A tale of India’s frontier languages in the digital age

BANANI CHAKRAVARTY

back to issue

THIS is the best of times, yet it is the worst of times for languages. Best because one may write in any language and still be able to express oneself in this digital age. Unlike in the print age, expertise on language and the status of one’s preferred language does not matter any more while using digital media. Everyone has the freedom to compose and send text in any language of choice. But is it really so simple in practical life? What about peer pressure? What about the constant exposure to multiple languages other than one’s mother tongue? What about the need of preserving the sanctity of the mother tongue? Or is that not important to the speakers any more?

Many believe that digitization is the only way to preserve a dying or endangered language. It is true that documentation of different trajectory, such as grammar and folktales, may help in immortalizing a language in the digital domain. But unless the language is used by its speakers, it would cease to be a natural or living language any more. Only its use in spoken and written media can assure the survival of a language. Here, attitudes toward the mother tongue, as well as pressures from the dominant language count as much as heritage and traditions. To enhance the prestige and use of an endangered language mother tongue, the involvement of the community and government is as important, if not more, than digitization.

Digitization of languages has been happening at two levels. One is through the domain of experts such as linguists, anthropologists and computer scientists. They are busy documenting many aspects of various languages. Language digitization is important as it helps to preserve the literary and linguistic heritage. In this age of information explosion, it has become easier for a digitally literate person to reach and use these sources. It also helps in immortalizing contemporary language form as the standard language.

 

The second level of digitization is being done by non-experts or ordinary real users of the language. Easy access to the digital world empowers common users with equal right to use the mother tongue as they think suitable for expression. A speaker always vies for the simplest and most effective way to communicate with other users. The use of multiple scripts and multiple languages are quite commonly seen in writings in the new media. As a result, digital languages are experiencing rapid changes unlike before. It may be possible that many languages will change in the near future, so much so that they could become unrecognizable as present day languages. The other possibility is that such languages may not be used any more by the users and they would become dead languages.

It is clear that the two processes are not complementary but contrastive. The experts are trying to preserve languages as they are, whereas common users are turning and twisting languages like never before. The question is who will win the game? History reminds us that common users are often more powerful as they are in greater numbers and the real users.

India’s Northeast is a gold mine of language varieties. Its complex and multifaceted linguistic world has drawn the attention of linguistics for long. Grierson’s linguistic surveys, which became part of his Linguistic Survey of India, was one of the earliest proofs of this. Linguists generally concur that many of these languages evolved here itself from different origins such as Austroasiatic (Mon-Khmer), Tibeto-Burman and Aryan languages. Many languages came here much later, in the recent past. Different castes and tribes use different languages as their mother tongue. However, they felt the need to interact with other communities residing in the same area for a long time.

Knowing only one language has never been sufficient in this part of the country. The everyday economy and political transactions have been facilitated through the knowledge of multiple languages. This has also facilitated inter-language exchange in terms of borrowing and enriching from other languages. That is why most of the communities know at least two local languages. It is also not rare to find persons who know more than ten languages.

 

Earlier, when there was no communication boom and little social-political interaction, it was easier to maintain the basic features of a language. Languages maintained their features unaffected or with little changes for centuries. In fact, the existence of so many languages in India’s Northeast is the result of isolation due to political, geographical as well as cultural factors among different communities of the region.

Colonization induced major transformations in infrastructure, economic and cultural landscapes that changed the aforementioned scenario by bringing the diverse, isolated communities loosely under onefold. However, some of these linguistic processes had taken place earlier too. Historians normally refer to manifold exchanges between the residents of modern Assam and the state of Nagaland in pre-colonial times as examples of such linguistic interplay.

 

In the 20th century, planning and power play among different language communities resulted in ranking several languages as ‘major’ and others as ‘minor’ or ‘other’ languages. Languages which have scripts, a written literary tradition, and official patronage, generally dominate other languages used in the same area. Languages that are used in official correspondence and education get stabilized with technologically empowered uniform writing systems and a standard language. Government language planning expedited that process. By placing the Assamese language at the top of the language hierarchy as the medium of education and use in official matters, the British colonial government began that process in the late 19th century. This idea of easy governance with one official local language played a crucial role in shaping Assamese as a language ready for contemporary technology such as print as well as for use in new genres of literature such as novels and short stories. Textbooks, grammars, dictionaries and journals empowered Assamese as the most prominent and dominant language of the province.

Other surrounding languages such as Boro, Rabha, Tiwa, Mishing or Karbi did not enjoy government patronage at that time. However, these languages attracted the attention of Christian missionaries working in the area. The missionaries produced and published a few religious texts, grammars, vocabularies and dictionaries of these languages, often using the Roman script for this purpose. But these efforts were not enough to uplift the prestige and social power of these languages as they lacked government patronage.

