bAtacita karanA; what is a register?

zydenbos at zydenbos at
Fri Nov 15 12:55:54 UTC 1996

Replies to msg 14 Nov 96: indology at (Th. de Bruijn)

 pn> By reducing teaching
 pn> Hindi to the level of learning the modern language of India
 pn> the linguistic
 pn> map is simplified beyond recognition.

"The" modern language of India... :-|

 pn> The essence of the conversational issue is that there are,
 pn> and have always
 pn> been, many different registers in the use of language within
 pn> a community and
 pn> between different communities. The persianised Urdu of
 pn> poetry and
 pn> theological discussions is Swahili to any speaker of Hindi,
 pn> yet it is the
 pn> same language. The mullah and the Hindi-speaker, if they
 pn> live in contiguous
 pn> social environments, can chat easily in an everyday
 pn> register. The
 pn> Sanskritised Hindi of grammarians and literary scholars is
 pn> Norwegian to a
 pn> speaker of Urdu in -say- Lucknow. [...]

I don't know whether the comparisons / metaphors (Swahili vs. Hindi, Norwegian
vs. Urdu) are happy ones here, in view of what you are apparently trying to say
about the various 'registers' of one language. It looks as if you agree with my
position (which I have not yet voiced here) that Urdu and Hindi etc. are
different languages - for precisely the reasons which you mention here.

It is largely a matter of definitions, of course, and the dividing lines
between registers / dialects / etc. on the one hand and languages on the other
are something about which people begin violent discussions. The average speaker
of Dutch can read Afrikaans rather well without any special study, and some
Afrikaans poets are read in the Netherlands; but when an Afrikaner speaks
Afrikaans on Dutch television (e.g. in a news broadcast), subtitles are
provided because the average Dutchman finds it so hard to follow. So is
Afrikaans a Dutch dialect, or a distinct language? (The official view is
'language' - which I think is correct.) On a certain level of simplicity, short
sentences in Dutch and Afrikaans are practically identical, and the languages
are mutually intelligible. But would this make them 'registers of the same

I recall witnessing a wedding in Mussoori in 1978, where a priest from Benares
explained the wedding mantras in 'Hindi' - and I was one of the very few
present who could understand what he was saying (and I explained it in English
to a fellow, who translated it for others in a 'different Hindi'). (So what
does this indicate about R. Barz' "cultural spread" of Hindi in India? Mussoori
is in the so-called 'Hindi belt'. For southerners, Hindi is a foreign language
- more foreign than English is. Hindi does not solve India's language problem,
but aggravates it.)

It may be good to call attention to Suniti Kumar Chatterjee's book _Indo-Aryan
and Hindi_ (Calcutta: KLM). Here we see a serious Indian scholar who states
that Avadhi, Braj etc. are not "Old Hindi", as raa.s.trabhaa.saa propagandists
have it, but different languages, just as Portuguese is not "Old Spanish".
(This is perhaps a brave thing to state in India nowadays.) Cf. the efforts of
speakers of Rajasthani and Maithili to have their languages recognized (which
the Sahitya Akademi has already done, I believe).

Robert Zydenbos

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list