Vital Statistics

Koenraad Elst koenraad.elst at PANDORA.BE
Tue Jan 4 17:29:27 UTC 2000

Prof. Karp et al.,

As often, the question of Hindi as a "monolith" is intensely political.  I
leave you to figure out just who has an interest in denying the unity of
Hindi, but fact is that any criterion which would break Hindi up into its
dialects would break up most other languages as well.  If it is true that
someone from Mithila could not understand someone from Bikaner (which is not
my impression), and that this favours listing Maithili and Rajasthani or so
as separate languages, then even smaller languages like German, French or
Dutch have to be broken up.  On Dutch television, Dutch-language movies from
Belgium are broadcast with subtitles: Antwerp to Rotterdam is but an hour's
drive, but the vernaculars are very different, though already much closer
than fifty years ago.  The number one in the world is Chinese, but that is
only a "monolith" on paper (literally, for its script is indeed the same for
everyone), its spoken forms by contrast differ more widely than Spanish from
Italian or Dutch from German.  If Chinese or Dutch can be counted as
languages in their own right, then so should Hindi.

That Panjabi Hindus gave Hindi rather than Panjabi as their home language
was a political choice, countering the cloaking of communalist proposals for
a Sikh state in the secular terminology of demands for a linguistic "Panjabi
province".  But there too, the question whether Panjabi is a dialect rather
than a language in its own right is legitimate.  Is Low German a German
dialect?  In that case, Panjabi may well be a Hindi dialect.  However, the
outcome ultimately depends on a political decision.  In 1945, the British
occupation authorities in northern Germany toyed with the idea of setting up
a separate kindom (with a native of the Hannover dynasty as king) with Low
German as official language.  If this had been pursued, Low German would
have been a full-fledged language by now.  Such a process of assertion of
language separateness is taking place in the case of Panjabi, not in that of
other Hindi dialects.

For the latter, we also have to consider the homogenizing impact of
education and the media, which bring the standard language into every
household (the Chinese call standard Chinese dianshihua, "TV language").  As
I heard Philip Lutgendorf explain during a lecture, standard Hindi including
its Sanskrit vocabulary (another object of political hate), once denounced
by Nehru for being incomprehensible in Chandni Chowk, is now generally
understood.  Unless the promotion of standard Hindi is abandoned, it is
certain that Hindi will become a single language if it is not one already.

Yours sincerely,
Koenraad Elst

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