At that very point, the attitude of the speakers of these languages also got a makeover. Encircled by a powerful language in the social landscape, they began to relegate their mother tongue as the language to be spoken at home or only on informal occasions. On the other hand, the Assamese language was the medium to be used in all official, educational and written settings. The shaping of Assamese as a printable language, and critical reliance on the eastern dialect of the language, was at the centre of the standardization process of modern Assamese, downgrading most of its dialects to informal oral use. For those speakers outside the eastern Assamese mother tongue realm, bilingualism became common. For them, it became quite natural to use one dialect as the mother tongue and the other as the formal language. As a result, multiple changes were activated in these dialects.

 

In pre-modern times, until the British came and occupied India’s northeastern region, language was used only to communicate, both orally and in writing. Powerful literary tradition grew out of the fluid Assamese linguistic landscape. Yet, given these highly fluid linguistic cultures, it would not be wrong to suggest that languages were not identifiable with the political identity of any community. Language boundaries were also blurred. All language forms such as language, dialects or lingua franca enjoyed similar status. Litterateurs used one or a combination of two or more languages that suited their target readers or rather listeners. Rarely did someone sermonize on the correct or incorrect use of the language. Speakers and authors could use or borrow as many words and expressions from other languages as they deemed necessary to communicate.

Colonialism-induced modernity and nationalism abruptly changed the fluidity of language use in the region. The connection between language, identity and heritage came into being. Preserving the sanctity of the mother tongue became one of the main agendas in nationalist discourse.

 

Writing and printing technology discouraged and banished commoners – both illiterate and semi-literate – from mainstream literature. They were relegated to the so-called domain of folk literature. Digitization has now restored power to the commoners as in the oral era. As social media is seen as a cross between formal and informal settings, digital literacy has enabled everyone to express themselves freely. Rudimentary or lack of knowledge is not a hindrance at all. It is like a folksong of the old times when anyone could freely sing his or her composition on the riverbank without any inhibition about the rulebook of grammar or poetics.

Almost everyone around us who posts comments or writes something on these new digital platforms, are expressing or articulating their feelings and emotions without any inhibition. Many of them would never think of writing for newspapers or magazines as they are seen to be more formal and elite.

This new practice of mass participation on digital platforms will impact all languages. The idea that language change can be controlled is illusionary. In this digital age, no language can isolate itself anymore – global, national or local. Assamese and other languages of this region are also experiencing deep and swift changes.

As students engrossed by language use in a multilingual situation, we are well aware of the impact and influence of one language on other languages in the same area. For example, the course of Assamese is decidedly influenced by the surrounding tribal languages of the area. Most 20th century linguists are agreed on this. This language also carries with it many features and words from the languages it has been in contact with at different times. But those changes were very slow, and it did not alter the basic framework of the language. However, the new changes are very rapid and noticeable to the naked eye. The confidence gained by digital freedom is altering the fate and power of languages in the Northeast like never before. For example, there is no hesitation in mixing more than one language in writing a message or blog as these platforms are not considered formal. When one knows more than one language, one has three linguistic choices – the option of preferring either of the two languages as the first choice. Or it might be a mixture of both languages. Digital writers now randomly practice all of these choices.

 

Exposure to electronic and digital media has brought with it some major changes in language use. Earlier one had to be content with exposure to one or two languages. One could speak one language at home, another at school or at the workplace. One could get limited exposure to another language as the third language. But the new exposure explosion through mobile phone, computer and television set exposes us to more powerful and dominant languages around us. In Assam, the most visible languages on these platforms are English, Hindi, Assamese, Boro and Bengali. Intermittent exposure to these languages has resulted in fluidity in linguistic behaviour of the users. Now one may enjoy as many languages as one wants. For example, one has the option of using one or two languages for education and information, another for news, and yet another for entertainment.

The daily exposure to so many languages has blurred the boundaries between different language systems. Moreover, most of us have the tendency to lean towards the more powerful and prestigious language in our repertoire. Hence, the less powerful languages are being downgraded as the not-preferred language of the users. The interplay of this attitude and lack of institutional support has already made most languages (other than the ones stated above) vulnerable. Their domains are shrinking. Many kinship and culture specific terms are no longer in use; they have lost a number of speakers. The continuous and ever-growing pressure will definitely make them more vulnerable unless their community as well the government steps in.

