitting pawns in the greater projects of Sanskritization of Hindi and the Arabicization of Urdu. While there may be linguistic engineering, people are not generally completely gullible to such attempts, nor are they utterly unaware that such attempts are being made. “Pakistanis are taught that Urdu springs directly from Arabic,” she tells us, but, given that they would be exposed to both Hindi (through music and movies) and Arabic (through Islamic instruction), it is unlikely that people never connect that one sounds a whole lot closer than the other. What I find hardest to swallow here are her claims about people’s lack of awareness about language policy, especially ones that directly effect them. National language projects, I believe, are not to be confused with what people make of such projects, one way or another.

A separate section of the article brings together Hindi and Hebrew, in a way that predictably sets up state actors as stage villains. After “establishing” the similarity between the two languages (with a set of attributes that could entail any set of languages vying for national hegemony anywhere, in fact), she notes:

Unfortunately, another common attribute of both Hindi and Hebrew as the official languages of India and Israel is their implicit refusal to recognize the languages of the Islamic communities in their midst—the Urdu of Indian and Pakistani Muslims in the one case, the Arabic of the Palestinian people in the other. Both nations desperately need to understand that their linguistic issues are metaphors for ethnic or religious divides, and could, if left unaddressed pose insuperable hurdles to peaceful development and growth.

The statement is irresponsible and patently false. Arabic is actually one of the two official languages in Israel, and in India, Urdu is one of the constitutionally recognized Scheduled Languages. Ben-Rafael, Shohamy, Amara & Trumper-Hecht (2006) offer us a glimpse into Arabic use in Israel:

With respect to this population, Israel is pluralistic in the sense that it sustains Arabic-speaking institutions in the realm of education, culture, media, politics, religion and intracommunity public life (Saban, 2000). The official status of Arabic is most manifest in the Arab educational system, where Arabic is the language of instruction (while, on the other hand, in Hebrew-speaking schools, Arabic is compulsory only at the junior high level, for two years and optional later on); public radio and television where time is allocated to Arabic programmes; currency and postage stamps on which bilingual ArabicHebrew inscriptions appear; and Knesset laws which are published in Arabic in addition to the Hebrew version. Recently, due to Supreme Court rulings, Arabic also appears on numerous road signs around the country.

While that is not to state that there isn’t marginalization due to internal politics, what Prof. Vajpeyi ends up doing is silencing the voice of Arabic speakers in Israel, thereby setting up state actors to take the fall. There is absolutely no evidence offered beyond her sweeping and misleading statement, and yet the section ends with a call for not allowing for artificial and political separations from impoverishing Hindi literature. While I agree that there are separations that have been created as far as Hindi/Urdu are concerned, I would be wary of giving such total credence to policy initiatives. I cannot speak for all of India, but in the pocket of Delhi I grew up in, both languages were considered mutually intelligible, usable, and shared. I don’t agree that “the segregation of languages fed into the segregation of literary as well as popular cultures”-in fact, most of our top lyricists, screenwriters, etc. are Urdu speakers, with a lot of influence over popular culture. Again, what’s missing from Prof. Vajpeyi is any consideration of nuance, and of people’s agency, resistance, and recourse to such measures.

“Given the sheer number of its speakers in India and elsewhere, Hindi has the capacity to be as widespread a medium of communication as English, Arabic, or Chinese,” she says in the concluding section. It actually already is, “given the sheer number of its speakers.” Hindi, in fact, has local and international circulation in similar ways to Chinese and Arabic. She ends with:

But unless language mavens and government authorities treat the emergence and popularity of Hinglish as a wake-up call for India to seize the moment in developing a vital and lasting linguistic policy, the nation risks losing its global advantage in coming years.

It’s not exactly clear what the call to action is for, but it appears to beckon towards directed institutional efforts at Hindi preservation. This is actually reverse of what has proved to be vital language policy in a so-called “globalizing” world: English has sustained and expanded its influence, whereas a language like French, with its reluctance to appropriate, has suffered. Do we want to head where English is, or see our spheres of influence shrink, like French—which, while an exquisite language, cannot match English in its reach? I know what side I’m on of this debate.

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