Second Coming of Hindi: Technology reprimes near-dead language


By Ajeet Bharti

September 14 is celebrated as Hindi Diwas to honour the most widely spoken language (along with its dialects) in India. However symbolic it may be, or may appear to be, it is a necessity to keep it alive. Spoken by almost 500 million (422 million by 2001 census data), Hindi and related dialects are spoken by more than 40% of population in India.

However, one fact that can’t be overlooked is the inception of English as the medium of instruction in schools and colleges as they have seriously hampered Hindi’s growth. The ability to write the language in its script, Devanagari, has been declining.

devanagari-manuscript1Historically, our Constitution says it is our duty to promote Hindi in Devanagari script. Article 343 (1) of the Indian constitution said: “The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devnagari script.”

Article 351 of the Indian Constitution states, “It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India and to secure its enrichment by assimilating without interfering with its genius, the forms, the style and the expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule, and by drawing, wherever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages.”

However, a backlash by Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Marathi speakers asking why should Hindi be bestowed with such a privilege meant that it couldn’t be made a Pan-Indian language as intended. Politicisation of the issue meant the spread of Hindi was checked on purpose in these areas and there were no official attempts to promote the same.

Hindi in popular culture and its decline

In popular culture, it appears that Bollywood or the Hindi film industry, which uses Hindi as its primary language, witnesses good speakers of the language but most of the stars can’t write it in Devanagari form. This is evident by the fact that film scripts are often presented in Hindi language but in Roman script which is similar to the popular practice of chatting/messaging in Romanised Hindi.

The reason behind the decline is believed to be a fascination for English and a sense of inferiority complex while speaking Hindi. There is a perception that those who speak English are ‘more educated’ and those speaking Hindi belong to a lower rung.

Speaking on this topic in a casual conversation with Shailesh Bharatwasi, owner of Hind Yugm (the most successful Hindi Book publisher that gives chance to upcoming writers), he emphasised on the fact that schools, even in villages of Bihar, no more promote Hindi.

He claimed (and as a resident of rural Bihar I agreed) that Hindi is just a way to get marks in exams. The private schools even in the rural areas of third tier cities use English as a language of instruction. This means the books are in English and the only Hindi book that the kids get is their Hindi literature book.

With a sense of pride in speaking English and studying in English medium school, students inculcate a belief that Hindi is not necessary. However, they are fluent in speaking it but after class X, they gradually forget how to write Hindi in Devanagari script as there are neither compulsory books nor exams.

The Second Coming of Hindi

ChampakThe limited circulation of magazines, from almost hundred in early nineties to a mere single digit two for popular child magazine Champak (as I asked a shopkeeper in Mayur Vihar area of Delhi) is an example that how we are still in process of decolonisation and how Hindi magazines, once edited by PremChand and others, are showing a declining readership.

Notable child magazines included Nandan, Champak, Suman Saurabh, GrihShobha, Manorma and the others. These sold millions of copies in nineties. But now the circulation is limited to thousands with none of the aforementioned magazines with even a circulation of 50,000 (according to Indian Readership Survey 2014).

The reason is evident that the children don’t read the magazines as they have other sources of entertainment as well as they don’t comprehend Hindi because of schools not giving ample amount of stress on the language. If you have Hindi as the medium of instruction, you have all the books in Devanagari script. A student who knows the script and has interacted with it for a long enough that there are chances he/she wouldn’t forget it even after schools.

Technology has helped out Hindi as it was certain to become just a spoken language. I remember the early days of SMS as a mode of communication on our mobile phones. As not all phones supported Devanagari, we would write the message in Roman. It was ease and universality of English text being readable on all handsets that promoted the culture.

For Hindi, only Nokia phones supported Devanagari script till 2005-06. It was the same case with Web 1.0 where only a few websites displayed text in Devanagari that too in distorted ways. The game changed altogether when Web 2.0 made it easier for users to write and type Hindi in its own script.

Smartphones, new ways of input like transliteration (as with Google input) meant, even if you don’t know Devanagari well, you can type in Roman and the Internet-based tool will convert the text in Devanagari for you. With smartphones, the limitation of plastic keyboards was gone and it was easy to have any keyboard on the touch screen.

This meant that Hindi news channels could opt for Hindi news sites to put their content in Devanagari. People started blogs in Hindi as native speakers, subconsciously treating this technology as novel and unique, took pride in writing the language in its own script.

The young people would easily compose blogs, Facebook posts, tweets, and comments in Devanagari with the ease of smartphones and Web 2.0. Further enhancements with instantaneous transliteration (type Roman, see Devanagari) revived Hindi.

This is, in some strange ways, a compensation to the English medium schools phenomenon as kids who earlier ignored Hindi could see it popping up on their phones and laptops, on social media and almost everywhere they go.

Technology giants like Google, Apple, Microsoft and others facilitated the path for Hindi by recognising it as the main language of India. India, being their area of focus after saturation of American and European markets, brought not only Hindi but gradually all the main scripts of India on web and smartphones.

Book FairIt looks all promising as of now but some sad facts remain. Publication of new Hindi books continues to lose face. Hindi books that sell a thousand copies, in a nation of 500 million speakers, become bestsellers. Literary magazines sales are seeing sharp decline. News magazines like India Today are just surviving and appear to have seen their glorious days a while ago.

Anglicisation of schooling system has severely hit the readership as kids fail to get interested in Hindi books because it is difficult for them to read it. Some people like Chetan Bhagat even said that Hindi should adopt Roman as its script in order to survive. This looks like a terrible idea because it will be like killing the script which is the mother of several languages on the planet. This was also a terrible idea just for the fact that we have technology to support us and revive the language in ways that were unheard just ten years ago.

As the population grows, Hindi speakers will keep growing. With universal access to mobile phones, increasing penetration of Internet, and people connected with today’s technology, Hindi and Devanagari have bright future ahead. We need to have a sense of pride as a generation which is fighting a struggle to keep this language alive for coming generation in innovative ways.

We have started to see more Hindi posts on social media, number of Hindi blogs and Hindi focussed Facebook pages increasing and people taking pride in writing Hindi in Devanagari script. This sense of pride needs to stay alive.