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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


The 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.

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Governor humiliated for addressing in Hindi

  Incidentally, Hindi is a very powerful language, if we go deeper. This language is so self-sufficient that it is one of the direct descendants of Sanskrit, the oldest and the perfect language in the world

Sri Ganga Prasad was criticised for giving his speech in his native language and not English in the legislative assembly.

Salil Gewali, Shillong

  • Hindi is one of the official languages of India
  • Sri Ganga Prasad faced criticism for giving his speech in his native language
  • This makes one question if English is becoming dominant in India

Sri Ganga Prasad faced a barrage of criticism when he delivered his maiden speech in the National language in the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly. Even one of the legislators abruptly walked out of the assembly hall while the Governor was digression the session. Thus, the Governor was intensely scoffed at and humiliated through the social media and other news media.

Well, everyone has their right to disagree and criticize. Of course, we do not disagree that the majority of people in Meghalaya are not fluent in Hindi.  This is not a big deal. But disrespecting the language could be.

Is Hindi being ignored as the nation moves more towards English? Wikimedia Commons

This news also made many of my facebook friends abroad pretty curious.  One very learned scholar – Avital Markel from New York speaks out her mind with a dose of humor: ‘why is there so much noise when your governor delivered the speech in the language which is originally from India itself? I know another popular name of this country as Hindustan, not “Englistan”, I believe.’ Another Yoga teacher from Las Vegas — JM Palmer remarks — ‘it’s ridiculous that people can disrespect their own language. I can easily pronounce a good many Sanskrit terms. I personally have tremendous respect for India’s Sanskrit and other languages because they are the languages of Yoga and wisdom of spiritual dimension’. Mr. Palmer is a spiritual seeker who regularly visits India.

                 I think both Avital and Palmer views resonate with what the citizens of other countries feel. At least with those who have not been insanely fascinated by the English language like some Indians do. It’s much observed in the country that one without English speaking skills is obviously looked down upon.  The ‘inferiority complex’ vis-a-vis the West and its external trappings often hold many Indians back in asserting that they are Indians. This syndrome is getting more pronounced among the certain class of intellectuals and the snobbish folks. This has already taken a very ugly shape. The trait of sedition is quite noticeable amount the certain class of citizens.

                    Anyway, if we have regularly tolerated the bunches of fraudsters, rapists, and murderers in the parliaments and state assemblies in the country, why could we survive a speech of few minutes in Hindi and so on? 

Also Read: Is Hindi The National Language of India?

On the contrary, the citizens of very developed nations such as China, Russia, Germany, Portugal, France will never lose their calm when their leaders speak in the native languages. Actually, they all speak their own languages. The imperialist British till the date has literally failed to cast its spell on them. The citizens of those self-reliant countries rather swell their chests and claim their superiority and what they are due for.

                          If I am not mistaken Hindi is still recognized as the national language of the country. So, even if we are unable to learn the language, it would do jolly good if we do not disrespect it at all. Here it will be quite relevant to cite a case of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at United Nations General Assembly. I believe, nobody walked out of that international summit on 27th Sept 2014 when the Prime Minister delivered his speech in Hindi. Thank God, we didn’t have any leaders from Meghalaya who might have cringed with embarrassment and walked out! That particular speech by PM Modi in UN was so applauded that it subsequently served to motivate the member countries across the world to vote in favor of declaring a Yoga International Day for 21st June.

Harivansh Rai Bachchan, a Padhma Bhushan awardee for his contribution in Hindi Literature. Pexels
Hindi is a powerful language and ought to be used more. Pexels

                        Incidentally, Hindi is a very powerful language, if we go deeper. This language is so self-sufficient that it is one of the direct descendants of Sanskrit, the oldest and the perfect language in the world. On the robust ground of India’s Sanskrit the Modern linguistic stands. Kudos to those unprejudiced and rational intellectuals such as Sir William Jones, Johann Goethe, F. Schiller, Franz Bopp, F. Schlegel, Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, Noam Chomsky who discovered the incredible literary gems in the languages of India.

                           Finally, for those who sniff at the languages of Indian origin and the wisdom and culture associated with them, I would like to share just one opinion by their much celebrated English master. Here exclaimed the American British Nobel laureate TS Eliot: “Two years spent in the study of Sanskrit under Charles Lanman, and a year in the  mazes of Patanjali’s metaphysics under the guidance of James Woods, left me in a state of  enlightened mystification.” I think we should not walk out of the “truth”. India has for ages been enriching the intellectual treasure troves of the West. But, what is a huge paradox is that our Indians are either not aware of it all or they do not want to acknowledge it.