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A TONGUE TOO MANY

If language springs from the heart, it may prove as unruly as the heart. The high court in Dhaka, though, feels that the court can lay down the law on language when its users ‘distort’ it. Reportedly, the court was responding to an article which criticized the casual, mixed language used in radio and television programmes. For the scholarly writer, the ‘pollution’ of language is as devastating as pollution of rivers. Many in Bangladesh and in neighbouring West Bengal would be sympathetic to the writer’s view. It is painful, at least in West Bengal, to be faced with credits on TV and slogans on walls with atrocious spelling, or to listen to cheery sentences untouched by grammar. But the ‘distortion’ in such cases reflects a decline in the standard of education, and perhaps the teaching of Bengali in particular.

It is not clear from the problems of language ‘pollution’ listed by the court in Bangladesh whether it is spelling and grammar it is concerned about. But the issues it does list are certainly those that evoke equal passion in West Bengal: ‘pollution’, distorted pronunciation, incorrect choice of words (Indian advertisements in Bengali offer incomparable examples of this) and decay. The thrust of the court’s concern, however, raises a basic question: is there any living language that is ‘pure’? Languages live by changes, shifts, borrowings and apparent ‘distortions’ — English, for example, has digested ‘curry’ and gone on to ‘tweeting’, having naturalized, say, ‘impacting’ on the way, leaving purists fuming. The most widespread language in the world glories in ‘impurity’. Sanskrit is pure; it is also dead.

But there is another question, as basic, that the Dhaka high court ruling has raised. Can a court of law decide that the ‘purity’ of a language should be preserved, that committees — and government departments — be empowered to ensure that the language is not further ‘injured’ by English, Hindi and other influences? First, at what historical point is the purity of a language, in this case, Bengali — which evolved over the years — to be fixed? On the eve of the international mother tongue day, it has to be asked whether the language revolution is not showing signs of hardening in the very country that has given the world martyrs in the cause of the mother tongue. The use of any language is influenced by political and economic factors. This is especially relevant in the use of Bengali in India. If there is a decline in the standards of teaching Bengali, it is surely a reflection of changing cultural needs that are directly linked to economics and politics. The ‘distortion’ is a sign, occasionally regrettable, that the language is trying to adjust to new cultural and economic demands. This is the phenomenon to be studied, and perhaps addressed. ‘Purity’, even if defined, cannot be forced.