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DON’T BE LITERAL

Languages, written or spoken, are unstoppably corrupt and corrupting animals. Hence, attempts at keeping them pure prove to be as vain as they are vehement. Every new tool of expression and communication — printing presses, computers, mobile phones — leaves its mark on languages that are alive and well. So, vitality and corruption are inseparable in the growth of human tongues. Text messaging in the subcontinent is one such hybrid creature, which declares its robustness by throwing to the winds most notions of linguistic purity. It now appears, in the wake of a recent scientific study, that this kind of usage often gives the brain more work to do, and therefore enlarges its capacity to perform more than one task simultaneously. So reading Hindi, Bengali or any other vernacular language in the Roman script could prove to be a good, rather than a lamentable thing for the literate, subcontinental brain. Being able to suppress the script of one language in order to respond to the semantics of another is a complex, and therefore salutary, activity.

However, it is not just vernacular film-posters and postmodern SMS-speak that afford the neural benefits of transliteration. The history of Romanizing Sanskrit and other Indian languages goes back to the 19th century, and is part of a distinguished tradition of Indological scholarship and textual criticism. German and British Sanskritists and Indologists devised different conventions of rendering texts from the Devanagari into the Roman script without distorting the way they sounded in their original language. And attempts to refine and modernize these conventions continue to the present day, in India and abroad. So, it is possible to write the purest Bengali in the Roman script, as many users of e-mail or text-messaging do today. This fosters a peculiarly modern — though not exclusively contemporary — bilingualism, which retains the purity of the vernacular but separates what some would call its ‘identity’ from the original script. Purists would throw up their hands in despair, but in a linguistically diverse, muddled and unequal society like India’s, this may actually facilitate both literacy and communication. Traditional hierarchies of pure and impure, high and low, academic and popular are often overturned by the more immediate resources of technology and by the resourcefulness of the brain’s neural systems.