The emergence of Boro as a dominant language of Assam in the last century is a result of community efforts to link the language to the identity of the community. Fortunately, in the case of a few other tribal languages such as Tiwa and Tai-Ahom, community effort to teach these languages are showing results. But these sparing efforts are not enough yet.

 

As stated earlier, the coming of print in the 19th century, paved the way for standardization of the Assamese language. Standard Assamese selects a single sound or word out of several such forms available in different dialects of the word. It also uses a fixed spelling and a uniform grammar. The modern standard Assamese (manya Asamiya) is predominantly based on the eastern dialect as American Baptist missionaries, who used to print and publish first in Assamese, settled in Sivasagar in East Assam in the 19th century. Writings in the Assamese language and literature over the next century further consolidated that position despite protest and challenges from many.

Digitization is beginning to change this trend. If one writes for digital media, she is no longer dependent on the rules of standard Assamese. One can use a word from any dialect without feeling guilty. For the record, using any expression from other dialects in writing was enough to be reprimanded in the late 19th and early 20th century. Spellings in digital media are not uniform and standard any more. The great Assamese dictionary writers must be turning in their graves; but their efforts seem futile looking at the spelling patterns of digital writing in Assamese. Digital languages now allow dialects an equitable linguistic status. The use of non-standard abbreviation and shortening is the new normal. A combination of digits and alphabets, e.g. 2 mi (you) is also quite popular.

 

How will these changing socio-linguistic equations impact the dominant Assamese literary cultures? Will Assamese language become more dominant and new versions of the language emerge, like different types of English such as Indian English or Caribbean English? Or will it become more of a lingua franca with deep impact from the more dominant languages such as Hindi and English? It is too early to comment.

The digital explosion over the last twenty years has changed our perspectives about language use, both in reading and writing. The dominance of English on the Internet has familiarized us with the language and the Roman script. The ripples created by selecting the Roman script to write Boro language in the latter part of the last century now seems like a story from a faraway time. In this digital age, it does not matter to the common people whether their language has a script of its own or not. The Roman alphabet has already conquered the digital world.

 

Roman emperors must be ecstatic to note the spread of the Roman script throughout the globe. Assamese youngsters and adults alike mostly use the Roman script on their mobile phones and tabs. This script is used by almost everyone including students from English and Assamese medium schools. It is the preferred script for writing Assamese whether they be school dropouts or highly educated people. When asked to explain the reason behind this preference, they find that typing in the Roman script is much faster than Assamese. It is interesting to note that their choice is based on the swiftness in creating and sending posts and comments, which is a trademark of the virtual world. The only icing on the cake is that the liberty to use this script to write Assamese has emboldened many from English medium backgrounds to start writing in Assamese.

The digitization of languages acts differently in the case of major and minor languages. Major languages of this part of the subcontinent such as Assamese, Bengali or Meitei might not share a similar history in terms of origin or evolution, but they enjoy a common history of the written literary tradition as well as the advantages of having political and cultural patronage.

In the pre-digital age, ‘small’ languages were prone to the danger of erosion or extinction from the neighbouring dominant language. For example, in Assam, Moran or Sonowal speakers only use remnants of their erstwhile mother tongue in extremely limited cultural and religious contexts. A similar outcome awaited groups of Rabha, Mishing and several other tribes who shifted to Assamese language after coming into close contact with it. The mother tongue of the Pati-Rabhas, a sub-group of the Rabha tribe, is now considered a dialect of the Assamese language. Only a few sounds, accents and words as well as folksongs remain as souvenirs of their story of shifting to the dominant language.

The major languages will hopefully survive this age, taking advantage of digitization. But smaller languages may not be so fortunate. Institutional efforts to link language to national or regional unity are already shrinking spaces of these languages. A digital onslaught may be the last nail in the coffin.

Digitization is a two sided coin, and one has to accept both sides. Digitization brings the world to us and then, in return, asks for a heavy price. A few changes in one’s mother tongue are inevitable. It would definitely be a setback were the changes to overpower the language and makes it unrecognizable. But losing a language owing to peer pressure is the real danger in the offing. One may argue that language loss is not unique to the digital age. It has been happening throughout the history of mankind. While that may be true, there could be an alternative argument. Earlier, language death was not directed at eradicating diversity. One language death generally counts for a new language emerging in some other part of the world. But this new trend is taking us towards the hegemonic idea of one language one world.

It is not our intention to predict a doomsday scenario for less powerful languages. It may not be the end for all of them. However, many of them, if not most, will pave the way for more powerful ones. Those lucky enough to survive would also have to bear the onslaught of other powerful languages. In this process many of them will be unrecognizable enough to be labelled as a new language. Or some of them may not survive this age.

top