The Harmony of Languages and Scripts
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 23 Jul 2018
The world is divided into blocs and groupings — the UNO, EU, NATO, SAARC, the Communist bloc, the Mid-East Muslim bloc, trade blocs and others such as the Nuclear group of nations. Each has their specific agendas, their special economies, cultures, strengths, liabilities, etc. But religious leanings and languages also play a dominant role in interaction within the groupings. For example the United Nations has five official languages — English, French, Russian, Spanish and Chinese. In the EU all languages of the countries are official but French and English are the principal working languages.
When the present Indian Prime Minister Mr Modi addresses the UN, he speaks in Hindi to stress its increasing role and to reinforce the request of adding Hindi to the list of the five official languages.
Thus languages and their associated scripts play a significant role in the world and satisfy the egos of certain politicians and other personalities.
There are hundreds of spoken languages in the world today of which dozens are becoming extinct every year, as the last few elderly persons who speak them pass away. When languages die, their particular cultures, cuisines, knowledge systems and rituals also come to an end. One feels sorry when any language and it’s associated cultures come to an end.
There are a few exceptions to this inexorable trend — two languages that could have become extinct, have been revived or strengthened. One is the Hebrew language of Israel and the other is Maori language of New Zealand. Jews speaking different languages Polish, German, Russian, Spanish, English and other languages came from different parts of Europe to settle in Israel. Rather than have so many official languages they decided to revive their ancient language Hebrew. It belongs to the Semitic group of languages but already by 400 CE, there were only very few people speaking this language. Its script is also unique and a few ancient Temple scrolls were discovered that are now part of their heritage and which reinforced the logic of reviving the ancient Hebrew.
As far as New Zealand is concerned, although many indigenous languages were threatened by the dominance of English, it was decided to strengthen the Maori language by making it an official language. There were other tribal languages spoken in the country but Maori which belongs to the Polynesian group of languages and which was spoken by about 4 percent of the population was chosen as an official language along with English in New Zealand.
Another rich language in which many philosophical and religious texts — Upanishads, Vedas, Mahabharata and literary works such as Abhigyan Shakuntalam written by Kalidas etc were written is Sanskrit. Although, Sanskrit is taught in several Colleges and Universities not only in India but also in several overseas institutions, there are very few speakers of the language today. When India became independent of British rule in 1947, there was a demand by some people to make Sanskrit the official language.
The logic was that many Indian languages both in the northern and southern part of the country had some connection with it — some quite intimate such as Hindi and Bengali, some remote — only from the point of view of vocabulary. It was also felt that if Israel could revive Hebrew with so many different language speakers, so could India.
But this could not happen because not only are there dozens of spoken languages and several more dialects, even the scripts of these languages are different. Then the egos of some politicians also thwarted this possibility.
There is the Indus Valley script that was prevalent in about 2000 BCE and that took researchers and linguists almost insurmountable difficulties in deciphering it. In addition almost all major languages of India — Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu all have different scripts although there is similarity between scripts of Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi and Punjabi languages. Then Urdu, which in spoken form is similar to Hindi, has a different script that is written from right to left. The Urdu script as well as that of Sindhi language is extracted from Arabic and Persian scripts.
Due to multiplicity of languages and scripts, Sanskrit could not become the official language and today Hindi spoken or understood by half the Indian population, has become a main language of India with English still dominating in several spheres such as judiciary, Science and Technology (S and T) computer science, IT, AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the advanced academic level research areas etc.
This is true not only in India but occurs in almost all European languages — Research in S and T, IT, AI is done and published in English, although French, German, Russian, Spanish languages are rich in their literary forms and several award winning poets, novelists and dramatists continue writing and enriching their own languages .
The Chinese and Japanese languages are written in different styles. Again there is a great demand for English knowing persons for scientific and industrial purposes.
The German script used to be a little flowery earlier but is now almost identical to the Latin (or Roman) script just as the French script is, except for some marks below or above some letters.
Talking of scripts, the Greek script was quite different from Latin script, but some of its letters such as alpha, beta, delta, omega, sigma, theta etc are used in science and mathematics. One may also mention that Turkish used to be written in Arabic script, but Mustafa Ataturk switched over to the Latin script in 1928. It was interesting to see both the scripts— Arabic on the walls of their famous Blue Mosque but the signboards showing its location in Latin script.
Life changes, so do civilisations change and accordingly languages (and associated scripts) are modified. Considering the domination of English today, it is hard to believe that well known scientists — Copernicus, Galileo and Newton wrote their famous theorems in Latin language. Einstein and several other scientists used their own German language for publishing their researches. When the Indian scientist S N Bose sent a communication to Einstein, it was done in the German language. Many years ago Russian science was done and published in their own language and some of their principal journals were translated into English. This is largely unnecessary now.
Thus we see how with evolving conditions, countries, politics, lifestyles , perception of problems also change. No wonder then that the changes are visible in languages and their scripts and these changes are largely peaceful and harmonious unlike politics that is dominated by violence and militarism.
The English litterateur Samuel Johnson had written, “I am sorry when any language is lost because languages are the pedigree of nations”
Similarly, Victor Hugo the French writer had written, “To rescue from oblivion even a fragment of a language that is in danger of being lost, is to serve civilisation.”
Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 Jul 2018.
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