Re: Weekend Thoughts! - Death of a monther Tongue

Bapa Rao (brao@pollux.usc.edu)
Mon, 20 May 1996 01:50:07 -0700 (PDT)

Read with interest PALANA-garu's thought-provoking and intense article
about extinction of languages. I'll ramble on a bit in response. I might
exceed the "quota" of 2 screenfuls, but since I haven't written on
telusa for a while, maybe I can get a bit of credit. :-)

I think that something dramatic is taking place to the ecology of human
culture which includes language. If you look at Papua-new guinea, it
has suffered extinction of literally hundreds of languages in a
couple of decades. These are mostly from unrelated families, since
that island had many communities separated by impregnable hills.
Currently, almost all the languages of that island have virtually
disappeared, replaced by pidgin English and the Indonesian language
(Bhasa Indonesia?). (Gurazada parodied Gireesam's Telugu-pidgin;
today our Telugu makes Gireesam's Telugu sound practically native
and authentic.)

True, languages have come and gone over the centuries, vide our common
Telugu-Kannada parent. But today's velocity of language extinction
leaves no room for alternate languages to evolve to take the place
of lost languages. This is a phenomenon exactly analogus to the
problem of modern species extinction. It is not that extinction
never took place, or every language "deserves" to live aachandrataaraarkam.
It is that the more cultures society loses, the more vulnerable
it becomes to an attack on its ideas and thinking. It is easy for
someone else, far away from our control, to become the purveyor
of ideas, and for us to become the passive lotus-eating
recipient of these ideas, with no easy alternatives for relief.
The condition I am describing is, in short, mental slavery. Perhaps
this is the ideological analogue of desertification and loss of economic
independence.

There used to be an old joke- what is the difference between a language
and a dialect? Ans. A language is a dialect with an army. Meaning that
the survival of a language is a political issue. Implying that
survival and growth of language is an economic issue.

I can see this in my home. My half-American daughter aged 2 is already
bursting with Sesame street creatures and Disney; I diligently speak
Telugu to her, but I have neither the time nor the talent to compete
with Disney or Sesame Street (a children's educational show, highly regarded
in North America). As a combined result, her Telugu is
at about 5% of the level of her English. The economics here? 1. I am too
busy earning a living. 2. If there is a Telugu competitor to Disney
videos, they certainly don't have the economic clout to market
their products so that they would reach me easily. 3. Most people
here aren't inclined to pay top dollar for Telugu materials.

Then, there is the nature of Telugu itself. I contended once on scit that
Telugu by nature is a "derivative" language, and that is what constitutes
its unique genius. It doesn't have its own Silappadikkaaram or Manimekalai,
the original Telugu classic is a retelling of a Sanskrit epic. Modern
Telugu literature has drawn a great deal of inspiration from European
literature. I am far from being a qualified judge, but there is a question
in my mind whether Telugu has produced modern cultural artifacts
of the artistic caliber of the great Bengali or Malayalam auteurs. Last
year I saw the Satyajit Ray retrospective, and I tried unsuccessfully
to think of a Telugu director who captured the essence of the Telugu
land with the same clarity that Ray's films did for Bengal. Ironically,
some of the best popular literature I read in Telugu is the translations of
Sharat, and Devadas was one of the best Telugu movies I had seen.
Not coincidentally, whenever I read soc.culture.bengali, most of the
postings are in Bengali; the same cannot be said of what I am typing now
( I mean it is not in Telugu, not that it is not in Bengali.)

So, if being derivative was one of the great strengths of Telugu, it might
also be leading to its downfall. Why bother to read a translation of
Shakespeare in Telugu if you already learnt English for your livelihood and
can enjoy it in the original? Perhaps the answer lies in the question
itself. You may not want to read a translation, but how about an
adaptation? I saw Kurosawa's "Ran", which one might say is nothing but
King Lear. But it was also very Japanese to me. ( I know that we have
such adpatations in Telugu movies as well. Maybe we need more of those,
yet being more selective? )

I think we need not write off Telugu just yet. As we speak, many
talented people are doubtless exploring what it means, in an artistic
sense, to be a Telugu person in a modern urban world. (I purposely make no
distinction between India and abroad here--the dilemma faced by me
with my daughter is repeated in qualitiatively the same terms in
many urban Telugu middle-class families in Hyderabad, Madras, Bombay.
I expect that my daughter will have a knowledge of Telugu that is
at least comparable to that of some of our "convent-educated" girls
in the Metros.) The Telugu expatriate literature, either in Telugu or
in English, is yet to be written for the most part. (Yes, there is
a fair amount of Indian expatriate literature, but there is none that
I know which is Telugu-specific. How about whatshername (sorry, I
can't recall the Telugu lady who has become quite
a famous Indo-American writer) -- does she write about Telugu-Americans?
And maybe I'll finally get hold of that Bapu-Ramana video which just
might turn out to be the Telugu answer to Sesame street. And maybe
there will be a flood of similar things on the market.

I said cultural preservation is an economic and political issue.
The secret of a community's economic and cultural cohesion is internal
trading. In Los Angeles, I see whole neighborhoods in which the
store signs are in Korean only. A few shops have English signs in
small letters. The overall impression in Koreatown is that it
exists to serve Koreans only. Needless to say, Koreans are both
better at preserving their culture in urban America, and worse
at avoiding misunderstandings with the Anglo culture, when compared
with Indians in general.

But our history as both Indians and Telugus has necessarily made us
more open in some ways than, say the Koreans. I think Telugu can
survive but only if we give some thought to what being more open
means to Telugus.

I'll stop now. If you stayed with me so far, I am anxious to hear
your perspective. It'll be a couple of days before I can reply.

Thanks,

Bapa Rao