“Привет” I said. That set the mood for the rest of the conversation between my house landlady and me today morning, as we negotiated rent and repairs. Talk to people in their own language and things seem to move along faster. Something I learnt long ago, while dealing with babu’s at Mumbai. Marathi moves paper faster than Hindi or money there. The same applies, from Hyderabad to Helsinki. But apart from revealing the lazy habits of bureaucrats, this also throws light on a small aspect of human nature.
In all this tongue switching and code mixing, I have begun to feel like I don’t belong anywhere at all. I firmly believe that one cannot learn a language unless one is willing to absorb its cultural context. Nor can one profess to know a language just be conjugating all its irregular verbs. Eskimo has over ten words for snow, powdery snow, fresh snow and so on, but curiously no word for just snow. Proto Indo-European supposedly had no word equivalent for ‘sea’ or ‘ocean’. Languages are dictated by narrow walls, of geography and culture and globalization exposes many such interesting quirks contained therein.
Languages are structured and have rules, but they must be dynamic if they are to survive. English freely slept around with any language that was spoken in the British Isles and today shamelessly flaunts its bastard status, but is the Lingua franca of the world (excluding, of course the Chinese sphere of influence).
Supporters of Indian regional languages go to ludicrous lengths to ensure linguistic survival amidst English’s sweeping influence. Pro-Dravidians argue against ‘Sanskritization’ of Tamil abhorring any word of Indo-European origin. Perhaps they would do well to remember that several words for long considered pure Sanskrit have recently been discovered to have Dravidian parentage. Indo-Aryan languages have several unique traits that differentiate them from other indo-European languages, mainly the presence of several Dravidian traits. Sanskrit was barely an infant when Tamil already had two epics in its repertoire. In a peninsula of overwhelming Aryan tongues, Dravidian languages are the neglected children, but Indo-Aryan purportedly was built on a Dravidian sub-stratum. Borrowing terms and code-mixing may give language a unique flavor, but evolutionally they provide a rock solid foothold for survival. The Dravidian language family is unusual in that it shows no relation to any other language family. Proto-Dravidian evolved into Tamil. Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu and Kodava-Takk all seceded from it in the previous millennium.
Indian languages draw from a large pool of languages. Influences range from Persian and Latin to the rarer Elamite*. One often neglects the linguistic diversity that the India holds. Bound together for millennia in the sub-continent, people freely borrowed, snatched and stole, from each other in the pursuit of making the perfect mellifluous language. The future of Indian languages is secure, in that they are not monogamous, but promiscuous. Modern media only accelerates this tumultuous mixing from which eventually order and structure will emerge to form yet another language.
*The Elamite language was spoken in what is now south-western Iran sometime between the sixth to fourth centuries BC. Dravidian languages show a direct relation to Elamite. Some scholars also like to bring in the mysterious Indus valley civilization language under the umbrella of the Elamo-Dravidian family.